Lake Bracken in Winter
by Terry Hogan
It's upon us again. Thanksgiving has come and gone and the countdown of shopping days left till Christmas haunts us all. In my neck of the woods, I saw Christmas decorations in the store up before Halloween. We've become a mercenary lot. We measure ourselves by what we have, rather than what we are. Perhaps we were always that way. The eyes of youth do not see the world the same as the eyes of an old man. Which is right? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both. As a cynic, or a philosopher once probably said, "Perception is reality." If this is the case, no wonder the path is full of briars when an old man backtracks and recalls his youth as seen through young eyes.
Winter at Lake Bracken a mere half a century ago is more easily recalled than last winter. Life was more full, more dramatic, and certainly more simple. Snow meant sledding…not an ugly commute to work. Cold weather meant the groans of Lake Bracken ice as it thickened during the winter night. It meant the smell of wood smoke and the blaze of a fire in the fireplace.
Winter also meant that the club house went into winter hibernation. There was little to attract club members out to the lake in winter. No swimming, no boating, no Sunday night outdoor movies. Lake Bracken became more like a small rural town, albeit spread out over a free-form Main Street. Entertainment was of our own making and was outdoors. Membership was generally limited to that subset of year-round households, as opposed to summer cabins and non-resident members.
Ice skating in various forms was the primary lake activity. If we were lucky, we had ice with no snow, providing the entire lake as a skating arena. If we weren't lucky, the lake became a patchwork of isolated shoveled skating rinks- the size and shape left to the energy and imagination of their creators. Ice fishing was uncommon then, but was the bane of skaters. A newly re-frozen hole in the ice was a real danger to a skater.
The more organized form of skating was found at the hockey games at the Watson's. It was not ice hockey in any sense of the organized game practiced in schools or shown on TV. It was simply two goals, two teams, and usually only one puck. There were no set periods, and no set rules. The game would cease upon darkness, overt fatigue, or the loss of the puck, consumed by a secret location under the eroded shoreline. The size of the teams depended upon the number of participants who came and left; boys and girls, alike, and generally in a wide range of sizes and ages. Some had hockey skates. Some, like me, wore figure skates. It didn't matter. We played to play. Winning didn't mean much as there were no set teams and often score was not kept.
Sometimes, if the ice was clear of snow, and suitably thick, a car or truck would venture onto the lake, trailing a long rope, tied to the rear bumper. Older kids would grab the rope and go flying down the lake, behind the vehicle. All went well, as long as nobody "up the line" fell. Occasionally the driver would whip the vehicle into a slide and the rope and skaters would pick up amazing speed, particular near the end of the rope. Skaters would fall, fly-off, or hang on for dear life. We weren't stupid, just young. Mortality had not stared us in the eye yet.
One year there was a variation on this, but my memory is poor on the details. Someone, and I don't recall who, showed up on the lake with a version of a swamp buggy. It road on skies and was propelled by a large fan on the stern of the sled. Because it did not have to rely on limited traction of tires on ice for movement, it was able to achieve much more invigorating speeds for those silly enough to grab the trailing rope. Peer pressure and youth being what it was, nearly everyone did.
If snow was abundant, sledding on the golf course became an option. However there wasn't a hockey version of sledding to play, so we often derived an unnamed game of doing ever-increasing stupid stunts on the sled.
Another all-time favorite was to slide down a hill that dropped off vertically about 10 feet to the frozen lake below. The goal was to stay on your sled longer than anyone else before you jumped off. My brother, Roger, won that and became the all-time champion. For reasons still unknown to me, he didn't bail off his sled. When we got to him on the lake below, he was alive and relatively well, except for broken glasses. The broken glasses could have easily introduced him to the stare of mortality. We had little money to spare for replacing glasses broken by stupid stunts. Alas, he survived to go on to make future stupid stunts, just as we all did. It is the nature of growing up and growing old.
We had a sled version of the rope behind the car too. The father of one of the kids would tie a number of ropes to the bumper of his car and tie our sleds to the ropes. We would then travel the roads of Lake Bracken, assuming they were icy or snow-packed. Stopping and going down hills were always a bit dangerous as we'd occasionally have the tow ropes go slack as we closed the distance on the rear bumper and tires. It was always the best to get a center rope. Being directly behind the wheels was an unfortunate location if they spun and threw snow, ice, and sand and cinders back at you. You were, after all, at eye level to the tires.
I suppose, in order to be fair to my brother, I should note that he was not the only son in our family to cause an un-budgeted expense due to stupid winter stunts. For me, it was going down a hill, standing up on the sled. The sled veered off and hit a melted spot of bare ground. The sled stopped. Momentum, doing what momentum does, carried me forward faster than I could run. When I fell, my left hand fell into a small hole. I was in grade school - Allen Park- and my classmates were able to sign my cast. Being left handed, I learned to write right-handed. That ability has found no practical use since. I think it ranks in there with having six toes, or an appendix.
Such are the memories that come out of hibernation on a cold winter's night, warmed by the fire in the fireplace and attracted by the crackle of the burning wood. Young faces come to mind; faces that I have not seen for 50 years or more. They have not aged. They have not been touched by disease, hardship, accident. They still have not stared into the eyes of mortality.
It was a winter at Lake Bracken and we were young.