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Where it Began: An Overdue Return to Lake Winnipesaukee

Throughout the first half of the 1970s, my family owned a camper and lot at a summer trailer park on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire in the tiny town of Melvin Village. My parents knew everyone—many were North Reading people who had migrated up here together. Neighbors back home and neighbors here too. The summer of 1974, though, was the first summer without one of my father’s best friends, Jack, who had committed suicide earlier that year, leaving his wife, Joanne, and four young kids. This would be our last summer, too, because of course it wasn’t the same, and when fall came my parents gave up their lot, the trailer towed home and planted in a corner of the back yard, in the shade and pine needles and rusting from disuse. Many of the others probably did the same.


This past summer, my family rented a cabin in Melvin Village on the lake, staying directly next to Joanne and a couple of her kids and grandkids. I hadn’t been up here in 45 years, and the feeling was strange. My memories of the Lake are clear but brief, just snippets, moments. Like thin wisps of a dream that are difficult to hold onto. After all, they were formed when I was three and four years old. For that reason, Lanes End has, over the years and decades, felt almost mythical.


Lanes End Campground was a collection of fifty or sixty trailers lining a handful of dirt roads enclosed under a canopy of trees. I doubt you’d have been able to see any of it from the air. Most residents built wood decks off their trailers, with slanted tin roofs to protect from rain and dripping pine pitch. Like most decks, ours was where we kept the refrigerator, olive green and humming and trembling. In the space beneath the trailer, next to its wheels and front end jacked on cinder blocks, we stored folded lawn chairs and Styrofoam coolers, browning with decay and riddled with spiders. My bike was kept under here as well, lying on its side hidden from the rain or thieves. I’d drag it out, brush it free of bugs and pine needles with my hand, and pedal the dirt roads.


I owned a plastic toy sea plane, two-toned green and white, battery-operated propeller whirring from its nose. I’d pedal down the road, bike bumping over rocks, rattling and squeaking, and I’d grip a handlebar with one hand, the other outstretched to the right, holding the plane, my lips making my best plane engine impersonation. Mud, chunky and cool from the previous night’s rain, spattered my calves. I passed a totem pole lying on its side. The afternoon before, a boy I played with, a year or so older, suggested we try to knock the totem pole over. It was, in its own small way, an iconic structure in the campground, welcoming visitors and returning residents with its stacked wood-carved faces, brittle and flaking with paint. I wasn’t sure why he wanted to do it, but I gladly helped. We dug around the pole’s base with our hands, through the dirt/sand mix, then rocked the tall structure back and forth, back and forth, feeling it slowly loosen. We kept looking around for adults but didn’t see any, then kept rocking it this way and that until, at last, beginning to lean dramatically, we pushed against it with all our weight and it tumbled over with a groan, smacking the earth. Within a couple hours we’d been caught, my thin, five-year-old’s denial too easy to read. I didn't have an answer to why we’d done it, but I felt bad and wished we hadn't.


Our road looped around in a U-shape, and on the corner was Joanne’s trailer, Jack’s widow. I was close with their two youngest, identical twin girls a couple years older than me, perhaps six. Jackie, their son, was eight; Lynn, the oldest, twelve. The twins, Lisa and Lori, were outside on their porch, listening to 45s on a pink portable record player. They sang along to “I’ve Got a Brand-New Pair of Roller Skates,” then when it was done the needle lifted and reset, and the song played again, over and over. I turned my bike upside-down, handlebars and banana seat planted in the sand, and tried to get the front tire spinning as fast as I could, waiting for them to finish with this stupid song.


Later, we pedaled to the beach where the adults were. They lined their plastic woven chairs in a semicircle, drinking cans of Shlitz from Styrofoam coolers. I walked a few laps around them with my seaplane. Out on the lake, older kids climbed up onto the dock and jumped off. Too far out for me to swim. The summer before, some of the men, my father included, Jack too, carried someone’s white VW Rabbit out there, wading through the water, laughing and struggling, the tires and fenders sometimes dipping under. They yelled at each other to slow down or hurry up, to lift that goddamn end before we lose the whole thing, but they laughed while they argued, sunglasses sliding down their sweaty noses, cigarettes poking from their lips. They wrestled the car onto the dock, yanked the emergency break, then swam back, laughing and howling like werewolves.


I stood and watched the kids leaping from the dock, wondering how they could swim that far out, how long it would be before I was old enough to make it out there myself. My plane hung from my fingers, forgotten for the moment. My father sat in a low chair behind me, his chest deeply tanned, and while I watched the older kids he goosed my ass and I jumped and turned. He smiled at me with half of his mouth.


