Monday, August 6, 2007

August Memoir

During my childhood and early teens, August meant one thing: The family vacation trip to Lake Weir. As August arrived this year, my nostalgia for thost Augusts spent at the lake during and after the Second World War period persuaded me to post this fourth chapter from "memoirs" I began writing a few years ago. The only introduction needed is that I was born and grew up in Florida.


by Fleming Lee


During my childhood and adolescence, our explored universe had four major points: Gainesville, where we lived; Blitchton, about 30 miles to the southwest, the family ranch where Daddy had been born and raised and where most of his relatives still lived; Ocala, forty miles south of Gainesville, thirteen miles south of Blitchton, where Mother’s father and mother and three sisters lived; Lake Weir, south of Ocala, where we went for our summer vacation each August for as far back as I can remember; Jacksonville, where we traveled about twice a year to buy clothes and Christmas gifts.
I’ll write about Lake Weir now because I associate it with the day the Second World War ended.
Mother and my brothers and I stayed at Lake Weir for the whole month of August even though Daddy had only a two week vacation. Daddy joined us on the weekends during the weeks he had to work.
No matter how I describe Lake Weir to you, it will be impossible for you to feel with me the delight that those memories still bring. The joyful excitement we felt on the morning of departure still resonates through the years with an intensity equaled only by Christmas Eve and the last hours of school before summer vacation.

Of course we had been preparing for days, with emotional emphasis on bathing suits, towels, and fishing tackle. In addition to those more inspiring items, Mother had to think of everything from soap and toothpaste and suntan lotion to salt and pepper and sugar and dog food. The trunk of the car was packed with suitcases and cardboard boxes of canned goods, bottles, towels, books, board games, puzzles, and decks of cards.
Daddy was exceptionally carefully organized in everything he did, and, insisting on loading the car all by himself, he would first place all the suitcases, boxes, and everything else on the ground around the rear of the car, then form a three dimensional mental picture of the finished design, and finally put everything into place, leaving not one inch of wasted space – which is just as well, since the 1940's automobile had to accommodate five people and a dog in addition to all the supplies.

On that August morning I would wake up well before sunrise — actually, not only on the day of departure but even on the preceding day. I had long manifested an unusually high degree of excitability, and even the anticipation of starting an ordinary day would have me awake an hour or so before anybody else in the family. At the age of ten or eleven I might just read while others slept, or go out with Nippy into the back yard. A few years earlier I sometimes crawled around under large pieces of furniture such as the dining room table, enjoying the novel perspective and the strange, dim, silent emptiness of the house. I might take a ball of string, tie it to the leg of a chair, and from that starting point — climbing up onto things as necessary — take the string from table to lamp to mantle to overheard light fixture to more chairs and tables, until the whole room seemed filled with giant spider webs.
On the morning of going to the lake, I didn’t know what to do with myself except find ways to make enough accidental noise in order to get everybody else moving. Having to sit through the ritual of corn flakes and bacon and toast and grape jelly was agonizing. Why didn’t we just get on with it? (I was never much of a breakfast eater except when it came to pancakes or waffles, and through many later years got through the morning on nothing but coffee.) There would be the inevitable complaints from my father about this, that, or the other not having been done right, or forgotten, and then the final round of checking light switches and the knobs on the gas range. Problems finding Nippy would have occurred early, after which he would have been tied in the garage to await our departure.
Once everything and everybody was in the car, including Nippy’s water and food bowl, I would supply the final touch as the car moved out of the driveway by having to go back into the house for some reason, most likely to use the bathroom, but maybe because I had forgotten something. It was a permanent family joke that we could start out for anywhere without Fleming having to call the car to a halt and run back into the house.

Underway at last, with three boys in the back seat and Nippy leaping from one window to another to get different views of the passing scene, we made our way carefully around the university campus and headed south on route 441 out of Gainesville. When we reached Payne’s Prairie did we began to feel we were really venturing into the wide, exciting world. Payne’s Prairie is an almost treeless plain about two miles across and bigger from end to end. Many years before it had been a lake crossed by a ferry; then a sinkhole opened near one end and all the water drained down into the earth, leaving fish flopping in the mud to be scooped up in bushel baskets — or so our father told us.
From there we entered what in Florida passes for hilly country, sometimes with orange groves on either side of the road, tinted with late summer fruit; sometimes with the crops of small farms; sometimes with the big oaks and undergrowth of the hammocks.
When we passed some farmer’s tall tobacco barn near the road, with the long bundles of tobacco hanging to dry, visible through the openings in the barns, we might slow down just so we could smell the keen, sweet aroma. In addition to the tobacco barns, as I recall our rides through our native countryside the most poignant feelings are evoked by two memories: The sharp smell of burning fat pine wood, and the sweet scent of new-mown grass.

