Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Feeding the Piranhas

[My sister out-law inspired me to make a list of "My Life In Stories." I have a long list of titles and from time to time I write out one of the stories. This is one of them.]

Feeding the Piranhas

When I was very small, my family drove two days to get to the ocean for summer vacations. We went to Cape Cod in Massachusetts, back in the early post-Camelot days. The area around Hyannis was not yet built up and congested, but it was heading in that direction. The distance and the diminishing payoff for the long drive made my parents think about alternative ways to take vacations.

My parents had owned some property on Lake Sara, just an empty lot. Once in a while we'd drive over there and spend the day fishing and picnicking. We bought a wooden picnic table to keep there. As my parents were trying to decide what our alternative vacations might be, they turned their attention to the possibility of a vacation house.

They looked into the idea of building a house on that empty lot, but building a house was a large project and they weren't sure that was what they wanted to spend their time doing. They ended up buying a house on another part of Lake Sara. The house had been a full-time home for the previous owners, so it was fully winterized. It had yellow aluminum siding and it sat at the back-end of a cove on three lots of land. The house was on the first lot, the second lot was mostly flat and grassy, and the third lot was grass but with a few trees near the road including one large enough to have a tree swing on it.

We started going to the vacation house on lots of weekends, even before school was out for the summer. We'd pack a small bag (we kept toiletries and towels and even some clothes there, so we didn't have to bring much). We'd head east on Interstate 70 as far as Altamont. We'd exit and go north past the Stuckey's and if it was a Friday night, we might even stop there for the buffet dinner, but that was rare. Usually we tried to get an earlier start so we passed on and turned right onto old 40 toward the fairgrounds. We'd usually pass our turnoff toward the lake and drive through Funkhouser all the way into Effingham where we'd buy groceries.

Across from the grocery store was a pet store and sometimes we'd get to loiter and look in the window there. We had a dog, and Mom certainly wasn't about to let us have another pet, but that didn't stop us from looking. We usually only looked from the outside, but once in a while we got to go in to pick up dog food or something. One summer they had Piranhas in one of the fish tanks. We saw how their jaws looked funny (and strong) and from TV shows we knew they were killers. Once they fed them while we watched and they snapped up whatever it was faster than we could have imagined. The man in the store told us that's how he lost the end of one finger (we could see it was a little shorter than it should have been). He said he forgot to be careful around them. We believed him but we didn't want these dangerous fish for ourselves anyway. They were not at all cuddly, though they were fascinating.

After a quick stop for ice cream or a sandwich from Burger Chef, we'd retrace the path back to the turnoff and head to the lake house. When we got there, we'd first take the groceries in to the kitchen, then the bags to our room. At the beginning my brother and I shared a room when we were there, leaving the 3rd bedroom free for guests. If it was hot, the air conditioner got turned on, but often we were sent to open up all the windows in the place to get the air moving through.

Mom often drove us kids over as soon as she was ready on Friday, leaving Daddy to come once he was done with work. That meant we had two cars there, which was good in case the hospital called him to come fix somebody up.

Sometimes Daddy had some office hours on Saturday morning, so we'd spend some of the early part of the weekend cleaning up the lake house, dusting and sweeping inside and out. Then my brother and I (and the dog) would run in the grass and swing on the tire swing (us kids--not the dog). We'd pick up the mail at the mailbox and run down the gravel driveway to take it to Mom. At home we had a Post Office Box and so the only mailman we knew was at Grandma's house.

Like most lake houses, the living room faced the lake. What you saw from the road was mostly the attached garage (and the wall with the master bedroom and bath). And just toward the road from the garage was a rock garden with a giant boulder. Mom loves rock gardens and boulders too. That big, pale sandstone boulder would heat up in the sun and be a warm spot to sit when the weather wasn't hot yet. We'd sit there and try to catch the lizards that liked playing in the rocks. Someone told us that if the lizard lost its tail, it would grow another one. I new that starfish were supposed to do that, but I wasn't sure I believe them about the lizards.

We had to stay out of the woods because the ground underneath was covered with poison ivy plants. We knew how to identify the plants from the time we were pretty young. I'd never had a rash from them, but since I knew to stay away, we were never sure if I was allergic or not (and I wasn't looking to find out). There were also snakes in the woods but I think they didn't want to scare us by telling us then.

Eventually there would be fishing off the dock or from the rowboat, and swimming in the cove where the water was crystal clear all the way to the sandy bottom. Sometimes there would be neighbor kids (or neighbor grandkids) to play with. If the weather was bad, we would roller-skate in the big empty basement room where Daddy had strung ropes between the support poles, giving us something to hold onto since we hadn't yet learned how to balance ourselves.

And on Sunday morning, Mom always wanted a Sunday newspaper. Sometimes a neighbor would give us a powerboat ride across the lake to the marina. My parents would buy a newspaper and sometimes pick up some other groceries. My brother and I would beg them for coins to buy a slice or two of bread to feed the piranhas. The owner kept a stale loaf next to the cash register by the door. Since it was only a dime or a quarter, Mom or Daddy would let us and we'd be cautioned to be careful to stay dry. Leaving the grownups to talk, we'd scoot out the door and head over to the docks where the first slip or two usually were empty. We'd break off the smallest piece of bread, smaller than a pea, and toss it in the water.

And immediately the surface would boil with fishes competing for that bread. We'd toss the pieces close and far and marvel at the piranhas and be glad that they only lived on this side of the lake, not near our house.

Of course they were not piranhas, not in our climate. And we knew that, we really did. But it was so much more fun to pretend that they were. In truth they were the same bluegills that we caught with our bamboo fishing poles. Little sunfish that were more bone than meat. But when they charged over for those bread crumbs, you would have thought they could tear you apart.

Back on our side of the lake we'd fight over the comics section of the paper before being shooed outside to play. And far too soon we'd have to pack up the dirty laundry and close up the house to return back to our regular house again.

[I was going to put in a picture of piranhas but they are just too scary. Go over to http://images.google.com and type in "piranha" to see what I mean. Then if you need to wipe that out of your mind, you can type in "bluegill" to see some much tamer critters.]


Carmi said...

You relate memories with such crisp detail that I swear I was sitting in that house alongside you.

Thanks for this. I needed a really good read today.

sister AE said...

Thanks, Carmi. I have to work to know when to stop sometimes. But the things I clipped out may start other stories some time.

Maria said...

When I was a kid, we went to a cabin in Minnesota every summer for vacation. To a family from Iowa, a cabin on the lake was positively idyllic.

Thanks for sharing this story. It was fantastic.

sister AE said...

Thanks, Maria. Glad you liked it.