2. Head for the Hill
For many years the most popular spot on the beach was an open-faced sandhill that overlooked North Pond. It was relatively free of vegetation, a large, inviting patch of light brown that drew eyes from every cottage on the pond. It marked my family's favorite entrance to our summer amusement park.
From the top of that hill was a terrific view of the main attraction – Lake Ontario, about 150 yards away, past the valley of sand.
In the middle of that valley, as though by design, was a long, sun-bleached stalk of a fallen tree.
To the north of the valley were even higher sandhills thick with birch trees and various bushes that had somehow taken root, at least on the pond side.
To the south were several tree-shaded mini-dunes, perfect for people like me who needed refuge from the sun. Years later, when the hordes invaded, I pictured them having to funnel past a beach maitre d’. (“Party of six? Sorry, all of our private dunes were booked weeks ago. You really should have made a reservation.”)
IN THE 1930S, my parents, aunts and uncles began renting two cottages for two weeks every summer. They were joined by my grandmother, friends and other relatives. Their cottages were directly across the pond from our favorite sandhill.
Sandy Pond’s middle may be more than two miles wide, but it narrows considerably at the cattail-clogged southern end. It was along those cattails that my Uncle Bill and his friends would station themselves during the fall duck-hunting season.
By the 1940s the family had as many children as adults. The two cottages were overcrowded, but the good times continued. An uncle would often take my three older cousins and me to the beach by boat, sometimes rowing, sometimes putt-putt powered by a small outboard that only slightly shortened the trip to the sandhill, a trip that fed my imagination.
The east side of the pond was mostly open water, but the west side belonged to the cattails. Tucked in among the trees at the base of the tallest sandhill on the west shore were two cottages. Thousands of cattails had to be cleared out so that boats could reach those cottages, as well as a bait shop at the southern tip of North Sandy Pond, the canal-like stream to South Pond, and, of course, THE sandhill.
FOR ME, the boat ride through that opening was a visit to a Georgia swamp. We skimmed over weeds and waterlilies, our view limited to the sky overhead and the cattails close on both sides. Around the bend, approaching those two shanty-like cottages, it was easy to picture unsmiling men in coveralls and floppy hats, eying us suspiciously, rifles in hand. (Years later my imagination would add the soundtrack from Deliverance.)
It’s true, you know. Kids had just as much fun before Walt Disney packaged and merchandised it. That ride to the sandhill was as enjoyable as Pirates of the Caribbean.
At the sandhill, another fantasy. The Marines had landed! We jumped from the boat and scurried up the hill, which at the time wore a crown of poison oak, through which there were three narrow openings. So we'd proceed, three at a time, past the poison oak to the clearing at the top of the hill. There we’d lie low and scan the area for the invisible enemy, then rise and charge at full speed, leaping over or diving under the horizontal tree stalk, then running ‘til we were knee deep in Lake Ontario. (Each year we'd sustain two casualties – my cousins Bobby and Bimby Smolinski – the only ones susceptible to the poison oak. At least one year the reaction was severe enough to earn them an early trip back to Solvay.)
The women in our family preferred going to the beach in fully loaded cars. My family – especially my mother and grandmother – didn’t grasp the picnic concept; they preferred seven-course dinners served over sand. (Once I tripped and fell while carrying a chocolate cake. I landed on my elbows, trying to maintain that all-important separation of frosting and sand, a mission impossible. Most of the cake was saved, but for years I heard about that accident and how I'd gotten sand on the frosting.)
Things were slow to change after my parents’ first visit. Twenty years later it was still a long walk to the beach. There was some fun in pretending we were wandering the desert, looking for an oasis, but we’d have enjoyed it more if we weren’t hauling supplies for a small army of soldiers with huge appetites.
Sand-coated food and all, each trip was worth the effort. We were deeply in love with Sandy Pond and regarded the beach as our private playground. I'm sure anyone who ever went there in the 1920s, '30s and '40s felt the same way.
THE BEACH was only part of a Sandy Pond vacation, often a small part, thanks to the erratic Northern New York weather. The temperature would hit 85 degrees one day, only 55 the next. The sun might disappear for half-a-week, hiding above soot-covered, drizzle-oozing clouds. Even a sunny afternoon might be rudely interrupted by a sudden, horrific thunderstorm that rolled across the lake. Well, better the afternoon than late at night when the lightning seemed unusually menacing, the thunder deafening. Standing near and hovering over us were tall, inviting targets, elms and oaks. The cottages were about as protective as cardboard boxes.
But like a good ghost story, the storms were more thrilling than scary. Such as the night we got caught in one on our way back to the cottage from Pulaski where my parents and I had gone to a movie. It’s a seven-mile drive on a hilly, rural road that I called the Pulaski-to-Sandy Pond Roller Coaster. It’s pitch black even on a good night; through the rain pellets that night, visibility was about six inches, but off to the right, shimmering through our windshield, were lights. There weren’t many houses along this road; that had to be one of them.
My father managed to find the driveway, and seconds after we pulled in, a farmer looked out his front door and waved for us to drive up alongside the porch. We did, and when my father explained our presence – which the farmer had already guessed – we were invited inside.
For kids, at least, a Sandy Pond vacation was an escape from the world. It was a stress-relieving tradition I continued through adulthood. No TV, radio, telephone or newspaper for two weeks. (One exception: 1976. We took along a TV and watched the Montreal Olympics via a Kingston, Ontario, channel. The Canadian coverage was very impressive.)
We read a lot, played cards and board games. Talked and acted silly.
WE SPENT as much time fishing the pond as we did swimming the lake. Not that we caught anything worth mentioning. For us, the fun of fishing was in the expectation, not the result. (Truth or rationalization? You decide.)
Occasionally I’d fish with my father, but he liked staying out for hours. I didn’t have the patience. I preferred fishing from the dock. Either way, my catch was the same – divided evenly between sunfish and perch, some of them minnow-sized. Sometimes I caught bullheads – the small cousin of the catfish. When I did that meant it was time to quit for the day. The bullheads took over in the late afternoon.
Occasionally someone would secure a pole to the dock, letting a baited hook dangle overnight. Sometimes we'd find a fish on the end of the line the next morning. It was always a bullhead.
Sunfish and perch were what my father caught, too; it’s all he wanted to catch. He kept the sunfish and released most of the perch, keeping only those few that were at least 10 inches long.
My father fished until he had at least three dozen sunfish he pronounced large enough for eating. Upon his return to the cottage, he’d scale and clean them and my mother would fry them for supper.
Sunfish are good-tasting, but small, and my father didn’t fillet them, which guaranteed he’d be the only one eating them. For the rest of us it wasn’t worth the effort to separate tiny bones from the meat. (Years later, when I discovered the flavor of perch, I reversed my father’s pattern. I kept only perch and released all sunfish.)
ANOTHER RITUAL: In preparation for vacation, my father would soak our back lawn the day before we left. That night he and I would go out with flashlights and catch nightcrawlers that had been flooded out of their holes. We’d stay outside until we had at least 100 worms. My father would pack ‘em up in a way that insured he had live bait for at least the first week.
Years later my brother-in-law Fred would do the same thing, but on an even larger scale. He was a more determined fisherman than my father, with better results. He caught a few smallmouth bass. He and my son Jeff each would have fun catching a fish I never saw when I was a kid, a fish that was good for nothing but the momentary thrill it provided during its fierce struggle to be free of the hook. But I'm getting ahead of myself.