The burning pine smoke might come from a smoldering forest fire, or from a burning pile of uprooted stumps and trimmed limbs. The same delicious smell was provided by fires at the Negro cabins (“Negro” was the approved polite term) which were scattered along either side of the highway, where there was almost always a big, black iron cauldron in the side yard sitting over a pile of smoking wood, usually attended by a woman stirring clothes in the steaming pot with a broom handle.
Those the Negro cabins, always marked by an open front porch and a tin roof and a chimney, and usually with a central passageway straight from front to back which was wide open in summer, became more plentiful, as did the elderly persons of both sexes rocking on the porches. Their yards were raked sand rather than grass (just at our grandmother’s house at Blitchton), sometimes with halves of tires planted lining the sides of the front walk for decoration, always with geraniums and other hanging potted plants decorating the porch.
The perfume of fresh cut grass could come from many sources, but the most exciting for us were the crews of uniformed convicts, sometimes with chains on their ankles, nonchalantly slinging blades to trim the grass along the sides of the road. (We called the tool a slinger. Its handle split into a Y at the bottom, with the blade attached across the fork of the Y.) The prison truck which had brought the men out to the job would be parked nearby with a perspiring keg of water on the back, and a couple of guards with shotguns would be lounging in the shade if shade were available, looking as if they had reached the most extreme state of relaxation attained in the history of the human species. The sweating prisoners always looked a lot leaner and stronger than their keepers.

Of course I would ask why people went to jail and if the guards ever shot the prisoners, and was told that they were bad men and that the guards would shoot at them only if they tried to run away. We would not end up like that if we were good and not break any laws.
After Payne’s Prairie, we passed the tiny town of Micanopy, watched the shiny expanse of Orange Lake slide by on our left, and by the time we had reached the handful of nice old buildings that was Macintosh, about forty minutes had passed and boredom was setting in. The only real town on the trip, Ocala, became the goal which promised a stop at a filling station for soft drinks.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Ocala, where billboards told tourists that Silver Springs and its glass bottomed boats was only a few miles away, we would have been overtaken by several discourteous Yankees who turned out to be Floridians, a fact which only the youngest, Gordon, had the nerve to point out to Daddy, who told Gordon not to sass his parents. Gordon and Riley began shoving one another, I was trying to lose myself in a book, and Nippy was riding with his head poked out of the back window, nose to the wind, long black and white ears flapping in the wind.

One difference which children of later years would quickly notice if they were transported back to that region of Florida the 1940's was the absence of fast food. Except for the Pig Stand in Ocala, they did not exist. No instant hamburgers or fried chicken or gelatinous roast beef sandwiches. The rare opportunities for food on the road consisted of the occasional dilapidated looking establishment called something like “Sarah’s Kuntry Kitchen”, or simply, “EAT” . . . or even worse, “John’s Place, LIQUOR, FOOD” with no windows.
In any case, my father was persuaded that all restaurants aggravated their bloated costliness with a determination to cheat their customers, and if any child mentioned the possibility of stopping for food Daddy would tell one of his stories about being overcharged or shortchanged and insulted to boot. Those incidents had to have occurred before we were born because the only time Mother and Daddy ever went out in our recollection was once each year, to Kiwanis Ladies’ Night, when Nina Strickland came to babysit. So any nourishment on the road either was brought along from home or was purchased at a filling station.
Near Ocala, then, we stopped at a Sinclair station — because it had a dinosaur on the sign — and pulled some little packets of peanut butter crackers and Tom’s Peanuts from big jars on the counter, and took some soft drinks from a red metal cooler whose top folded up in two parts. I always had a Nehi orange drink. My parents usually had Coca Colas. We drank them at the station because otherwise we would have to pay a deposit on the bottles. It was not unheard of to pour some peanuts from their small bag into a soft drink and get a few mouthfuls of the combined contents toward the bottom of the bottle.

Refreshed, and after a forced march to the bathroom, we continued on our way past Ocala and south to tiny Belleview, where Mother’s father had his general store. Belleview was the turning point where impatience and exasperation began to transmute into eager anticipation. By then an hour and a half must have passed, and there was nothing between us and the lake except a relatively few miles and a lot of hills. We would be led in our vacation song by Mother, to the tune from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves:
Hi ho, hi ho,
It’s off to the lake we go.
We’ll dive and swim
and fish for bream.
Hi ho, hi ho, hi ho, hi ho!
We sang the song again, and excitedly began to point out familiar landmarks until we recognized that our car was making the long climb up the final high hill from whose crest we would get our first glimpse of Lake Weir. There could not have been greater excitement had we been on the deck of the first sailing ship to see the coast of Florida. We in the back seat stretched our necks and got as far forward as possible, jostling and elbowing for position. The competition was to be the first to see the lake. At the crest of the last and highest hill, a silver sunny gleam flashed from the valley miles ahead, and the more or less simultaneous shout would go up, “I see it! I see it!”

