There she was. After all these years. Looking up at me, lovely as ever, smiling, telling me that she remembered our unforgettable days together. When we were young.
A short time ago I came across a bank calendar produced by Midlantic/North, a New Jersey establishment. Its chief graphic adornment, aside from all the gripping reminders of Groundhog Day, Daylight Saving and other Dates-to-Remember, was a handsome nearly full-page, full-color portrait of a magnificent lake. Not just any lake, mind you. This was immediately recognizable to me as Mountain Lake, in Mountain Lakes (there are five in the borough), New Jersey, and it was important to me not only because someone had finally immortalized its stunning beauty (its very existence, for that matter), but because from 1929 to 1949, interrupted only by my absence during World War II, I lived pretty much on or in this “scenic wonder”, as the caption described it. The fact that in those twenty years of my own growth I had occasionally dropped in at my home for meals, telephone, homework or dry clothing changed nothing; this is where I had lived.
Of course I had to go to school. And I fell in love a lot. And I played baseball, sandlot football, varsity basketball, marbles and even, once or twice, hooky at Neafie’s field. I skied and caddied with my friends at the Rockaway River Club, set pins at the bowling alleys (25¢ and 25 bruises per game) of the Mountain Lakes Club and when summer came became a busboy and soda jerk at Howard Johnson’s on Route 46 (originally Bloomfield Avenue) and I played tennis at the club (the club also faced the lake) with the pro and his pupils on the red clay courts in return for lunch and lessons. And the results of all this? A lot of ‘C’s. And frowns. And, after hours at Ho-Jo’s, warm welcomes from a sweet redheaded person who had left me a fifteen-cent tip and a twenty-dollar smile to think about. But I still managed to check in at my lake nearly every day.
Roughly a north/south mile of wood-framed fresh water, something short of half that across, the lake was at its deepest point surely less than twenty feet, but the universe it contained was limitless, and I knew it not by its measurements, but by its seasons.
In early spring it was blue and chill, a rippled mirror for the crisp wide sky but there came moments followed by hours and then whole days of promising warmth. At this time of year the water could be waded in and even fallen into without permanent effect, and I managed to do a little more of each than was considered acceptable at home.
When summer arrived, introduced with a cautionary grunt from those less sensitive to life and all its goodness.that is, that awful price for freedom, final exams. Then the changing climate brought with it boats, canoes, fishermen, swimmers and explorers. My boat, to be truthful, wasn’t really my boat, although I soon became its principal skipper. It was a converted twelve-foot Marconi-rigged rowboat that my brother Jim had acquired from someone who had clearly understood better than he its true worth. Jim “let” me assist in scraping and caulking, installing centerboard and rudder, cleats, lines, pulleys, stays and fittings. Finally in painting (in Mother’s view, a hideous cream color that I saw as beautiful). The boat was never named, probably a good thing, and wasn’t exactly nimble, but under normal conditions she did sail smartly, and she did carry me, eventually, over every inch and cranny of my world.
The other boat in my young life was a slab-backed Old Town canoe.or what remained of one after Bill Ford, our next door neighbor, had amputated the hopelessly mangled stern of a derelict he had rescued from a cove and had restored, through drastic surgery, to half-life. This bizarre vessel was no prettier than Jim’s floating mongrel, but proved ideal for invading rank weedy coves in pursuit of orange-and-black Paint turtles and huge unhappy bullfrogs, even if the freakish craft was coated in a revolting strawberry-purple, the unsettling result of mixing everything left over in Mr. Ford’s garage.
This eccentric entry was especially suitable (although unaccountably never disqualified) for canoe jousting, aside from the watermelon scramble, the most violent attraction of the Fourth-of-July Water Festival. In the evening the festivities lit the lake’s dark surfaces that now glittered with gaudy reflections under the annual fireworks extravaganza, accompanied by loud, tinny, recorded patriotic music, punctuated by blasts of rogue cherry bombs.