There was a photo on our fridge door back home of my father and Jack sitting next to each other from the previous summer, on this very beach, in this exact spot. Both sitting in low lawn chairs, both tanned with locks of well-groomed brown hair, one in a red bathing suit, the other pale blue. In the bleached-out photo Jack is smiling at the camera, head tilted away from the sun, my father smirking and looking at him sidelong. It looks like a good day, a snapshot of captured happiness, frozen in time. Jack’s hand, if you look closely, is resting on my father’s wrist.


* * *

In the evening, the stubborn summer sun still fracturing through tree branches in rays and casting long, late-summer shadows, the kids walked to the rec center for movie night. Tonight was King Kong. We sat on metal folding chairs and ate popsicles, skin sticky with the day’s sweat and bug spray. Mosquito bites peppered my arms and legs, most scabbed from scratching. The twins sat next to me, legs swinging. It was warm, large fans in the corners blowing the stale air with a useless hum. We grew hot and restless. A white sheet hung on the far wall, rippling when one of the fans blew across it. Word got around that the van was late—the van that was transporting the projector and film reels. One of the twins kept pinching my arm out of boredom. My popsicle was gone and I’d chewed the wooden stick to a soggy pulp.

A half hour passed. Then forty minutes. Some teenagers in the front were making fart noises by cupping their palms over their armpits and flapping their arms like wings. I tried to copy it but couldn’t get the sound. My bangs were sticking to my forehead in sweaty clumps. It was getting warmer.


Eventually the girl who was running the production—I’d seen her sometimes working the snack shack or driving a green golf cart around—walked to the front of the room. She wore a blue bandana tied on her head, holding her straight brown hair back. She cupped her hands around her mouth so we could hear her, and she yelled to the room that the van had broken down somewhere and so the movie was canceled. We filed out with the crowd and walked back to a cluster or trailers. Twenty adults were sitting on one of the porches and in the adjacent dirt yard, drinking beers and smoking joints and laughing. Multi-colored plastic lanterns were strung across the porch, their sides darkened from the inside with the shapes of dead bugs. “The movie’s over already?” one of them asked.


I scanned the adults for my parents. I couldn’t see them. There was a fire going and it made everyone’s faces dark. “It got canceled,” I said.


“Whataya mean, canceled?”


The twins had found their mother and climbed up onto her lap. “The van broke,” one of them said. Then the other one repeated it: “The van broke.”


One of the adults laughed in the dark. “Well that stinks!” I couldn’t see my mother or father anywhere.


* * *

The grown-ups were always telling us to go screw. If my parents were in the trailer, they’d want me to go find someone to play with, Lisa and Lori or Tim, the boy who made me knock over the totem pole. If my parents were sitting with other adults at night, they’d tell us kids to go play in traffic, even though there wasn’t any. On some nights, teenage girls would take us to the drive-in over in Weirs, two or three of us lying flat in the back of a station wagon with a blanket over us so they wouldn't have to pay for us. From the back seat we'd watch Mary Poppins or Herbie the Love Bug, but mostly I'd sit back there and stare at the teenage girls in the front seat with their big hoop earrings and and eye makeup and bare shoulders. Once in a while one would turn around, a joint between her fingers, and ask us if we were having fun. I said I was.


We’d walk from trailer to trailer, looking for kids, adding a few here and there to our group like metal shavings to a magnet wand. We went inside the twins’ trailer and their older sister, Lynn, popped us some popcorn and made a pitcher of grape Zarex. The twins had a doll that ate baby food and pooped in a diaper. I kept feeding it and waiting for it to poop. The doll had purple magic marker on its lips, messy and scribbled, from when one of the twins was younger.


Outside someone else’s trailer we found a metal washtub that had been used the day before for a “bobbing for apples” game, leftover from a birthday party. There were still apples in it, floating in some water along with orange pine needles and a few dead bees. We took turns sticking our heads in to try to get an apple. The water was warm from the sun and smelled like pennies. I kept bumping the apples with my chin but couldn’t get one. Tim put his hand on the back of my neck and held my head under the water for a few seconds, just to scare me and show off. I got water up my nose.


