Summer is my favorite time of year...Always has been, always will be. I love being able to come home from work and fire up the grill. I love being able to stand on the deck and listen to bugs and frogs make racket from a spot merely feet away, and yet, remain totally invisible. I love smelling the meat cooking over the coals, drinking a cold beer, and eating outside. Even after slow-cooking a meal on the grill and enjoying it on the deck, there's still a few more hours of daylight to enjoy. That's probably my favorite part.
But another reason I love summer so much is because I love going to the lake, and I have so many great memories tied to my experiences there. Even though it's only March, the weather lately has been so unseasonably warm that it has felt like summer has come early. And just about this time of year, I find myself reminiscing on memories from summers gone by.
Sink or swim...I didn't really have much of a choice growing up. For as long as I can remember, my parents have had a boat. And for as long as I can remember, we've spent countless summer days out on the lake. My dad likes to tell a story about me as a toddler. Our boat was beached. Dad was throwing horse shoes with some friends, and mom was laying in a lounge chair, soaking up rays. I was doing what toddlers do...Toddling. Exploring. Testing out the incredible new skill of walking I had recently acquired. My parents weren't mindless by any means...They always paid close attention to my sister and I when we were little. But even the best of parents can lose focus at times. They were all preoccupied for what was likely less than 30 seconds, but that's all it took for me to discover the vast water stretching out before me. And so I walked. And kept walking. The next thing dad knew, the only part of me that was visible were my tiny lips and nose poking up out of the water, desperately trying to breathe. He said he ran toward me and grabbed me up, fully expecting me to cry, but all I did was blink a few times, cough, and stare at him with a look of bewilderment. My love of water was spawned that day.
I don't know who invented the striped shortbread cookie, but they knew what they were doing.
It wasn't just being on the water that I loved. Camping at the lake was (and still is) one of my favorite things to do. When I was little, we camped at Big Bear most of the time, but we started going to Hillman Ferry later on. The only thing I remember about Big Bear was sitting in the camper during the 4th of July fireworks display, loving the colors, but scared to death of the sounds. I had to watch through the window.
Hillman Ferry is a different story altogether. Virtually every rite of passage that a boy experiences en route to manhood happened for me at Hillman Ferry. In high school, my parents spurned taking a summer vacation for leasing a campsite at Hillman Ferry for the entire summer three years in a row. Those were some of the best times I had as a teenager.
You see, there were several other families with kids our age that did the same thing. So, it goes without saying, many of us became very close friends. Chance became one of my closest friends while there...We were the same age, and oddly enough, had met at the campground several years prior to our first go-round as leasers. We were enemies at first...Grown out of battles on the basketball court. But, once we actually took the time to get to know one another, we became fast friends.
Derek was often the third member of our little crew. There were plenty others that would come and go with holiday weekends, but the three of us were regulars. Lots of times Derek would come up on Friday nights by himself, and Chance and I would sleep in his camper. We'd stay up till 4 AM drinking Kool-Aid (seriously...Just Kool-Aid) and watching American Pie. We'd take joyrides on Derek's red moped, or we'd cruise up and down the main road in his Jeep...He'd pump the clutch, and I'd shift from the passenger's seat. Here's a group of us, minus Derek (I'm behind the chubby guy somewhere), goofing around on our campsite.
It wasn't just us, though...There was a group of 5-10 of us that were regulars at the campground, depending on the particular weekend, and we took it as our territory. "Tourists" that came in were welcomed with open arms, but there were always boundaries. The picnic table at the basketball court belonged to us, plain and simple. On Saturday nights, the campground always hosted mediocre country bands to play at the pavilion. We'd set up shop on our picnic table, playing the occasional basketball game, or flirting with girls. We'd all go down to the beach and lay there looking up at the stars, talking about life. There was no curfew. Our parents always knew we'd come in eventually. And, even if we didn't, they knew we weren't far away.
Some nights we'd sleep in Derek's parents' boat, usually parked right next to his camper. I'm not really sure why we preferred to sleep out in the heat and mosquitoes as opposed to the air-conditioned campers we had literally just feet away, but we liked it.
We even had fun when it rained. One summer night, a storm blew in and knocked the power out throughout the entire campground. There was high wind, torrential rain, thunder, lightning...Didn't matter. A big group of us hung out at the pavilion and waited it out. We didn't even care that there wasn't any TV or iPods...We just sat around and talked. Told jokes. Laughed. And we did those things all the time, and loved it.