Then, as we went downhill and the view of the lake was lost behind lower hills, the cries would be, “I saw it first! I saw it first!” Mother, always the peacemaker, would try to resolve the argument by announcing that everybody had seen it at the same, and with each child inwardly satisfied that he was the winner, a new argument arose.
“I’ll be the first one in the water.”
“No, you won’t. I will.”
“Nobody’s going in the water until you carry your things in from the car,” Daddy would say.
“And walk, don’t run. We don’t want any cut knees like we had last year.”
That meant that by the time we got to our destination we would all have our personal belongings hugged to our bodies, ready for the dash to the house and then to the water. We knew we were almost there when the highway began to take us past the entrances to private drives marked with little wooden signs — “The Blalocks”, “Strickland”, “Wettstein.” Turn your car into one of those unpaved roads, and in less than a minute you would be at the shore of the lake. Straining for glimpses of the water through the trees, we reached the hamlet of Ocklawaha, which was about midway down the north side of the lake — and then, at last, the side road that would take us to our goal.

By the time the car actually stopped, and the doors flew open, and we brothers could look out across miles of bright, smooth water, we could hardly breathe. Nippy was at least as excited as anybody else, leaving no doubt that dogs have good memories. He would jump out of the car, glance quickly from side to side for orientation, and then run as fast as he could down to the water’s edge. As we hauled our armfuls of stuff to the house we could see him making his way into the water, now walking slowly instead of running, lapping from the surface as he went, until his cocker spaniel ears were floating straight out from his head and only a little of the wavy hair on his back was still dry. Then he would launch himself to swim in a broad semicircle away from the beach and back again, paddling hard, black nose in the air.
Within seconds, we boys were in our bathing suits and in the warm water with Nippy . . . and the great summer adventure had begun.

There was some inexhaustible attraction about being in the water of Lake Weir -- which lay about eight miles long from east to west and three miles across from north to south. We spent most of August in that liquid when we weren’t asleep. And just being near the water made everything better than at home. Food tasted finer at the lake than when eaten anywhere else, and there was the excitement of change — different scenes and different people — but the water was the center of everything -- clear water always warm enough not to cause the slightest shiver, growing warmer as each day went on. The bottom was white sand, sloping so gently that a child might walk a hundred feet or more out into the lake before only his head showed above surface. On a really hot, still day, the water nearest the shore would sometimes become as warm as a hot bath, and we would bypass the beach and jump in from the end of the dock.

In that wonderful water we would jump, cannonball, swim, splash, or float about on fat, black inner tubes. I most enjoyed swimming under water, with the sense of flying like a bird, doing somersaults and other gymnastic feats unattainable above the surface, seeing how far I could swim without coming up for breath, gliding to a gentle landing on the bottom, studying the shapes of bubbles rising -- not round, but like mushroom caps.
In spite of my childhood athletic inhibitions, I almost always outlasted everyone else when it came to distance swimming under water. Maybe I had unusual endurance. The only happy sports memory I have of my school days was one time in physical education class when we had to do a really long race that took many minutes to complete — and to my amazement I saw one after another of the more athletic boys fall back, and found myself well ahead at the end. In the hundred yard dash or other short races I was used to being near the back of the pack, but now I was actually a winner.

The white sandy bottom of the lake was dotted with the tips of the black shells of mussels. We could uproot them with our toes, or dive and dredge them from the sand with our fingers and watch them dig their way back in again. Apparently nobody who frequented the lake had ever thought of eating mussels. Only years later did I discover that Italians and Chinese turned them into a delicious food. Mother told us that some people ate mussels, but it was in the same way that she might say that colored people ate pig’s tails or chicken feet.
The first couple of Augusts we went to Lake Weir we stayed in one of a row of four or five rental cottages not far from the casino pier -- a misleadingly grandiose title. Then we stayed in what my mother calls “the Mayo house, with a nice screen porch, shade, and a dock,” which I don’t remember in detail. Later, Mother’s father bought a two-story stone house on the same side of the lake. We stayed at Papa’s “rock house” for the rest of our Augusts except for one summer when we stayed at a more modern house which my aunt and uncle Martha and Hugh Ray had bought.
Papa’s house had one especially interesting feature: It was separated by one or two houses from the house where the Ma Barker gang was attacked by G-men -- some of sneaked up to the beach in boats. Bullets from the furious gun battle (according to old movies, tommy guns were the weapon on choice) sank lead slugs in the stones of Papa’s house, and we children found it enthralling to search for the pockmarks filled with lead. After the Ma Barker and her boys were demolished, Papa saw pictures of them in the newspaper and realized that they had shopped at his store in Belleview.

