We've just enjoyed a beautiful Maine vacation season, and before it fades to memory, I'd like to share a story, from another beautiful Summer, a few years back. Quite a few, actually.
My cousin, Kevin, and I, got to spend a few days at Camp, our grandparent's cottage, on Sebago Lake. Camp is Camp, no matter where it is, and, to us kids, it was paradise. We met some girls, and had an adventure, that we were entirely unprepared for. Here goes, the way I remember it, at least.
We were tweens, at that awkward age, somewhere between Cub Scouts, and pimples. Wanna be teenagers, stuck in juvenile bodies. Kevin was a year older, a little bigger, and a little stronger. I hated that he could pin me, and outrun me, and win whatever other contests kids get into.
Other than that, we were really tight.
I hadn't grown yet, I was one of the smallest kids, down front, in all of the class pictures.
I was at a great point, in my life, even if it didn't seem that way, at the time. Every kid, foolishly, wishes to be older, doing cool things, that the big kids are doing. I was quite lucky, I had two older brothers, who had helped me span the age gap.
Nobody cool wants to have his little brother tagging along, but they would include me, for the most part. I had to learn to be cool, that was the bottom line.
I had to be able to keep a secret, some cool stuff, you just can't tell Mom and Dad about. Usually, they would want more than just my word, they would include me in their big kid shenanigans, just enough so I wouldn't rat them out. Smoking cigarettes comes to mind. No goofy kid stuff, keep to yourself, pay attention, and I could hang with the cool kids.
My Dad was coolest of all. These years, for me, were the best I ever had, with Dad.
He had just started racing stock cars, and I would have permanent grease, around my fingernails, for the next ten years. Brother Ed had wheels, Corey was working on the farm, or lobstering, I was Dad's little right hand man. I would go with him, to the junkyard, to the parts stores, to the engine builder, watching, and learning, from everyone we talked to. After a while, I gained enough confidence to ask questions. I would be careful, not to come across as a dumb kid. I wanted to be cool. Hanging with grown ups, trying my hardest to act mature.
It wasn't long before I was doing the talking, I knew what parts we needed, what size tires we needed to search for, in the heaps, at the junkyards, I knew the gear ratios that we ran, all the details. I felt important.
Dad would bring me with him, on service calls, we would get one after supper, once in a while. I would wrench, while he coached, and I was on top of the world.
I remember one night, we went to Gorham, for a service call. Dad had just picked up a new 8-track, by Harry Chapin, one of our favorites. We heard the first couple of songs, on the way to the call. We finished the job, and I remember coming to a stop sign, out behind the 7-11.
He stuck the tape back in, shot me a little grin, and hooked a right, not toward home, but up toward the lake. We drove around, until we heard the whole tape, and I can clearly remember how happy I felt, riding with Dad, enjoying the new music, and staying up past my bedtime.
Back to the story. We were at Camp, and it's a pretty perfect place. The first camp on the lake, when you clear the Songo River, looking out onto the State Park beach, and a beautiful sandbar. It's big, for a camp, lots of bedrooms, a big hearth, and fireplace. It smelled like camp, you could smell the pine trees, the water, and even little whiffs of gas and exhaust, given off by the almost steady stream of passing boats. Inside, Grammy was always baking treats, her famous halfway cookie bars, and her biscuits come to mind, right off the top. Part of the memory, for me, was the lingering smell of cigarettes. Grammy and Grampa were both heavy smokers, and it was always in the background, hanging. I can smell it, right now, just thinking about it. It seems like a lot more people smoked, back then.
I had caught my first big fish, a Salmon, right off the camp beach, a few years before. We had spent many a sunny Sunday here, with the whole family. Cookouts, Holidays, lobster feeds, plain, lazy afternoons, all warm memories.
We would jump in, off the dock, and swim across the boat channel, over to the sandbar, and just lose track of time. Life on the lake is pretty fantastic.
We started this adventure on a Sunday, I think, and it was a nice one. The sandbar was swarmed by boats, anchored, with people just everywhere. The State Park Beach was packed, the snack bar buzzing with business.
