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Summer at the Lake

In New England, summer traditionally begins with Memorial Day weekend, nearly a month before the date of the solstice. 
Having grown up in Central Massachusetts, Memorial Day weekend was the time of parades, graveyard beautification, and barbecues. It was also the time of the year, no matter who you were, to go to the lake, any lake. 
My family went to Sunset Lake.

Aptly named...

Sunset Lake, and the town surrounding it, are two beautiful spots secluded in space and time from the rest of the world. Once you were there you couldn't bring yourself to really do anything but walk about town, swim in the lake, boat, fly a kite, lazy things that you're entitled to do at least one weekend a year. 

Benson, Vermont, a town of just over 1000 people, was the birthplace of my uncle.  His mother and sister still lived there. His sister, Bea, had a house on Sunset Lake; we called her Aunt Bea, though she wasn't really my aunt, she was my cousins' aunt though, and that was close enough.

My uncles mother, a kindly woman named Genevieve, lived in a sprawling house at the center of town. The house reminded me of an Antebellum mansion, not a New England farmhouse.

Sprawling elegance from another time.

As soon as my brother and I got home from school on Friday we would get into the car (we had packed it the day before in preparation) and begin the 3 hour journey north to Benson. We would get there at about 7 PM and, though too late to do anything in town or go swimming, it was the perfect time to sit and talk with Genevieve in her front room.
She loved showing my brother and I all of her World War II memorabilia, telling us about her time in Japan, with her late husband, the Colonel. She held particular esteem for General Douglas MacArthur, owning plates, busts, paperweights, photographs and numerous other pieces with MacArthur's face or trademark hat and pipe on it. 

As the conversation would die, my father, brother, and I would set up a tent in Genevieve's backyard. My mother, aunt, uncle, and cousins went on to stay at the Lake House, but we weren't into anything like that, we wanted adventure!

It's still considered camping even if a house is only 30 feet away.

For me, the adventure took a frightening turn as our sleep was interrupted by the piercing screams of a distant ghost. I may have come from the suburbs, but I had never heard such sounds. Why hadn't Genevieve warned us of the distant wailing banshee?

It was a fisher cat.

Saturday Morning
When the sun rose on Saturday morning, my father, brother, and I ate a light breakfast with Genevieve in her kitchen. She continued to tell us the history of the house and the town until it was time for the Memorial Day Parade. 

True to its roots as a Revolutionary War town, Benson's Memorial Day parade rivaled any New England town or city, despite the small population. Boy Scouts, veterans, tractors, antique trucks, horses, hay wagons, and sometimes a clown, would all march down Stage Road, the main street of Benson. They were accompanied by a lovely marching band.  They started at the northern most point of what could be called the center of Benson, and marched past Genevieve's house, down to the Benson History Museum and Memorial Stone, a stout obelisk etched with the names of Benson's veterans, living and dead. 

Usually I was an observer of the parade, but that year I was a part of it!

Aunt Bea, who was the ambulance driver for the volunteer Benson Fire Department, had been asked to drive the ambulance down the road for the parade. She asked me to sit in the front seat and hold Bob, her ventriloquist dummy, waving to the crowds.  

As the ambulance passed the old Yankee houses and the churchyard along Stage Road, I waved Bob's hand and turned his head to the crowd. When we reached the base of the hill we parked at the old school house and walked to the Memorial Stone.

At the Memorial Stone the Honor Guard fired a salute while the band played the Star Spangled Banner and the themes of the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps. A poem was read, or a kind of benediction, but I was too far back in the crowd to hear it. As soon as it began, it was over; the people dispersed, and my family and I went into the museum. 
The Early Afternoon

Genevieve, though well into her 80's was the curator of the Benson Museum, a small society devoted to Benson's cultural and natural history. The two room museum was filled with many pieces of war memorabilia, from the Revolution (including the first Purple Heart awarded to a Bensonite) up to the Gulf War. 

