by J. A. Buxton
Childhood memories of a lake in a small New England town throughout the four seasons.
|Even though I've lived in California since 1969, now and then my thoughts go back to Lake Wickaboag. It wasn't an especially large lake, but it was often the center of activity in my small New England hometown when I was a youngster in the 1950s. During the years I was growing up, the townspeople made many changes to the beach and surrounding landscape. They tried to update it according to changing tastes, but the lake itself stayed forever the same.
In the spring, all the children in town would eagerly wait for Memorial Day weekend, the official start of swimming season. The first few days our parents allowed us to go swimming, everyone refused to admit how cold the water was. Blue children running out onto the beach, though, were a common sight. The water soon lost its winter chill, but I still can feel that first plunge into the icy lake.
All summer, the lake was a second home to us. In fact, Mum complained that I must be part fish for all the time I spent there. We would go down the hill that was Cottage Street past the Indian War cemetery with its long stonewalls. There would be a parade of children from after breakfast until the sun started going down. Only a thunder and lightning storm would pull us out of the lake. Even then, we came out as slowly as possible, protesting to the adults the whole time.
There were always adults around, but the lake echoed with the sound of children laughing throughout the day. Teenagers, showing off by diving or doing painful belly flops, filled a diving raft anchored a distance from the town beach. A grove of trees to the side of the beach provided welcome shade, although the blue children of spring now were turning pink and red from the constant sunburns. This was way before the invention of sunscreen and warnings the sun exposure was harmful. The sun is harmful to us? Pure stuff and nonsense!
The town people used Lake Wickaboag for more than just swimming. Each year, the yacht club held a regatta of colorful sailboats and heart-stopping water skiing feats. Out-of-town people filled the camps and summer homes around the lake. They swelled the town's population from a normal of 3000 to 5000 at times. Anyone could borrow rowboats at one campsite. I spent hours in the middle of the lake just letting the small wooden boat rock back and forth in the wakes of the motor boats. Of course, I was way too young to be out there alone, without even a life jacket. We children were immortal, however, or so we thought during those golden sunny days.
There were also the sad times when the town siren went off, alerting the volunteer firemen to a possible drowning. They kept children away from the lake at those times while dragging it to give up the latest victim. For days after, the lake was no longer our friend, but soon we forgave it, and children's laughter again was heard there. A few more adults sat on the beach for a week or two, and then life got back to normal.
Labor Day and autumn came too soon, for it meant school and the end of lazy days at the lake. For a few months, Lake Wickaboag lay quiet, forgotten, and peaceful. Even the motor boats were put away for the year. The trees around the lake began shedding, and the smell of burning leaves drifted all over town. Only teenagers who came after dark to watch the midnight submarine races frequented the lake during this time of the year.
Finally, winter came when Lake Wickaboag again became a playground for the town. One of my favorite memories of winter was watching Dad skating backwards, back and forth all over the plowed section of the lake. In these days of famous skaters constantly shown on television, this may not seem amazing. To a child with two left feet, who spent most of the time sitting painfully on the ice, it was a marvelous sight. I still can hear the sound of the black patches of ice creaking underneath and the snick snick of his black racing skates.
There often was a bonfire built on the beach, and we would all skate late into the night by the light of this fire. Pitch blackness, except for this blazing fire, surrounded the area on the lake where we skated. The night air would get so cold that our mittens would start to freeze from the moisture of the snow. No one wanted to have the day end. Finally, cars would start coming down the street, and mothers called out to their families to come home before they all freeze to death, for goodness' sakes.
The weeks before Christmas, Lake Wickaboag became a magical place. Homes surrounding the lake were decorated with lights, each owner trying to outdo their neighbors. A drive around the full circle of the lake after dark to view these lights became a family tradition. It ended at the town common to see the big decorated tree at its center.
It would be possible to go back and visit the lake on one of my visits back to Massachusetts, but I don't think I ever will. The lake has undoubtedly changed as much as I have over the years. I'll just be satisfied with the memories. Every adult should have a Lake Wickaboag somewhere in their past, unsullied by time