Kevin and I were having a blast, this was going to be a great vacation. Perfect weather, bikinis galore, all we had to do was be cool. We must have actually been cool, on this magical day, because we soon met some girls. I don't remember how, for the life of me, but in no time, we were actually hanging out with real girls. Strangers. Pretty as all get out. Both cute, there would be no who-likes-who issues, we were both blown away. Pretty girls will make you stupid, I don't care who you are, especially if you're a couple of goofy kids.
The young ladies were here on one of the boats, with their family, just for the afternoon.
If there was ever a day that I wished would never end, this would have been it.
I was leaning toward Linda, the blonde, and it looked like it was mutual. She was a natural beauty, I remember comparing her, in my mind, to the prettiest girls at my school. This girl was high caliber, I wished that I had a camera, surely nobody would believe my good fortune.
I had a witness. Kevin was equally happy, with his new friend, Racquel. She was a pretty brunette, tanned up, they were both perfect Summer beauties. I tried not to make too much eye contact with Kevin, I knew I would start grinning like a fool. We had to be cool. The girls of our dreams, at our tender age. We all hung out, swam, talked, and laughed, until morning turned to afternoon. The family was packing up the boat, the time had come, our fantasy day was coming to an end.
We couldn't just let them go. We asked where their camp was, and Linda pointed, straight across the lake. Squinting our eyes, a bit, we could see a little gap, between the shoreline, and a big island, way out, in the distance. It looked like a missing tooth, in the grin of a treeline, that stretched around the horizon.
Right through that gap, and around the corner, to the left, past Frye's Leap, around the corner, some more, there's a cove, with a big dock, on the left. That's us. You guys should come see us, tomorrow.
We will. We'll be over. Tomorrow.
Hollow promises, but what else can you say, to your beautiful new friends?
We said our painful goodbyes, and stood there, on the sandbar, watching them slowly fade from sight, and reflecting, silently, on our day, of unbelievable good fortune. The shadows were getting long, the sun was still hot, and we both burned with a fever that we hadn't really known, before.
We had to go see them. We had to. It couldn't be that far.
We didn't have many options. The plan was hatched, we would take Uncle Albert's canoe, and head across the lake, first thing in the morning. We had to play it cool, and keep it a secret mission, Grammy and Grampa probably wouldn't be very supportive.
We headed back to camp, Grammy had been worrying, since we hadn't come home, for lunch. We couldn't contain ourselves, it must have shown on our faces, we told her that we had met some girls, and lost track of time. This made her grin, a little, and I think we left it at that. We made our first mistake, when we couldn't help, but ask Grampa, how far it was, to the other side of the lake, vaguely gesturing, in the direction of Frye Island. He paused, just for a second, and we got nervous, but then he laid it on us.
Seventeen miles, straight across, here, to the far shore. We both exhaled, quietly, with disappointment. He was pointing in our intended direction. That's a lot of paddling, we both thought, and shot each other a glance.
Now, I've got to tell you a little bit about Grampa.
My blood grandfathers had both passed, before I was born. Melvin Richards had married my grandmother, and had always been Grampa, to us. When we were kids, the art of story telling was still alive, and well. Melvin had a story, for every occasion. Men would stand around, gabbing, telling tales, blends of fact, and fiction. One story would lead to another, the bigger fish, the faster car, every yarn was a little more unbelievable than the last. Melvin would patiently wait, and listen, until the final story was told, and then, he'd spin a whopper, the over the top story. He would smile broadly, the whole time, a master of his art.
Here's an example that I remember. When Dad started racing, my uncles helped with the car, so at family gatherings, the talk would eventually turn to race cars.
Melvin waited for a full audience, mostly us kids, and then spun this yarn:
Back in the day, Grammy didn't want him racing, afraid that he might get hurt. He would go out, every Saturday night, and lie to her, saying he had to work. He would sneak down to Beech Ridge, where his friends would have his race car, all ready to go. Week after week, he would win the big race, but he couldn't stop, in victory lane, and risk having his picture taken, or someone telling Grammy that he was racing. He would head right for the pits, and load his car on the trailer. He would get his hands all greasy, to make it look like he had actually been at work. The flagman would bring him the trophy, and the checkered flag, but he didn't want any evidence, that he had been racing.
