One of the happiest memories of my childhood in the Bronx was our weekend visits to Blue Mountain Lake, a small lake and picnic area surrounded by wooded hills in upstate Peekskill.
On Saturday mornings beginning in the summer of 1939, my parents, Henry and Mary, sister Martha, brother Henny (our nickname for Henry Jr.) and I would pack up our food, towels, blankets, etc., in our 1932 Pontiac sedan. The car had no trunk and a spare tire attached to the rear, so we were pretty jammed in the backseat.
The ride took about an hour, but seemed forever, as I was so anxious to get there. In the early days, my sister (who was in the choir in our Lutheran church) and I would sing, sometimes church hymns. My brother would groan: "Gimmee a break. Dad make them stop!"
In later years, when it was just my brother and me, we would make up games to pass the time, like counting how many Fords, or Chevys passed by. Sometimes we would each pick a color to see who would win with the highest count. You couldn't pick black, because most of the cars were black! Halfway there, my dad would stop at a Sunoco station to pick up some "white gas" for our portable cooking stove. We would also stop to pick up some buns at a bakery for breakfast.
When we arrived at Blue Mountain, we paid a 50-cent entrance fee and proceeded to the parking lot. On the way, we would look for unoccupied picnic tables nearby, so we wouldn't have to lug our supplies too far. "There's one," I would shout, and Dad would stop the car. Someone would run over and put our picnic basket on the table to "reserve" it until we parked our car.
We dragged all our supplies to the table and Mom would put a red-checkered tablecloth over it. Dad would get the portable stove working to make our morning coffee. My brother and I would race down to the lake and dive into the icy brown water.
The lake was about 100 yards wide and 75 yards across. There was a large boulder on the far shore and my goal was to swim across and sit on that boulder someday as I had seen my father, brother and others do.
As a kid growing up in the tenements of the Bronx, Blue Mountain Lake was my escape to another world. The lake, trees, small stream and waterfall were like heaven to me.
After our short dip in the lake, my brother and I would race back to our table for a breakfast of coffee and delicious buns. This was living! Occasionally, my brother and I would go by the stream and hunt for frogs. Other times, I would take a small piece of bread, tie a string to a long dead branch, and hang it in the water as little perch and sunfish would nibble on it. The only bad thing about that area was that there were many dragonflies or darning needles flying around, and they terrified me.
Often, Dad would bring some old golf clubs and we dug a few holes and played our brand of mini-golf. Other times we would set up the badminton net and hit the birdie back and forth. This usually deteriorated into my brother and I standing 10 feet apart, without the net, and trying to hit that birdie as fast as we could, back and forth.
Now that we were "sweated up," it was time to charge the lake. Dad would stroll slowly behind his two maniacs. We would plunge in as my father stood in the shallow water gradually wetting his body with his hands. "C'mon Dad, just dive in," I would shout. He would answer, "Someday, when you're older, you will be doing the same as I." How prophetic that turned out to be.
Eventually, Mom would show up, sit on a blanket and watch us thrash around in the water. My mother, who had a dislocated hip, never went swimming and never even owned a bathing suit! My father was like a cork. He would float on his back and all you would see was his face and toes.
For lunch, we had hamburgers, hot dogs or cold cuts. Whatever it was, even to a picky eater like me, it was delicious because everything was good at Blue Mountain Lake (except the dragonflies)!
My brother and I would charge down to the lake for our final swim. He would dive under water and hold his breath for the longest time, and I had to guess where he would surface. I was usually wrong.
Soon, Dad would come and wave us to come out, which I delayed as long as I could. Begrudgingly, I would drag myself back to the picnic table and gather my clothes. My Dad, brother and I would go to the "changing room," which was a 10-foot high corrugated metal square with no roof and benches inside. My father would tell me to change quickly and not look around at all the others changing. Of course I was nosy, looked and discovered that all men are not created equal.
Sunburned, full and exhausted, I would climb into our old Pontiac, and immediately fall asleep until we arrived home. My adventure was over and soon I was back in our tiny apartment. All I could think of for the rest of the week, was our next trip to Blue Mountain Lake, my other world.
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