The rental cottages of the first years each had a screened front porch which looked out on the lake and the shared dock. Among the few specifics which I recall about the cottage era, two involved the female body, and one involved a fish. When we were vacationing at the Mayo house there were two sisters of about 8 and 5 years at one of the neighboring cottages. The girls and I were on our screened porch sitting on a sofa bed of some kind (it was common for children to sleep on screened porches in those pre-air-conditioning days) when the elder sister suggested that we play “nurse.”
“How do you play that?”
“I’ll be the nurse and Linda can be the patient. You can be the doctor. Lie down, Linda.”
Linda, tawny-haired and small, wearing a yellow dress, lay down on her back and giggled as her sister and I pretended to use stethoscopes on her chest. Then the elder sister said, “We’d better do a complete examination,” and pulled up Linda’s skirt and started tugging her panties down her legs. I got a glimpse of her private area, but for some reason it all ended right there, and I was left with just the vague impression of a hairless triangle of pink flesh. I don’t know when I first definitely learned that girls and boys were not the same between their legs, but if I didn’t know before examining Linda, I learned it then.
The other female body episode occurred when a bunch of us were standing around in the water near the dock, whiling away the latter part of a morning. Two elderly ladies who lived in a house a little way behind the cottages were there. One of them, in a black bathing suit, was in water about up to rib level, smoothly moving her wrinkled arms back and forth on the surface of the water while she held forth about snecks.
“I seen more snecks this year than you would believe. It’s jist different than it ever was before.”

Snecks? From the context I soon figured the word out.
“As long as they’s black snecks or king snecks, I don’t mind, but rattlesnecks and moccasins is another thing. Live and let live is all right, but if I see a rattlesneck I’ll take a hoe to it. And you jist don’t know when you’re standing here if a water moccasin might be swimming right up by your legs.”
What happened then was that one of the old lady’s shoulder straps slid down her arm, and one of her breasts was completely uncovered, nipple and all. She didn’t realize it.
“Water moccasins is real scary, but they’s so many people around this area now, and the grass ain’t growing in the water so much no more, that we hardly ever see any water snecks these days.”
I kept sneaking glances at the flaccid little white balloon protruding from her chest, not because there was anything attractive about the view, but because I had never seen one of those mysterious female bulges uncovered before. They were always carefully hidden, whereas men went around with their shirts off. I was about ten years old then, and I asked myself why that was. I knew better than to ask my parents. They had already let me know that they were as ignorant about any differences between male and female anatomy as they were about the origin of babies. My efforts to find out where puppies or calves came from had been no more successful than my investigation into my own mysterious appearance on Earth.

The fish. I don’t like thinking about it, but I’ve thought about it many times, and so it is important enough to write down. The cottages were next to a fish camp which had a covered dock parallel to the shore. I was down there with some of the other children, exploring, watching boats come and go, when a boy of about thirteen showed us a bass in a big bucket full of water. The fish would soon be killed and eaten, but in the meantime the boy had cut off the right fin behind the gills. We all watched it try awkwardly to swim.
“It’s kind of cruel, “ the boy said, “but it’s interesting. It’s a scientific experiment. He only swims in that direction now.”
As I’ve said, I had already found myself to be much more sensitive about any harm to animals and even insects than other children I knew, and it was horribly painful for me to watch the mutilated fish. I pictured him whole again, swimming away along the bottom of the lake. I pictured myself kicking the bucket over and spilling him back into the water, but I felt it was already too late, and in any case I would have been afraid of challenging the bigger boy. When I saw that he had a slimy pocket knife and was going to perform other experiments, I left and suffered over the incident for days and years to come.

But fishing was one of the things we did at the lake. Usually we caught bream from the end of the dock in early morning or early evening, using bread balls on small hooks, and for supper we would eat the bony little things fried with a corn meal coating. My empathy did not keep me from fishing for food.