On his way home, he would throw all of the flags, and the trophies, right out his window. Grammy never found out.
Us kids would look at Grammy, but she was in on it, she would have her poker face on. I would look at my Dad, off in the background, and I knew. I paid attention, and had learned to read my dad's face pretty well. This story might contain some slight exaggeration.
We figured out his game, and enjoyed his stories. He would sprinkle in enough truth, so that it could, theoretically, have actually happened that way, and then spread it on so heavy, that you couldn't help but laugh.
That was Grampa, and I miss him, and his tall tales.
Who knows, if you go looking, down along Broadturn Road, you might dig up a bunch of old classic trophies, buried treasure, there in the ditches.
Seventeen miles. That's what Grampa had said, we hoped, more than anything, that he was exaggerating. A lot.
We tossed and turned all night, planning our adventure, we would probably end up getting in trouble, before it was over. This was clear, from the start. If it was, truly, seventeen miles, we would have to turn back, as soon as we got there, we'd likely be paddling all day. Would it be worth it?
Absolutely. There was never any real hesitation, we would go for it.
Grampa would be working, in the morning, so we'd only have Grammy to worry about.
After a short, fitful sleep, we weren't at our best. We snarfed down some cereal, and loaded up our gear, under the guise of going exploring.
Don't you boys go across that lake, it's a long way across there.
Dang it!! She and Grampa must have compared notes, last night. They're onto us, and we haven't even left, yet.
No, no, Grammy, we're just going exploring, up the river, like we always do.
Lying to my grandmother, right off the bat. Real nice. That will put a little knot in your stomach.
Perfect. We decided that we'd better not ask for some sandwiches, for the trip.
We threw in some fishing poles, for looks, a couple towels, to sit on, and our most important cargo, the radio. A small boom-box, cassette player, probably before they called them boom-boxes.
We had Bob Seger's Nine Tonight, a live album, on cassette. We were both big Seger fans. Oars, and orange life jackets. That was it. We shoved off, and headed left, up the river, and out of Grammy's view.
Nothing could have stopped us, at this point, our minds were made up. We had a mission.
We were sure that Grammy would be watching, and made every effort to stay out of her sight. We hurried to a little landing, where the sandbar met the river's edge. Like a military mission, we were full on, adrenaline was taking over. A quick portage, through the pines of the picnic area, and we put in, right off the State Park beach. We would hug the shoreline, and stay invisible, off the radar. After a mile, or so, we would turn slightly to starboard, and open water. We set course dead ahead, toward the little gap, in the horizon stripe. Now, it reminded me of the little square notch, on the rear sight of a pistol. That's what we're shooting for.
We were wide awake now, hearts beating, coming out of stealth mode, guns a blazing, trying to find our rowing rhythm, for optimum speed. We had a long way to go.
The radio was loaded up with a bunch of fresh C batteries, and Bob was belting out the ballads, providing the tempo for our amateur paddling. We had fervor, and passion, but we lacked muscle mass, and stamina. In no time at all, our hands, arms, backs, and butts started to get sore. Paddling is harder than it looks.
After a bit, we wondered, just how far we might have come, the shore behind us started to look far away, but the gap didn't seem any closer. We were out in big, open, black water, now. All of the shorelines seemed far off. We weren't concerned, we were both confident swimmers, with life jackets, if anything were to happen, Bob, and the poles, would be the only casualties. Fortunately for us, Mother Nature was smiling on our mission, we would see nothing, but glassy smooth water, all day. I've seen a little wind pick up on that lake, and quickly form white capped waves, that would swallow a canoe, like a morning vitamin.
Not on this day. We were quite lucky.
