Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fleet Farm Time Machine

Suspended with feet drifting up for the surface in water as clear as the air, face down with one hand clamped on a piling grown slimy with feathery green algae.  Frozen in breath-holding time above a clean cobble bottom – this is how I first fell in love.

It wasn't big, but it was ours
It seems nearly impossible now, but there was a time when a simple auto mechanic and a school teacher, merely by the location of their modest ranch home amid the ever-multiplying McMansions along one of the most picturesque and adored lakes in Wisconsin, could be afforded access to a small private beach denied to those nearby with much greater means.   That is indeed how the world worked when I was young.

Records were kept on index cards in little wooden boxes at the public beach house back then, the gateway to all summer fun, much like Mom's box of cards for creating cherry cheesecake and Salisbury steak at home.   In a rite of spring dripping with that rare satisfaction rendered when the “have-nots” triumph over the “haves,” local kids would troop into that little clapboard beach house, and announce our names a little too loudly in case there were any rich kids from Illinois within hearing distance.   Surnames would be ticked off on the cards, and small fabric seasonal passes would be freely dispensed from a roll much like tickets at a raffle, square nylon patches little more than an inch square with the year embroidered in a circle around the perimeter.  One for each member of the household and a few extras for guests.  But ours came from the roll with the colored embroidery thread.  We got red or blue or sometimes gold, depending on the year, while those from away got only black and only after they payed.

That little colored badge of honor was quickly sewn on the lower left thigh of your trunks to be displayed proudly for the gate attendants and life guards the rest of the splashing and frolicking summer, and more importantly, for the kids emerging from shiny foreign cars with air conditioning and upholstery who had to hot-foot it all the way across the sweltering blacktop to the far entrance of the public beach.   The yuppie scum.

All socioeconomic injustices temporarily waylaid, we were free to cross the much shorter route to our gated private beach.   Or, more often, to simply hop the fence and tear down to the water in unbridled youthful glee for a day of cannonballs and jacknives on top of each other.   The gate attendants knew who we were anyway.   They were our babysitters and waitresses in winter.

In our house we had to finish our chores before mounting bikes for the almost daily speed run down the huge hill to the water, and I submit that was cruel and unusual punishment.   Dishes or vacuuming or the inexorable pain of cleaning a bathroom.   Imagine the horror.  But once our work was done we were set free to rocket our way to sunburned freedom.  On that ride down “The Big Hill” I was stopped more than once by Mr. Hutchinson, the town cop, for passing cars on my single-minded mission to achieve soggy summer fun.   The posted speed limit there was (and still is) a residentially staid 30mph, and I can happily recall glancing over to see the startled visages of drivers as I shot idiotically by on the double yellow line.   I cringe to think of the stitches and dental work (or much worse) that would've been involved had I ever put that old Schwinn down as it began to shimmy and wobble in my haste to get to the beach.

As we grew into rowdy young men, burgeoning with hormones but still too young to drive, the true proof of manhood among us was the ability to ride our bikes back up that same hill at the end of the swimming day without once touching the handlebars.  A feat I came very close to achieving many times, but never completed, I'm sorry to report.   I can rest easy now, from the remove of adulthood, with the fact that I failed.   I believe all claims of having achieved this monumental task were exaggerated or flatly untrue.   I don't think it's possible for a kid to do, and you wouldn't either if you saw the hill or a topo map.  Except for maybe in the case of Brian.  He claims to have done it a generation before me, and I believe him.   He's not normal.

Yet another rite into young manhood was the willingness to sleep “under the stars.”  There came a time when even the flimsy comforts of a tent and foam pad were eschewed by all who wished to deem themselves men of the woods.   We'd practice our young bushcraft skills, often giving up on the bow and drill fire in collective resignation that a one-match fire was almost as cool as a no-match fire and far more comforting than none at all.   Having mutilated a couple flimsy perch or shiners with a fillet knife and fire, and maybe with some wild greens or berries, we'd enjoy our paltry repast. Things were sometimes bolstered with hot dogs or beans or Oreos from home, but young mountain men in the making have amazing powers of selective memory, and these treats we summarily erased from the public record.

We'd stretch out in the grass and gaze up at the stars, fully codified in the belief that we would one day be remembered among names like Boone, Lewis, and Clark.   But here's the thing: Even on warm summer nights, even as a malleable, nearly indestructible pre-teen, you don't get a lot of sleep sprawled out right in the dirt.  Not if you've evolved past that stage twenty-five millennia prior to trying it again, anyway.

So we'd be up early.  Very early.   In that light that isn't really even light yet -- the bottomless pre-dawn calm. A time of day known best to duck hunters, third-shifters, and young knuckleheads who think it's rad to dirtbag it right on the ground.

What was there to do at this hour? The same thing there was to do every day all summer long – make for the beach.

Lake Geneva is one of the largest kettle lakes in Wisconsin.   A kettle lake, in quick and dirty lay terms, being a dent in the ground left by a retreating glacier and filled with water.  It is spring fed, deep and cold, and almost heartrendingly clear.  Like looking through a window into the earth.   One of those lakes where you park the boat in twenty five feet of crystalline water to fish for spawning bluegills in fifteen feet of water, instead of anchoring in five to cast up into two.   And sometimes, if you're paying close attention when you pull a thick spinning gill up out of those depths, you will notice a long, heavy pike or musky hovering deep down there in the wet void.   A monster of the deep glaring back up through the window.

Standing in the fishing section of the local Fleet Farm (a mid-western hardware store chain) the other day, I spied the cardboard and plastic packets of Eagle Claw snelled hooks.  The very same packs that inhabit every tackle shop, hardware store, and gas station peg board near water in the known universe, and seemingly have since the beginning of time.  They have bronze finish bait holder hooks or little gold aberdeens snelled with an eight-inch leader and a loop on the running end.  You know the ones.  I know who buys them too – twelve-year-old boys who ride their bikes down The Big Hill to the beach before the sun comes up.

Seeing those snells hanging there, I was instantly transported back to that little beach in the last throes of night, the sun not yet coming up over the drumlins seven miles to the east across the flat, dark plane.

Armed with the loop of one of those snells over your little finger, you could slip into that cold spring water and swim out to the weed line at the very deepest reaches of the white and blue swimming pier.   A few big breaths to prepare, and then a long dive down through the clear nothingness to the bottom in earliest slanting dawn.

Grab onto the pier and hover there.  The shimmering mosaic of flat round skipping stones before you in the quickly gathering morning, nature's most perfect fresco. Let the twinkling golden hook fall from your hand and hang by its leader.  Still yourself.  Just be.  If you are patient, if you become nothing in the water with your bowl cut hair standing on end and tickling, a curious sunfish will come up from the sashaying green and bite that bare hook, and you will be pinky fishing in paradise.

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