All those years we spent at the lake we never owned a boat, although Daddy had a well broken-in Johnson five horsepower kicker. (Outboard motors were called kickers; we didn’t know them by any other name.) When we started staying at the house Papa bought, our uncle Hugh Ray --whose family owned Silver Springs and who was married to my mother’s most beautiful sister, Martha -- left a dinghy there which we named “Peanut Shell” because of its small size, rotund proportions, and floating characteristics. Its varnished planking looked very fine, but when rowed, it tended to wallow more than to move forward, and it was too small for an outboard motor. I believe it had belonged with Hugh’s yacht, which he donated to the Coast Guard when the war began at about the time we began going to Lake Weir in the summers. In fact Hugh joined the Coast Guard, and he and Martha and their son and daughter, Walter and Molly, had moved from Ocala to Cedar Key — on Florida’s Gulf Coast west of Gainesville — which had been turned from a fishing village into a Coast Guard base. We visited them there early in the war, and I remember a great big bell, and little baby Molly sitting in her high chair rubbing Gerber’s mashed spinach all over her naked upper body, and me chewing on a weed as I walked along a dirt path and getting a sharp tiny piece of it stuck in my throat and thinking, “I’m going to have to live with this stuck down there for the rest of my life.” Maybe it’s still there for all I know, but I felt it for only a few hours. The flesh has ways of expelling things much more effectively than the mind.
Maybe I have digressed to Martha and Hugh for a good reason. I associate them with feelings of envy -- my own feelings of envy -- and I think it was at Lake Weir that I most often experienced envy. Martha and Hugh were the rich members of the family. Martha, with her long brown hair either hanging down or done up sleek in braids against her head, looked like a movie star, and she certainly deserved a rich husband. Daddy frequently complained that Hugh had never worked a day in his life, which I’ve since been told wasn’t true, but that only made me admire Hugh more and want to be like him, while it made me think that Daddy was meanspirited to begrudge somebody else his good fortune. Besides, Hugh — a tall, pleasant, babyfaced man — was like me in that when relatives were around, he wanted to get away by himself. I suppose it aggravated the rest of the grownups that when they were in the livingroom talking for hours he would retreat to his room and read Life magazine, or that he might go sit in his car during a long wedding reception, but I saw it as an invigorating sign of independence. I also suspected that it was easier to get away with nonconformist behavior when one was independently wealthy.

Envy at the lake was based on our lack of a boat. It seemed that everybody else there had one, and we had to do without except for Hugh’s wallowing “Peanut Shell” until Papa bought a rowboat. Even then, Daddy’s five horsepower kicker would push the rowboat along only at a very slow speed, leaving a low, decorous wake in the water behind us, while other boats hummed past us with ten horsepower motors or better (pretty powerful in those days), leaving us rocking in their wake.

The only boat slower than ours was an incredibly overloaded boat full of a dozen or more Negroes which occasionally putted along the shore, slow as a turtle, every inch of sitting space occupied -- a black child straddling the bow like a ship’s figurehead -- with only one inch of the sides of the boat showing above water.
As Augusts went by, my greatest envy was aroused by Chris Crafts, those beautiful, sleek, streamlined, shiny, natural-wood boats with powerful inboard motors. Mara Lovett, a slender, short-haired blonde girl I got to know at the casino when I was fourteen or so, had a Chris Craft. She would coming roaring up to our dock at Papa’s house spewing plumes of water from her stern, then suddenly slow down and burble slowly to the edge of the dock to pick me and maybe others up, and we would roar away at unbelievable speed, heeling at breathtaking angles as we skidded through turns. I had to endure this for several years, while we continued to putt-putt around in a rowboat with a feeble horsepower kicker on the back.

Mara Lovett takes me back to the ways we passed our time at the lake. Besides swimming, fishing, and getting seriously sunburned, we would sometimes go up to the venerable drugstore in Ocklawaha with the coins of our meager allowances in our pockets and sit at one of the round tables in antiquated wrought iron chairs and eat bowls of ice cream — or, if we were really well supplied with coin, a banana split. The place was more of a soda fountain than a drugstore, but it had a chronic medicinal smell – as did the old, pale, stiff man in a long white apron who was the sole custodian of the place. He moved so slowly that you could count on spending half an hour there just to enjoy a sundae or a chocolate soda. It was not that he seemed too infirm to go faster; it was just that he had chosen to move through life with great deliberation. Watching him walk, barely lifting his feet, across the black and white tiled floor was like watching a boat slowly approach from the far side of the lake. And then, when he was working behind the marble topped counter, you could study each movement of each joint in his arms, wrists, and fingers as he maneuvered containers and excavated scoops of ice cream, as you might watch a praying mantic making its way hesitantly across a large leaf.
Another thing we did when we were not submerged in water was go to the casino, a roughly finished building at the end of a pier not far from the cabins where we first stayed at the lake. We usually went there in the evening. On entering the big, dim, wooden room you would see tables around a dance floor, a juke box, a counter where food and beverages were dispensed, and most importantly, Shoot the Bear. Maybe that wasn’t its name, but it sounds right. On a machine at the back of the room a bear paraded back and forth in a forest. Having put a coin in a slot, one stood quite a distance away with a rifle which shot a beam of light. If the light hit a shiny round lens on the bear’s side, the beast would stand up on his hind legs and roar. I could not get enough of that.