Later, bored and by myself, I put on my pair of white snorkeling fins after reading a Donald Duck comic book. It was after dinner, nearing dusk, and my parents were down the road with the adults, their folding chairs in a semicircle around a fire. I thought I’d make an appearance wearing my fins because they looked like Donald Duck’s webbed feet. I figured I’d get a good laugh from them all. I left my trailer, carefully stepping sideways down the two wooden stairs of the porch. I jogged awkwardly down the dirt road, around the corner, kicking up pebbles and dust. As I got closer, orange firelight dancing in the receding light, the sound of grown-ups talking and laughing carrying on the summer air, I tucked my hands under my armpits and flapped my wings, quacking loudly, waiting for them to see me. Instead, they kept chatting and didn’t notice. Maybe it had gotten too dark. I ran faster, quacked louder. Then my fins caught the gravel and I fell onto my face in a cloud of dust. I cried. Now the adults noticed. Johnny Ivister got up from his chair and came for me, lifting me up and telling me it was all right. He smelled of beer and cologne, wearing his green work shirt with ‘Johnny’ etched on the breast. He carried me over to my mother, roughly rubbing the top of my head, my face wet with tears and snot, knees scraped raw and palms burning, peppered with embedded pebbles. Lisa and Lori were slow-dancing to Paul McCartney’s “My Love,” but they stopped when they heard me crying and looked over. They were wearing matching dresses. I wiped my sore palm across my face and willed myself to stop crying, but not crying made the pain worse.


I stayed on my mother’s lap, leaning into her ribs and collarbone, for a long time after. The adults laughed and told jokes, passed bones around, taking deep hits, the air smelling funny and making me dizzy. From the distance I could hear bug lights zapping, their purple glows lighting the park like lanterns. Barbara skipped her turn with the bone, instead sipping her Michelob and absently patting Joanne’s forearm, who forced a melancholic smile through the wall of laughter.


* * *

One afternoon last summer I took my nephew on a walk to the playground and immediately recognized the swing set and monkey bars, the familiar arrangement of these things with the still lake as their backdrop. I hadn’t thought of the Yogi Bear seesaw since I was a little kid, but there it was, dull and flaking with old paint but there, tangible and real. I’d forgotten about it, and it looked forgotten too. An artifact. I sat on one end of it and my three-year-old nephew on the other, and I was in two different times at once, then and now. I rocked back and forth absently, neither here nor there but somewhere stuck in between.


All these people here this summer with us—Joanne and her family, but also the Ivisters who owned a couple lake houses up here—knew me only as a three- and four-year-old boy, and all week long they kept commenting that my nephew reminded them of me, this little blonde-headed kid running around, happy for the lake and the grass and the sand. “He’s a dead ringer,” I heard. And so I look across the Yogi Bear seesaw and I’m not just in two different times at once but I’m two different people at once: my fifty-year-old self but also this three-year-old boy sitting across from me, and I’m a little bit overwhelmed by it all.


We play for a long time and I take a few pictures; later, I will dig out some old photos of me here, faded and sun-bleached with years, and compare them. It’s been a good vacation, more meaningful than I’d expected, and I’ll spend the next several weeks reflecting, exercising my brain for more memories, longing for more than just elusive snippets but narratives. Sometimes I think I can almost get there.


On the walk back, my nephew’s hand in mine, we pass the old rec hall. The building still stands, renovated too, and it holds its original shape. I approach it and cup a hand around my eyes to see into a window—looks like it’s used for storage now: I see some discarded furniture and a tractor. This is where we played Bingo with one-dollar prizes, where we tried to watch King Kong so long, long ago. At the right side of the rec hall was the store, just a walk-up window for a few essentials, bread and milk and newspapers. Probably rolling papers too. I remember walking here one July morning and buying a Snickers candy bar with a quarter my mother had given me. It was my father’s birthday and, to me, a Snickers bar sounded like the perfect gift.


Joanne’s trailer was close to the store and rec hall. I knew birthday presents needed to be wrapped, so I knocked on her screen door, small tracks of long-dried rust running down its aluminum face. After a couple minutes Lynn answered, the oldest. I hadn’t seen much of Lynn this summer for reasons I didn’t understand then. I peeked around her, looking for Joanne or the twins, but it looked like she was alone, maybe napping. She looked tired, depleted and a little vacant. I showed her the candy bar and asked if she had any paper to wrap it in. Lynn looked confused. “Paper?”


“Yes.” I lifted the candy bar for a better look. “To wrap this.”


“You want to wrap your candy bar in paper?”


“Yes,” I said. “It’s not my candy bar. It’s for my dad.”


This went on for a while, back and forth. Eventually she figured out that I was asking for wrapping paper, so I could give this candy bar as a birthday gift. She didn’t have any, but she wrapped it instead in a sheet of Sunday comics, probably Peanuts. She took her time with it, folding edges carefully, her fingers blackening with ink. Taping the corners discretely. When I left a short while later, she watched me through the screen, her hands pushed down into her pockets, watching me march through a cloud of dirt coming off the dry road, buzzing with pride on my way to give this small, well-wrapped gift to my dad, her father’s best friend.


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