Friday, November 28, 2008

Row Row Row Your Boat...Your Dad Will Kick My Ass

My mom's parents had a cottage up on Twin Bear Lake near Iron River, Wisconsin. Up until the early-mid 80's, we had traveled up there every summer for a week or so to take in the scenery and live among the giant spiders. And black bears. And skunks. And raccoons. You never would've caught me outside after dark. The spiders alone were enough to conjure up terrifying stories of small children being carried off by one of them.

I was never a fishing/hunting kid. Worms were ishy, and if I was ever forced to bait my own hook, it was all I could do keep the barf down when the hook poked through worm flesh. Same for removing the inevitable bluegill from the hook. Any fishing off our dock with me involved one other person, usually my mom or dad, and I'd swing the fishing pole at them to either bait or remove.

Despite all this ookiness, I have some great memories of my time up in the cottage...aluminum tumblers, the (now) retro kitchen table and chairs (yeah, the sparkly red vinyl!), Uncle John's Bathroom Book. The book always sat on the toilet tank and as a kid, it was taboo. I suppose I spent a longer amount of time in the can, sneaking peeks at it while doing my business. This is probably why I now spend WAY too much time in the bathroom. The bathroom is my second library at this point.

The cottage was perched right on the edge of a drop down to the lake. There were a series of stairs leading down to the dock, the railing made from birch tree branches. I never used the railing. Giant spider haven. Even then, filled with the exuberance and stamina of a child, the run back up the stairs to the cottage was sucky.

On the property was a pump house that resembled a little red barn and a mysterious thumping sound could always be heard coming from it...another place I steered clear of. Amazing, really, the things that creep you out as a kid, where if you had just asked someone, you still would've steered clear of it, likely, but at least you'd know what it was. Imagination is a powerful thing.

There was also a big garage constructed of white corrugated panels. I think the roof (maybe the walls too) were fiberglass, because I was always in awe of the amount of light and the airy feeling inside the garage. It smelled like worms and fishing tackle and there was a big old white fridge, that was always stocked with bait and Pop Shoppe pop. The cream soda and strawberry flavors never lasted long when I was there visiting.

Those of us non-sportsman guests spent a lot of time picking blackberries, traveling in the "Iron River Bus" to the dump to get an up-close look at the black bears, and catching painted turtles with a net in a quiet corner of the lake and racing them off our dock later. Heather and I would sit out in the rowboat in that lily-pad strewn spot as much as we could. She was a pro at the catching and eventually trained me as a competent second-in-command. We would even catch extra for my little brother and anyone else up visiting, so we could all participate in the turtle race.

Once, Heather's friend Jenny was with us and we took her with to the turtle catching spot. I think it was her first time in this event and she was having trouble catching anything. When she finally did net her first turtle, we pulled it aboard and EW. A giant nasty leech was parked on top of the turtle's shell. As Heather tried to scrape the leech off the turtle with the frame of the net while Yertle was perched on the edge of the rowboat, we all shrieked like banshees and I'm sure if anyone was within earshot, it would've set their hair on end. One final attempt at scraping and the turtle pivoted too much toward the water and PLOP! Back to the depths of the lake, turtle and leech backpack. And the shrieking halted abruptly at the same time as the splash. Then silence. Then the shrieking was replaced by loud, raucous laughter. Dude, leeches are grody.

On the other side of the lake from our cottage was a beach that we would hang out at once in a while, and not far from it, after we'd row under a bridge was a bigger version of our turtle catching area. Huge lily-pads, water bugs, weeds. Heather is older than I am and she would always be the designated rower. One late afternoon, we took our nets and rowed out to the far side of the lake, I can't remember now, but it felt like it was hours away by rowboat. We spent some time out in the pond hunting for more turtles, but no joy. When we started back for the cottage, we were losing daylight and mild panic started to set in. We both had a good sense of direction, and I don't remember being all that concerned about not being able to find our dock, the lake wasn't that big. What was disconcerting was the absolute, utter blackness that would settle in once the sun went down. No moon that night, of course.

So, there we were, in the middle of the lake, and there was no way to tell where sky met trees met shore. I doubt if we could see each other in the boat. There's me...violating my "after-dark" policy, and I could swear every nasty creature was swarming around our boat waiting for one of us to fall in. Heb just kept plugging along with the oars and I sat in the front of the boat, feeling very small. At some point, we both noticed a flashing light coming from the direction of our dock. Yea! Somebody's trying to help us find our way! Ulp. It's my dad. I can't POSSIBLY imagine that he's pleased with us at the moment. And that, right there? Was the moment that every nasty creature disappeared from around the boat and was replaced by that icky gut feeling you get when you are row, row, rowing your boat toward ugly punishment.

I don't remember my dad ever hitting me except once when I got a crack across the rear end for some transgression. Nevertheless, in my mind, he was never someone I wanted to cross. Just being in the mere presence of him when you know you did something wrong was suffocating. I don't know how Heb felt at that point, but as we rowed toward the dock and I recognized the voice as that of my dad's, well, I have to admit at this very moment as I type this, I can't remember anything after that. Well, except for that overwhelming urge to flop down on the dock, kiss a giant spider and wail, "Land!"


  1. Ah, the fine old tradition of "the hunt." Dates back, far as I know, to the 60s when Momma was turtle hunting with her friends. In fact, one of those creatures was relocated, with great success, to Chicago where it reached a fine old age living mostly in a dishpan under Cindy's parents' bed.

  2. BTW . . . the "thump thump" coming from the little red barn was likely laundry tumbling in the electric dryer that was located there.

  3. Wow, you can write! It's kinda funny how I wasn't nearly as terrified as I should have been that night. I was mostly upset that I had caused the unnecessary fear in the parents (and my younger cousin). But, I was never worried that we wouldn't find our way back, eventually! Here's the thing that makes the hair on the back of my neck squirm now......NO LIFE VESTS! What the heck kind of parents let their young row around a lake with no life vests??? I find my redemption in that comment. xo

  4. Aw. The stuff childhood is made of. I was thinking this very thought over this past weekend for my boys. My dad has a ranch in the country where the boys fish and this past weekend they caught an armadillo.

    Ew! Leeches are grody! Histarical. :)