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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Eagle Lake Summer

Eagle Lake (photo credit: USGS)
The summer I was 10 we spent a long vacation at Eagle Lake in northern California. We were there with two other families, the Rices, whose four boys were the same ages as my siblings and me, and the Bonderants, who were an older childless couple. Tents were pitched for the kids to sleep in, and the adult couples each had a trailer or camper to sleep in. Our camp sites, of course, were all together in a line along the south shore of the lake.

To get to the lake itself from our camp, we crossed an area of hard dirt that gave way to a marsh. Several long, narrow boards set end-to-end on pylons a foot above the water bridged the marsh. Beyond the marsh was the lake with its muddy and rocky bottom sloping down from the marsh area. We tied up our little boat there, and the Rices and the Bonderants also had their boats there.

Our boat had a small 5-horsepower motor. That year or maybe the next my dad bought a larger boat and a 35-horsepower motor, just enough power to pull a skinny teenage boy up on water skis if only one spotter rode in the boat with the driver. Our friends had more powerful boats and did most of the driving for the water skiers and the “aquaplane” riders. The aquaplane was a board with a rope handle at one end and small sides against which the rider could brace his or her feet--you stood on it holding the rope handle, and the boat pulled you up out of the water just like on water skis, but not quite so difficult to balance.

At the age of 10, all I could handle was the aquaplane, not water skis yet. I had terrible balance as a kid. I couldn’t ride a bicycle until I was nearly twelve years old because of my poor balance. I always had wanted to walk our fences like my brothers did, but I couldn’t. I’d practice and practice on a two-by-four board on the ground, and I just couldn’t stay on it. Anyway, I was so proud of myself the day I got up on the aquaplane and was towed around a large circle by that shore of Eagle Lake where we were camped.

Then disaster struck. I was walking that narrow board plank over the marsh when I lost my balance and had to jump down into the marsh so I didn’t fall over. It wasn’t all that deep, so I just walked alongside the board, heading toward the dry ground. But there was a bottle hidden in the marsh, and I stepped on it, and it broke into my foot. It sliced an arc right across the arch of my foot, cutting pretty deeply. I screamed and sat down on the bridge, holding my foot high, blood streaming out of it in a seeming waterfall.

One of my brothers was near and scooped me up in his arms and ran for the camp. The adults were all looking to see what was going on, and my relations dismissively said I’d probably stepped on a thorn or something and not to pay too much attention to my dramatic bid for attention. But the blood streaming out told a different story.

I was plunked into a chair, and Mrs. Bonderant, a nurse, knelt beside me to examine my foot. She told me to try to stop crying.

“Crying makes your blood run faster,” she said, which very effectively shut me up, except for the hiccups. It wasn’t hurting me. It was just that it was very scary to me to see all that blood coming out of my foot. I was in shock.

My mother sent one of my brothers to get one of my toys. I had a toy worm, which sounds the antithesis of a comforting thing, but it was actually a piece of sheepskin cut in a narrow oval about a foot long, dyed green, with black-and-white button eyes and a tiny pink tongue. If you put it on a piece of fabric-covered furniture and stroked its length, it appeared to undulate and was rather cute. I found a picture of a pink one on the internet at etsy. I couldn’t find one in the bright grass green color I remember mine was.

My foot was tightly bound in towels and my parents bundled me into the back of the station wagon with the seats all set down so I could lie flat with my mother beside me. My dad rode shotgun and Mr. Rice drove the winding 17-mile road to Susanville where the nearest hospital was. I think I chattered all the way, nervous but somehow excited too, to be the focus of all the adults’ attention for once, legitimately.

In the emergency room my mother told me to hold still and definitely not to wave my Wormy around, as it was a dirty, germy thing, she said. I waved it defiantly, but only once. I was shocked by the sight of the great big needle the doctor was going to stick into my foot. He told me to be very brave about it, so I screwed up my eyes and did not make another sound.

It seemed like he sewed and sewed and sewed forever, closing up the great gash. But after all he put in only eight stitches with elegant, thick, black silk. He did say that I had been very lucky, as one eighth of an inch deeper, I would never have walked on that foot again. I was too young to understand tendons.

There followed an extremely dreary week of not being allowed to walk anywhere. I spent it reading my parents’ paperback novels. I was introduced to Mickey Spillane and Erle Stanley Gardner that week by necessity; they hadn’t brought too much reading material. I liked Perry Mason; not so much Mike Hammer. There seemed to be a lot of sex in those novels, most of which I didn’t understand at all but felt vaguely was supposed to be naughty.

I wasn’t allowed to sleep in the tent with the other kids. I had to sleep in the trailer with my parents. Horrible. I thought I was being treated too much like a baby, but I was powerless to change anything. The worst thing was having to be packed around on one or another brother’s back when I had to use the outhouse. Very embarrassing, and most of my brothers didn’t like it either. My favorite brother sympathized and was nice about it though. He’d sit and play his harmonica for me and whistle his favorite song, which that summer was Mel Carter’s big hit, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me.”

My mother took me back into Susanville one morning to see the doctor at his office. I remember his office looked like a large old house on a residential street. He pronounced that the wound was healing just as it should, and that he could remove the stitches. I wanted to know if I could keep the stitches, and he grinned back at me, dropping them one by one into my cupped hand as he snipped them and pulled them out. He gave me a little pill bottle to keep them in so that I could show all my friends when I got back home.

I don’t remember anything more about Eagle Lake that summer, except a regret that I had not been able to go on the aquaplane again, nor try water skiiing.

But there would be another summer at the lake, and other lakes, and more opportunities.

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