My brother and I, though, were more interested in the museum's collection of stuffed animals.

Genevieve would joke that the squirrel once had a cigar in his tiny mouth, but gave up smoking at the insistence of the children who visited the museum

These taxidermied animals had belonged to Genevieve's father, who once owned the Benson Village Store.
With that in mind, we would leave the museum and move across the street to buy our dinner for the evening.

Benson had a single grocery store, which also served as the post office, gas station, video rental store, bank, and pharmacy. It was one of those last true "General Stores" that wasn't set up as a cynical money making tourist trap but a real place fitted to serve the needs of a town of 1000 people.

How many places can you mail a letter and buy your cigarettes?

My brother, my father, and I would leave the museum and head right across the corner to the General Store, where we were to buy our provisions for the evening:

Hot dogs, hamburgers, and an old favorite of the camping types: jiffy pop. 

To a young boy, Jiffy Pop is more than popcorn, it's an adventure, you are responsible for the popping, you see it happen. This was before my family had a microwave so the concept of "fast popcorn" was quite novel.

Don't let the image fool you, we cooked it over a real fire, like men!
...Also our Jiffy Pop was never as even as the above image lets on...

Late Afternoon
Without much more to do in Benson-proper, my family would head back to the Lake for the true part of our visit, the rest and relaxation. The meat we had purchased at the Village Store would be grilled by Uncle Paul on the porch as the kids swam to avoid the afternoon heat.

At Sunset Lake, swimming was not a past time, it was a lifestyle.
For most people, that is.

I had been afraid of lake water since about 1996 when I "nearly drowned" slipping off a hidden ledge. My brother got me before anything serious had occurred, but it caused my heart to race every time I looked down at the murky bottom of the lake. "What was down there?" I would ask myself "...the Loch Ness Monster of Vermont?"

I instead wore one of those classic orange life vests, and stayed at the shore, watching the fun from afar.

Pictured: Family fun at the Lake!
     Not Pictured: Cowering 8 year old...

Watching my brother and cousins on the raft, I envied them, I wanted to have fun too!
I took a step into the water, then another; soon I was up to my waist. The water was cool, but the air was warm and humid, so I ventured deeper into Sunset Lake. 
My legs were getting numb, but it was neither fear nor the cold that did it, I was tensing up in a kind of blind courage. I got up to my shoulders; the vest did its job well, it kept me afloat. I kicked my legs and started towards the raft, towards fun.
By the time I got to the raft the numbness was gone; replaced by a feeling of elation. I climbed aboard the raft and sat there. I gazed over the water, contemplating my next move.

My family was cheering me on, or some kind of encouragement came across the water to me.

I unbuckled my life vest and placed it aside of me, then I got on to the ladder, and stepped slowly into the water. 
I had done it, I was swimming, for the first time in years, I was swimming. And for the rest of the weekend, for the rest of the summer, it would take more effort to get me out of the water than it took for me to get in.

Goodbye, life-vest...

We ate our hot dogs and hamburgers at a large table out on the deck, watching as the sun inched closer to the other side of the lake, fully illustrating why the lake had its name.
The loons would be out soon; the ducks were slowly crossing the lake, quacking with joy.

That was how summer began.

Thank you for reading.

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vkimo Posted on Jun 16, 2014 at 12:39 PM

Nice read. That sounds like an ideal Summer. Would love to visit up there one time.

Vaporman87 Posted on Jun 16, 2014 at 02:55 AM

Man. This is what I love about this site and others like it. That chance to peak into the pasts of others and experience the spirit and passion of those good times.

This Suddenly Summer contest has truly brought out some of the most well written, passionate, and stirring reads yet.

Benson feels like a place I could call home. With a small population (Rutland has around 400), a General Store (just as you described, the still functioning store that just scrapes by meeting the needs of the locals (and has since the 1870's), and the beauty of the water (I live just minutes from the Ohio River). Benson could be Rutland, and vice versa.

Thank you so much for sharing this.

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