Another good thing to do at night was just sit on the front porch and watch the beams of searchlights moving slowly back and forth in the night sky beyond the far side of the lake like phosphorescent tentacles of some deep sea organism. There was a military air training base over there, and during the war we could sometimes hear the sounds of explosions far away. Once we found a dummy bomb floating near the end of our dock and rowed out and retrieved it. It was several feet long, and its dark metal shape and fins looked just like the bombs we had seen in pictures, but it was hollow, with a cap screwed on to the nose like the cap of a gas can. For years it stayed around our house. I wonder what became of it.

We enjoyed the lake even when it rained, which it often does in Florida on summer afternoons. I enjoyed it especially when the storm approached a direction which allowed us to watch it travel more or less directly toward us across the wide expanse of water. Those August rains generally come in the form of lone, scattered, fast-moving thunderstorms rather than as widespread fronts. Of course sometimes there were mild little clouds without thunder, the kind which will drop gentle rain on one steamy side of the street while you stand in the sunshine and watch, dry, on the other side. (Mother told us that when she was a girl they said when the sun was out during rain, the devil was beating his wife. She said if you stick a twig in the ground and put your ear against it, you can heard the hissing of the devil’s switch.) But usually the August rains came from cumulus thunderheads which built up during the hot afternoons and grew into tall, sprawling, cumulus giants which throb with flashing electricity. We could watch them coming toward us across the lake, casting a dark, cool shadow on the stirred surface of the water, bombarding lower creatures with lightning and rain.
When we were younger we used to explain rain fancifully as we looked out of the entrance of our garage at the street filling up with water, saying that God must be weeweeing. But the view across Lake Weir provided a more accurate perspective on where the water really came from, although it was still easy to imagine each towering thunderhead as a sentient god. I felt, and feel, that thunderheads are in some sense living beings.
When a rainstorm was coming from the south we could tell it was on the way long before it reached the far shore. While the sky above us was still bright, and contained nothing that looked more threatening than tufts of cotton candy, we could make out the sunlit tops of the storm clouds on the horizon beyond the far side of the lake, which itself was so far away that we could barely make out individual buildings among the dark line which was the trees that separated lake and sky.

On the southeastern shore of the lake, somewhat to our left across the lake as we looked from our front porch -- there were three unusually large oak trees which stood above everything else on the horizon. We called them the Big Three — a journalistic term we constantly heard applied to Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill, the Holy Trinity of World War II. Being so far away, those three big oaks were inconspicuous except when a line of rain came up from the south and overtook the southern shore and grayed it out as an artist’s eraser might smear away a long, curving, dark line. The Big Three were always the last objects we could see as rain moved over the lake, their dark shapes becoming lighter and lighter as the storm enveloped them, until finally they too were gone.
Usually by that time our parents had shouted us in from the lake or the dock. “Get in here right now! Look at that lightning! Get right in here! If I have to tell you one more time!” We would watch from the still-sunlit porch the rain advancing toward us like a miles-wide attack of cavalry accompanied by the flashes and booms of cannon. Ahead of the advancing wall of rain the bright, usually smooth, surface of the lake would be stirred and lightly roughed, and as the wind grew stronger we could see the flurry of choppy water, and flashes of white foam. White caps on our lake, just like the ocean! Little waves which curled and broke on our usually so placid sandy beach. As Mombelle liked to say, “The lake has many moods,” and this was its most turbulent.

If it rained long enough for us to get bored indoors, we would play games, as we did at night or on days when we were feeling sunburned enough that we did not want to go outside until the afternoon cooled down. Board and card games were an indispensable part of vacation at Lake Weir, and could go on for hours. The favorite by far was Monopoly, which could take most of a day if there were enough arguments, or enough neighbor children or visiting cousins involved, but I also remember Parcheesi and Chinese checkers and Slapjack. The latter, like Pit, could become so raucous and even violent as to evoke parental insistence on a quieter pastime.
For some reason the games are more vivid in my memory, more sensuously detailed, than many other things from that time. I sense, for example, the exhilarating smell of a deck of playing cards, carried on air fanned by the shuffling. I can still feel the little metal Monopoly tokens in my hand, the excitement of placing wooden houses on the lots, and the boredom of sorting all the play money back into order after a game was over.
I have never been good at checkers-type games, but I still recall the thrill of that initial charge of pieces (especially the marbles in Chinese checkers) onto the freshly set up board, full of hope before the hopping obliteration began. Papa, Mother’s father, was a skilled player of traditional checkers, and showed no mercy on children. In fact I seem to recall that he became quite agitated when one of my brothers beat him.