We flipped the tape, and heard side 2, for the second time. A couple hours in, we seemed closer to the gap, but not as close as we hoped to be. Drat, maybe it WAS seventeen miles, after all. We took a break, studying the shorelines, both ahead, and behind. We had the gap, ahead, to zero in on, but we noticed that the shore behind us didn't really have any features, to focus on. We couldn't spot the State Park beach, or the sandbar, or camp, anymore. This gave us an uneasy feeling of dread, how will we find our way home? It didn't matter. We were on a mission, definitely not thinking about the return trip, just yet.
We had, however, found the first flaw, in our hastily created plan.
Nautical Navigation Tip #1: Don't rely on landmarks. Your eyes can play tricks on you. It's hard to judge distance. Map and compass, just like we learned in Scouts.
It didn't matter, by then, we were in too deep. We saw our destination, and kept slugging on, there were pretty girls waiting for us. My rubbery arms, and sore backside, wouldn't bother me, if I filled my thoughts with Linda. We pressed Play, and Bob started singing again. We had the smooth water to ourselves, the weekend was over, and all was still. It was pretty magical, out in the deep, dark water, sliding ahead, ever so slightly, with each stroke of the paddle.
After Bob wrapped up his third set, the gap was opening up, we were almost there. Excitement, and adrenaline, once again sparked us to life, there was no pain. We gave Bob a rest, we wanted some battery life for the trip back. We needed to concentrate on the girls' vague directions, we came all the way across the lake, what if we can't find them?
We agreed on what they had told us, it was burned into our memory, like a tattoo, of a secret treasure map. Our pulse would quicken at every waypoint, left through the gap, we had never seen Frye's Leap, but it's hard to mistake, that had to be it.
Left some more, painfully slow, now, we were pretty beat. Down to the very last part of the directions, so close, but the lake is still quiet, we should have been there, by now. So tired, I really didn't want to paddle anymore, or ever again, for that matter. I had a sudden feeling of dread, maybe all of this was too good to be true, a hard life lesson. That's what makes people mean, I think, those hard life lessons.
The trees opened up, on our left, it was a cove. We turned into Nervous Nellies.
I think she said big cove, this isn't real big. No, she said big dock, not big cove, I think.
There was a big dock. Racquel was standing on it, waving us in, we could tell that she was glad to see us. We were so relieved, so exhausted, but suddenly, we felt brand new. More grown up, even.
They had asked us to come see them, and by golly, we had shown up, like it was nothing.
Their boat was there. The parents on hand were quite surprised to see us, but welcoming, just the same. We got some questions, and some looks.
You came across the lake in that canoe?
Yes, Sir. Like we did it all the time.
Linda was coming down the dock, now, they had all just finished lunch. Lunch. Man, we wished we had brought some sandwiches.
The adults may have offered us lunch, but we were in cool mode, we would have, most likely, politely refused.
I saw her pretty blonde hair, shining in the sun, as soon as she left the cottage. My ears had a funny ring going on, I felt like everyone else froze, while she walked down to meet me. I was grinning. A goofy grin, no doubt, but I couldn't hide it. Helpless. I had never felt such a crush, such an attraction. She had some magical aura, I think she actually glowed, a little bit.
I felt like I was ten feet tall, as she gave me the quickest little hug, and then I felt like I was hyperventilating. I thought that I might fall over. Smooth. I wanted so badly to be cool, that I was scared to say anything. I would stutter, or say something dumb, for certain. It was super awkward, and I was easily embarrassed. I had to concentrate, stay on my game, make my Dad proud.
Her Dad bailed me out, uncovering his boat, and rounding up all of us, six or eight kids, total, I think. Let's go over to the Leap!
We piled into his boat, and scooted back, the way we had just come, to Frye's Leap.
After being in the slow moving canoe all morning, when he gave his boat a little throttle, it felt, to me, like we were going 200mph. I'm sure my eyes got big. Crazy.
We got to the Leap, and we all swam in, to make the famous jump. I think it's 50 feet or so, and looks higher, when you're a kid, standing up there, looking down. The Dad was in the boat, we'd all jump off, at once, and he'd take a picture. This was a problem.
