[For better or worse, what follows is the first post in a new series of posts here. For a little background on the thinking behind this, please read this.]
Growing up, I had a best friend whose family owned a little house looking over Lake George, a smidge north of Hague, New York. While the house had originally been built as the garage to a fancier house up the hill, it was very comfortable, and since it was immediately next to the water, we thought it preferable to the house up the hill, which was well set back above and behind Route 9N. My friend was kind enough to invite me to spend a week or so up there for several summers, and we had a great time. It’s exactly the sort of time you think life will have lots of when you are young, and then in no time, life swallows you up and the idea of an unprogrammed week with no kids and no worries about events at the office seems like a distant memory. While I am sure we thought we were savoring our time there while we were there, there was no way for us to fathom what a rare idyll those weeks were, and it makes the memories of those trips all the more powerful in retrospect.
• • • • • • •
We did not do very much, of course. A day to drive up there, an evening’s trip to the Grand Union to stock up on food for the week, morning swims, book reading, afternoon canoe outings, more book reading and compulsory afternoon naps on the porch or dock (depending on the heat and sun), an annual trip up to Fort Ticonderoga, simple but delicious dinners featuring wonderful local farm stand corn, Freihofer’s chocolate chip cookies by the box, a lot of storytelling about our respective college friends, and of course huge amounts of music listening throughout all. We started these trips before we were legal to drink, and we went through several cases of Coca Cola in the little glass bottles stacked in wooden cases. Even after we were 21, we really drank very little, and it adds to the innocence of these trips how much like big kids we were. While we would often talk about the appeal of bringing along dates, truth be told there was a certain simplicity to the week with no baser motives to distract us from our retreat. (My friend did squire a date along for part of the week the last year we went up there, and that poor, bored girl spent the whole time creating plans and agendas – it was awful). Another thing we did not know at the time, but is very clear looking back, is how much this time benefited from occurring before the internet. No texting, no cellphones, no emails, no Facebook newsfeeds, no news from the outside world other than the radio allowed us to set ourselves apart from the world to a degree I can hardly conceive of now.
While many nights saw us sitting on the porch until late, on some evenings when the stars were particularly vivid in the summer skies above us, we would take the canoe out in the dark and paddle a short while to put a few small islands between us and the shore so that we were really in the pitch dark. There would be occasional motor boats out on the lake, but we were still well off to the side, so despite being unmarked, unlit, and very low in the water, we never came close to having any run ins with other boaters. So we would stow our paddles, lean back in our seats with our feet up on the thwarts, and gaze up at the stars as the water would slap gently against the hull and rock us. With the constellations wheeling above us, we stood vigil for the occasional meteor or satellite. Sometimes we’d continue our conversations from earlier, sometimes the spectacle would inspire those deep reveries that are the domain of the young, and sometimes the universe simply rendered us silent. It seems a miracle to me now that we never fell asleep, but apparently we were energetic youth and that never happened.
• • • • • • •
One night, while we were out on the water, we decided it was time to head back in. We were paddling silently along, meandering towards home but in no hurry. The water was calm, the air still, and the day’s warmth still filled the darkness, even though twilight was long past. As we would pass between the islands in the chain leading home, our eyes would adjust to the light from various houses along the shore, and we did note one particularly piercing light, but it made no real impression on us. As we paddled along behind the next island, I started to notice an indistinct something. An odd diffuse light was scattered across the water to our right, and I had never seen anything like it. Just as I broke the silence to mention it to Andrew, he asked “Do you see that?” This patch of dim light played across the water, but at first I could not quite figure out why it looked so strange, even though it was so out-of-place in the midnight blackness. We glanced around to see if we could see the source, but all was dark around us. In the next moment, it finally occurred to both of us that the light was so odd because it was not reflecting off of the water, but seemed to be coming from the water. Having looked all around, I sheepishly admit I did look up into the dark night sky, although I have no idea what I thought I might see. All that was above us were stars. Then there was a disruption in the surface of the water, and Andrew and I both said, in perfect horrified stereo, “It’s coming from below!”
Our canoe was an old one, made of solid wood and canvas and countless coats of heavy paint. It was sturdy and slow. But that canoe never cut the water faster than the next few moments as Andrew and I each dug our paddles in the lake with all the urgency we could muster. The light was indeed from below, and it was getting brighter and less diffuse, and while I cannot say what we were paddling from in our minds, oh how we paddled! In our wake, we heard some startled cussing, and only then did it dawn on me (I think Andrew pieced it together a moment sooner), that the cussers were divers, the bright light was their jury rigged beacon, and that we had seen their dive lights as they were returning to the surface. Unmarked nighttime diving sure sounded unwise and likely illicit to me, but I was deeply relieved to identify the source of the illumination as a man-made phenomenon.
We slowed our frantic paddling, reached the slip and beached the canoe, and walked up the lawn with our hearts still pounding. The adrenalin rush of our fright stayed with us for a spell, and then – with our feet on firm ground – the whole thing lost its menace and collapsed into being simply comical. Nonetheless, the moment out on the water before the light resolved itself holds an enduring and visceral spot in my memory.