As summer moved on, though, the water grew increasingly dense – greener with seaweed growth – and in August Mr. Mola roamed the entire surface in a slow square barge powered by a 1½ hp. Johnson Seahorse (the only motored vehicle permitted on or in Mountain Lake), threatening the swimming with distributions of Blue Vitriol (copper sulfate) in a seasonal assault on weed and algae. It never worked very well, and served (in one boy’s mind) to seed a lifelong contempt for bureaucratic efforts to alter nature for the common good.
Fish, too, lived here – those that had somehow managed to survive the poisonous holocaust.sunnies, perch and largemouth bass.and they were caught for breakfast by unlicensed small citizens with common five-for-a-penny fish hooks from the Boonton Sports Store, decorated messily with pieces of earthworm. The latter, (not the Boonton merchants), had been lured to their last noble mission by generous infusions of Colman’s English Mustard, diluted in water (or after a heavy rain) into their homes beneath a backyard apple tree.
September was in many ways the best. Still swimmable, albeit among small whitecaps that began on semi-warm days to appear on modest, if determined waves. The lifeguards on the small island beach (including brother Jim) had returned to college, and the lake finally belonged to me again.
Just me. Sort of. Now I could swim across it with neither interference nor permission, and sail freely in light traffic. Soon the surface would reflect the bright colors of woody boundaries as the spectacular autumn changing took over. South-bound ducks appeared, and sometimes violent, if nourishing, rain. The lake cleared to an intense aquamarine. These days were the most precious, and I was often late for supper. As the days shortened, the blue became gray in sky and water. The air sharpened, carrying on weekends the rich smell of burning leaves, stinging my senses with instant nostalgia for an exhausted season.
Then came ice. Thin and intricately patterned at first, it revealed through its etched glass coating the occasional orangy flicker of a winter perch. Later the ice thickened and rumbled, becoming diamond-hard, and usually by Christmas the flag with the red ball (replaced by a plain white one after December 7, 1941) signaled that it was once again time to sharpen our skates, or trade up in size if we had outgrown them. There was a wonderful ringing sound I loved, when I heard it first each year, of sharp steel cutting into uneven ice. Little shelters were erected for icefishing, voices traveled clearly across a hurting wind, and we all became stars for the New York Americans or the Montreal Maroons in pick-up hockey games. In the evenings lights went up, records played “The Skater’s Waltz” over loudspeakers and local ladies sold hot chocolate and hot dogs at prices well within my meager allowance. I skated beyond the lights into the darkness of the far shore, flying where I had, a short time ago, swum, and the lake, as always, supported me. Some days I even skated across to school, and returned late in the day with my skates dangling around my neck.
Later, with the thaw, the surface shone like polished sterling, the surrounding trees still black and leafless, the lake matched obediently the gray and gold clouds that raced overhead on swift March breezes. Each year, at this time, I was a year older, but it wasn’t until long after I had had to leave the lake for good that this became in any way bothersome.
I went back not long ago. Neafie’s Field, in my day a four or five acre close-cropped meadow with a rudimentary baseball diamond at the northeast end, was now a cozy neighborhood of mature tree-lined streets, and the red clay tennis courts at the club had acquired a hard green weatherproof coating. All the boats moored by the beach looked new and respectable, and most of the coves that I could see had been tidied up, their shores attractively landscaped, and I wondered where the frogs and turtles and mosquitoes (even the leeches) had gone to live. But the lake is still there – maybe a wee bit smaller than I had remembered — and still enchanting, just like the picture on the calendar. And still, I’ll bet, making children late for supper. And I’m also sure that one or two of these youngsters know exactly where the frogs and turtles have now made their homes. And that these kids don’t want to tell anyone. Even Mom and Dad. Maybe especially Mom and Dad.
Ronald Neil Campbell
Ron Campbell was born in Morristown in 1926. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he joined Fortune Magazine in 1952 and became Art Director in 1982. Since leaving Fortune he has been a freelance designer and design consultant for many well-known companies and publications including RCA, CBS, Merrill Lynch, Doubleday, Harvard Magazine, and Harvard Business Review. He has been a freelance writer and guest lecturer and has received many awards for design and graphic art.