I was a little reserved, let's say, about jumping, but I had to be cool. I would jump, but I would've liked a few moments, to prepare myself, for such a feat. I was just a kid. I was terrified. We all held hands, which just made my heart beat faster.
Three, Two, One, Jump!
Urrrrrrrrgh. My stomach was up in my throat. We finally hit the water, with a big, violent, splash. Somehow, I clunked Linda on the head, with my elbow, or my wrist, something. She came up, not happy, with a new knot, on her pretty head.
Smooooooth. Real smooth. I felt awful, I didn't mean to, I'm wicked sorry, I've never had a real girlfriend before, I've never jumped off a cliff, what could I say, nothing would save me. I could feel my cheeks turning red, I was the fix-it boy, but I couldn't fix this. What was I supposed to do? I had given so much, to get over here, just to make a fool of myself. No place to hide, no one to bail me out. I suddenly felt ill, sick to my stomach. Serious feelings, for a bunch of kids. A bad omen.
She was cool, she came around, after she rubbed that lump, for a minute. I'm sure she could see how bad I felt. There would, however, be a lingering shadow of awkwardness, after that little episode.
Time flies. We knew that Grammy would be worried, and upset, she had certainly figured out our little ruse, by now. These realizations didn't settle my stomach, any.
We hated to leave the girls, again, but the time had definitely come, and now, we were pushing it. We needed to get back, and smooth Grammy's ruffled feathers, before Grampa got home from work.
We lagged. We hemmed, and we hawed. Finally, one of the Dads helped move us along, reminding us, that we had a long trip ahead of us. We took the hint.
The inevitable goodbye, but I got the digits. Technically, I got her address, in Cumberland, and there would be letters, back and forth. Smiles, waves, and we were back in the canoe.
It was awful. It hurt, just to hold the oar. Little blisters had formed, on my palms, at all of the hot spots. The seat was painful. The excitement on the earlier voyage had been replaced by dread. Our young bodies were tired. We were starving. Here's a general Life Hint:
If you're going on a mission, bring snacks.
We painfully made our way, back around the Leap, so slowly, it seemed to take an hour, and we weren't even back to open lake. When we finally cleared the gap, and saw the far shore, we had a bad moment. It seemed so very far away, much further than our first trip. We could see no defining features, whatsoever. Trees. The whole horizon was a half circle of trees.
Which way was home? We had been so far out, in open water, on the way over, and we hadn't really looked behind us, at all.
That's West. Kevin made the observation, pointing in the direction that the sun was headed. I just looked at him, like the Skipper might look at Gilligan, waiting for him to put it together. Yes, that is definitely West, but that doesn't help us. Without a map, we don't know which direction home is, nor do we know the heading we took, on the way over.
We were quiet, for a few minutes.
Nautical Navigation Rule #2: See Rule #1.
Map, and Compass. Chart your route, before you go. Look behind you, once in a while. Think.
We came up with a common sense solution. We would hug the shore, now on our right, and keep our eyes peeled, for the State Park beach, probably the first landmark that we'd be able to spot. We would stay close enough to shore, so that we couldn't miss seeing it. It might be a little longer route, hugging the shore, but we couldn't risk getting lost. We had a long way to go, and it looked like we would absolutely be in trouble, by the time we got back. What time does Grampa get home from work??
We still had our music, we tried to muster up some enthusiasm, and started the tape, once more. Even Bob couldn't help us, now. We were beat. This whole trip had been a terrible idea, all of the sudden.
We wished that we could call our parents, and have them come pick us up, like we had done, on a few bicycle rides, that we had underestimated. Not this time. Nobody was bailing us out. We had gotten ourselves into it, now here we were, on the far side of the lake, and we had no choice, but to get ourselves out of it.
Another hard life lesson.
We pushed on. Bob was our timekeeper, not just with the tempo, but, we figured, we had played the whole tape, three times, on the trip over. It only made sense that by the third time the tape ended, we should be pretty near home.