The subject of games brings to mind the saga of my younger two aunts’ efforts to teach me to play bridge. Sometimes during our August vacations – mostly during the years we stayed at Papa’s rock house -- Mother’s parents and three sisters from nearby Ocala, and any husbands and children who had been acquired by that time, would come out for a day, or maybe even overnight, which meant children spending the night on the upstairs “sleeping porch.” My aunts’ misguided campaign to teach me to play bridge resulted from Shirley, Lorraine, and Mother needing a fourth player, and my being the only available candidate. Daddy had played bridge . . . once. According to a story he told every few years, he and Mother had long ago gone to a bridge party where Daddy was partnered with a woman who criticized a play he made, and he would therefore never sit at a bridge table again — somewhat like the spring onion which made him sick when he was a child and thus deprived our household of an essential pungent vegetable for many years.

Anyway, although I was only eleven or twelve I was considered very smart, and so the victim in a desperate situation. I immediately showed an inaptitude for bridge which was worse than my performance at checkers, and possibly even more appalling than my lack of ability to grasp mathematics. Come to think of it, maybe the problems were partly due to a lack of aptitude for teaching on the part of my instructors both in bridge and arithmetic. I never even grasped the goal of bridge because it was never explained to me understandably, and so I had no idea why I was doing anything. In learning any subject I always had to know “why”, to comprehend the underlying principles, before I could proceed to make sense of the parts and procedures. Most of my teachers seemed to teach from the top down, so to speak – starting out with various techniques rather than the ultimate basics, something like teaching a dog tricks – and those teachers appeared at a loss when asked to clarify what they were doing by explaining the foundation principles. This was not only in arithmetic and math; I remember my high school Latin teacher’s consternation at my efforts to understand what declensions were by trying to engage her in a metaphysical dialogue on the subject.
“Yes,” Shirley would say, becoming a little impatient. “It’s two different things. First you bid and then you play the hand.”
“You’re not playing when you bid?”
“Yes. You have to bid so your partner can try to figure out what you have in your hand, and so you can figure out what she has in her hand. So -- listen this time -- you count the value of your hand like we told you, and then you bid by looking first at. . .”
As they laid down the rules of bidding I got confused.
“And why am I doing that?”
“So you and your partner can come up with a contract.”
“Contract,” I said vaguely. “I’m still not sure what that is.”
“It’s the number of tricks you agree you can take.”
“I told you! When you play the hand everybody puts cards down and people take tricks. We talked about trumps, and high cards, and reneging?”
“Yes, but. . .”

I finally grasped a few rudiments of playing the hand, but I never could quite put it together with the bidding that had gone before. I have a feeling that my density was so discouraging that no single teaching experiment lasted long enough to bear fruit, and that my aunts abandoned the effort each year just before I might have gained true enlightenment. As with many things in my life, it was more impatience and excessive analysis, and not inability, which interfered with success.
When we had company at the lake, with all those hands in the kitchen we ate unusually well. We often had the same main dishes, of which no one ever tired: Shrimp salad and potato salad for lunch (Martha was considered the champion potato salad maker), and chicken perleau for dinner — although there might be ham, or somebody would demonstrate an improved way of cooking fried chicken and gravy
For whatever reason, chicken perleau, as we called it – a variant of pilau, or pilaf – was the all-time favorite for family get-togethers. Florida perleau was not spicy or complex like its more exotic cousins in the Middle East or Louisiana. It was simply rice cooked in salted and peppered chicken broth, to which deboned boiled chicken meat was added toward the end of the cooking. Despite its simplicity, I still remember it as delicious.

Somehow my reveries about Lake Weir want to end in the summer of 1945, when I was twelve years old, although we continued to go to the lake after that. In the August of that year Daddy arrived at the lake from Gainesville one weekend with a newspaper that carried tremendous news whose horror I was too young to comprehend. Our country had dropped some kind of super bomb on Japan. The front pages of the Times-Union and the Gainesville Sun were covered with large headlines and diagrams dedicated to teaching the common man about atomic physics. Although great devastation was announced, the view of Hiroshima at this time was from a great distance, from across the Pacific Ocean. The awful details would come later. For now, it was all physics and awe and hope that the war would soon end.
I began to spend more time by the radio and less time in the water as news bulletins began to discussed peace negotiations more than battles. I hated to leave the radio even long enough to go fishing, but Papa was there one day took some children in his boat several miles down to the east end of the lake to go fishing. As we motored back, I lay drowsily curled up in my favorite spot with my head under the bow cover, and feeling the vibration of the wooden hull and the bump of little waves against the bottom of the bow right next to my ear.
“What’s going on?” somebody exclaimed.
I sat up. The sound of a siren reached us across the water, and from another direction a church bell began ringing, and we could hear, diminished by the distance, from every direction, the sound of car horns and sirens and bells.
“The war’s over!” I said.