I drank my first beer there. And I drank my first malt beverage, which my parents caught me doing, there as well. I was 16 and really stupid. I was drinking with a group of guys from Indiana that were there occasionally, tucked away in the back of a parking lot set off from the pavilion and basketball court. I decided to get rebellious, thinking I would finish my drink on the walk to the basketball court, dump the bottle in a trash can, and no one would be the wiser. But, for some reason, my parents decided to take a leisurely stroll to the basketball court at the exact same time. The odds were almost like getting struck by lightning...I mean they NEVER did that, especially so late at night. They recognized me from far off, and I tried to hide the bottle by a tree as I walked, but they obviously saw it. I was as conspicuous as a tall man in China.
"What was that?" My dad asked.
"What are you talking about?" I said, playing dumb and standing awkwardly far away trying to ensure he didn't smell my breath.
"You just put a bottle down over there. What was it?"
"Oh, it was just some lemonade," I said.
Now, I know what you're thinking, and it does sound ridiculous. But it was the first thing that popped in my head, and it wasn't a complete lie...I just happened to leave out the "Mike's" and "Hard" from the name of the beverage.
"Lemonade, huh?" He said. "Why don't I just walk over here and see." Before he even started moving, I just hung my head and followed them back to the campsite. My night, and seemingly life, was over.
I survived. Oddly enough, they didn't really say much about it until several weeks later. And even then, it was a mild lecture that seemed almost like it was happening because it was expected. It was as if they chose to write it off as boys being boys. Lensey would have been drawn and quartered for doing something like that, but they always seemed to take it easy on me.
My love for camping continued as I got older, though. We stopped leasing the summer after my senior year, but my friends and I went camping often. DJ, Eric, Matt, and I went tent camping just about every weekend for a while. We were never very well prepared...We usually decided to go at about 4:00 in the afternoon, so we'd rush to the grocery and get a couple bags of chips, hot dogs, buns, and that was about it. Then we'd drive to Paducah and try to find someone to buy us beer, because, well...We had to have beer. We never came out and said it, but I know my parents were wise to us. The last thing my mom always said before we left the house was, "Now, y'all behave yourselves." She totally knew.
We never did anything too wild. We camped at a few different places: Hillman's once or twice, Birmingham Ferry, King Creek...But we usually ended up at Smith Bay. It was a tiny little campground way off the beaten path, with no running water. And we never had to pay...Not because we weren't supposed to, but because payments were made by the honor system in a little drop box that we knew wouldn't be checked until the following Monday. We'd barely be there 15 hours, so we just figured it didn't make a difference.
But Smith Bay had two sites with one of the best views of the lake available, and we always seemed to get one of the two. We'd set up the tent as it got dark, and settle in next to the fire with a beer. We'd listen to Outlaw Hours on the radio and just talk. Once or twice we got a little too rowdy and the Forestry Service may or may not have been called, but that's neither here nor there.
In hindsight, those nights were always a blast (even when we did it every single weekend) and one of the things I miss most about not having responsibility. We all knew we were on the verge of going our separate ways, even though we didn't talk about it that much. But I'm sure that fact was something we all thought about as we sat around those fires.
Whenever we all get together now, conversation always seems to turn back to our times at the lake. We still tell the same stories and talk about the same events. And we still go to the lake and we still make memories, even if the personnel changes occasionally. Like last summer...Adrienne, Stan, a couple of his friends from school, and I all rented a cabin and pontoon at Dale Hollow. Stan's friend Emily had brought her jet ski with her and decided to take a little joy ride. After a couple of hours, we started calling every law enforcement agency in the land because she had officially gone missing. She was gone for 8 hours before she rolled up in the back seat of a Ford Taurus at our cabin. The rest of the trip was fantastic, but needless to say that day was miserable.
Even as great as the new memories are, they're different. Not different in a bad way, just different. As in, the old memories are from a different time of life...A time that none of us can go back to. And that's okay. Life is about phases and moving from one point to the next. It's about making memories. Mom and Dad sold the camper a couple of summers ago, and even though we hadn't used it as a family in almost a decade, it was really painful to see it go. So many memories tied to it. As much as I miss those days, I don't want to go back to that. I love my life now. I love what's in store for me in the future, despite the fear that coincides with the unknown. But I still miss the times at the lake growing up, and always look back on them with a smile. And I hope, someday, Adrienne and our kids can say the same thing.