We slugged along. We were still on side one, round one, and the enthusiasm was gone. We didn't talk much, just forced our weary arms to keep paddling, and tried to keep up the rhythm. Our thoughts were full of Grammy, scowling, giving us the disappointed look, the worst punishment of all. How long would she stay mad? Did we ruin our whole week, with this one stunt? How mad would Grampa be? Hollering kind of mad, or even worse, the silent treatment kind of mad?
So many questions. So hungry. So tired.
Bob let us down. Midway through his second set, it sounded like he was shot with a tranquilizer dart. He slowed down, groaned a bit, and then just stopped.
The batteries must not have been Energizers, they didn't make the trip.
Honestly, I was kind of happy, when the music stopped. I love Bob, and all, but at that moment, I had enjoyed all that I could stand. The silence was welcomed, just the noises of the water, to lull us through the rest of the painful voyage.
We would complete our mission.
Our plan had worked, though it seemed like it had taken twice as long to get back. We spotted the State Park beach, just a white dot, that slowly developed into our first familiar sight. We had a ways to go, yet, but we were on the right course.
Looking at maps, after the fact, we probably paddled about 10 miles, each way.
It took forever, and the shadows were getting pretty long, as we finally made our approach. We could see the camp, now, and that turned our thoughts back to Grammy. She's probably right at the table, looking out this way, waiting to spot us. She's been stewing, all day, no doubt, she most likely wants to swat us, with a rolled up newspaper, the first weapon at hand.
Doubtful, but we'll get an earful, for sure.
As we got closer, still, we could see the very glass door, that she was, no doubt, watching us through.
Wait a minute, what's that, on the beach?
Right at the water's edge, there was a figure, too short to be Grammy.
Oh, wait, closer, still, it took shape.
It was Grampa, sitting in a lawn chair, with his elbows on his knees, looking through his giant binoculars.
Smile, Kevin, we're busted. Grampa's home.
Now it was really painful. Paddling in, that last quarter mile, like guilty dogs, with our tails between our legs. The sorriest of looks, on our faces. Time to take our medicine.
Grampa sat, watching. By now, he had put the binoculars back in the case, and just sat, waiting, with his arms crossed. He didn't speak, until we were right there, on shore, at his feet.
That lake could have swallowed you up, like nothing, you know.
His tone was calm, we had expected some yelling.
We were still kids, we were looking at our feet, ashamed.
Grammy's been worried sick about you, all day.
Seventeen miles across there. I watched you come in, the last three. You didn't believe me, did you?
I thought I heard a tiny hint of humor in his voice, now, but he was still stern, I couldn't be sure.
Yes, Sir. I think it might be even further.
This almost made him smile, but he held it back, and knuckled down, this was serious.
A brief pause, and he asked one more question. Was it worth it?
Now I was trying not to smile, thinking of the pretty girl, across the lake. I wanted to blab out this whole story, all of the emotions that had played out, all day, but it wasn't the time, right then.
Kevin, and I, both answered at once, through stifled grins. Yes, Sir, it was.
Not much more would be said. We apologized to Grammy, and she seemed pretty cross, but she made sure our bellies got full, in trouble or not.
We were dead to the world, having endured a marathon of a day, without much sleep, the night before.
A pillow never felt so good.
I wrote to Linda, several times. She sent a Polaroid selfie, which would stay, for years, in my little secret box of cool stuff.
We actually had a date, a day when both of our Moms dropped us off, at the Mall.
We were still tweens, the World was a little safer, back then. Linda had other friends with her, and we hung out, for the afternoon. It never went further. We had fun, but we were worlds apart, when it came down to it, she was, of course, the pretty, popular girl at her school, while I was a stumbly garage kid, just entering the most awkward stage of my life. She was a few cliques ahead of me, for sure.
I learned a lot, on that big adventure. I'll never forget the thrill, the butterflies in my stomach, the first time she looked at me, that very first day. I'm no expert, when it comes to relationships, but I don't think every love is meant to stand the test of time. I think some people might come into your life, just to light you up, with pure joy, and then they're gone.
Only here to get your attention, spark your emotion, let you know how good it can be, how good it should feel. Eye openers, leaving marks, that stay with you forever.
A perfect little Summer romance.
Thanks for reading.