Somehow that moment seems the final curtain on my Lake Weir days, even though I’m sure it was not. Even my Mother doesn’t remember the year of the last family vacation to Lake Weir, but I whenever they ended, they left me with pungent memories from those heady Augusts, when chicken perleau and sweet mixed pickles and shrimp salad tasted better than anywhere else in the world, where I learned the sensation of flying like a bird in slow motion under transparent water as warm as a bath, and from which I still bring up the memory – when I want to feel peace – of lying on a sleeping porch on hot nights listening to the distant drone of an outboard motor far out on the lake.

Copyright 2005 Fleming Lee


  1. Fleming there's a few things that made me want to comment on this, one of them is Ma Barker and her boys. I thought straight away of "Creepy Karpis" who was an important member of the gang -and whose name always gives me a bit of a giggle. (I'm a fan of course, of outrageous American gangsters.)

    And then there's Mussels too, which have always been a poor man's delicacy here. Every fish and chip shop had them in jars of vinegar on their shelves, and I'm not sure if they still do, because those grubby old places have gone upmarket now, just like every cheap food joint, although you can still find the occasional rundown place and wonder how it's survived. Mussels are significant in my own childhood because my funny dad used too swim out into Port Phillip Bay and get them off the rocks -which was considered an eccentric thing to do in those days. But he was always a scavenger, even scooping up horse turds in our street from the milkman's cart, which gave the local kids a good laugh. Well I guess having come from a rural family he could see its value as fertiliser, although we had hardly any garden to put it on. But he was a scavenger, as I say -of small things, all his life.

    I found your childhood memories very interesting. And they're similar I'd say to a lot of Australians. I kept thinking how lucky you were being too young to get sent off to the war. The 1940's were a melancholy time. It's odd to think that while kids were enjoying arcadian times in America and elsewhere their older generation were being blown to pieces just over the horizon. It's tragic. I felt very sad about it in San Diego when looking at a memorial to troops who sailed off from there. War seems in the background of everything.

    Anyway I hope you enjoyed writing this, because lots of people will enjoy reading it. Good job.


  2. Robert (RH), thank you. I'm amazed and pleased that you read as much as you did, which may even have been the whole thing! I wondered if anybody would read past the first paragraph.

    I really enjoyed your unusually interesting comment. I wish we'd known how to make use of all those mussels. Since then I've had them mostly in Asian or Italian food.

    Your comment about people being blown to bits in Europe while we were relaxing at Lake Weir has put me into a pensive mood.

    It seems to me that if you haven't written your memoirs, you definitely should.

  3. I understood you exactly about the fish, and was in total sympathy with Uncle Hugh; most gatherings are tedious, and even worse when you're expected to look amused as hee-haw idiots yell and shout. With the aura of wealth about me I'd have walked out on quite a few, but nowadays I'd do it anyway, being old enough not to care.
    The droning across the water putting you to sleep reminds of something said by a chum of mine when we shared a room together as teenage boys. He recalled being homeless and shivering outdoors all night, and how thinking about it in a bed got him off to sleep very quickly. It's the same for me.

  4. RH, we both understand Uncle Hugh, don't we? I think you've summed up a lot by saying that to withstand social pressure to attend gatherings and be nice, one has to be either rich enough or old enough not to care.

    It makes me feel good to know that you were interested enough to read all I wrote about Lake Weir.

  5. I read it because it's interesting, well-written and sincere. And because I'm curious about people's personal lives in America, having grown up with your cowboy films and Archie comics. We get a distorted view, and shock at findng Americans are just like us: same pleasures, disappointments and so on. The notion here is that you're all invulnerable.
    But well done, it rang true with me.

  6. So vivid! You have been blessed with very detailed memories, and it is important to record them; your child's view of the world as well as the actual scenes. I particularly liked the scene of the negro convicts who looked so much fitter than their guards.

  7. Vincent, thank you for the kind words, especially coming from a writer of your caliber.

    You mentioned my detailed memories, which gave me pause. If I remember some things in detail I must have a very selective memory because it seems to me that I remember very little about my school days (and later days) compared to what many other people remember. My brothers rattle off all kinds of facts about kids I presumably knew well, and they might as well be talking about a Ukranian novel I never read. When I went to a high school reunion a few years ago in our old building I felt quite stupid when so many of my old classmates (and I do mean old) went excitedly down the halls saying, "Oh, this was Dr. Goethe's room," and "Remember how we were in science class in this room when . . . " I could hardly recognize anything, much less recall what happened in what room.