Sunday, March 9, 2008
In 1954, not too long after the end of WWII, with England heavily rationed, hospitals laboring to look after the wounded and much of the country still scarred by bomb craters and debris, my parents decided to move to Canada with their asthmatic daughter.. me. We went directly to cottage country by a little lake 25 miles north of Toronto and that's where I grew up.
Lake Wilcox was close enough to the city that it was a very popular spot on summer weekends. Although you could drive to the bigger lakes further north, doing so wasn't practical back then since the only way to get to them was by two lane roads many of which weren't paved. Going that far was possible but it had to be for a week or two just to make the drive practical. So never mind Sauble Beach on Lake Huron with its miles of white sand, Sunday picnics often meant Ash's Beach at Lake Wilcox and it sometimes seemed as if half the population of Toronto drove in. The cars were filled with irritated sweaty grownups and tons of kids just plain looking for a place to stop. Most of the beaches were private and there were no parking lots so once the park itself was was full the only hope of a spot was a slim chance that someone with a pregnant woman would have to drive to the hospital right that minute. Come to think of it there were likely a few babies born in those circling cars. All was chaos on the weekends.
But there was a roadhouse with beer (except on Sunday when people brown bagged the stuff), pool tables, pinball machines and a good size contingent of bikers usually on hand. Across the road was Ash's booth that sold soft drinks, ice cream, burgers, fries and hotdogs. Next to it was the entrance down the stairs to the beach and next to that was the dance hall - jukebox, jitterbug heaven. I didn't get out of the house after dark to check the nighttime action for years but we knew it could be dangerous.
Even though the weekends were crazy and the nights could be it was the days that belonged to us kids and the mothers who occasionally paid attention to what we were getting up to. We spent the summers in and around the water. There were artesian springs that fed the lake and we loved finding where they'd sprung up from one summer to another. You could put your arm or leg into what appeared to be a wet hole in the beachgrass and feel the icy cold as deep as you could reach while the sun baked the rest of you. We'd cover each other with wet clay and then go dashing into the lake to clean off. Since I wasn't allowed to swim until July I often had to find other ways to entertain myself and one of my personal favorite places was a very old and decrepit roller skating rink further along the beach. There were hundreds of pairs of old roller skates lining the walls and the trick was to find a pair the right size with unbroken straps you could fasten to your shoes. I liked to spend hours pretending I was a famous skating queen or a magic flying fairy.
Now our own beach was a lot of fun but the cool place to go during the week was Ash's Beach. Every winter big dump trucks filled with sand would drive out onto the lake and dump their loads on the ice of Ash's so there'd be mostly sand under the water and not weeds.. a very big yuck to all of us. There were also things to play on at Ash's - water slides, diving boards, rafts that floated on big empty barrels and the boats. All of them were great places to play pirate and, since every year Mary Martin appeared live on television to do her Peter Pan role, we were all very big fans of pirates.
Jean Ash, who was also mother to two of the kids, ran the ticket area for the beach. The .25 cent admission was about as much as any of us got as a whole weeks allowance so paying admission wasn't exactly on the agenda. But Jean was very cool, our own local version of Bettie Page who really had seen everything, and she pretended not to notice when we came swimming around the fences that went out into the water. She'd even tell us stories about some of the wackier people who came to swim - like the butch women who demanded to rent men's bathing trunks. None of us knew what to make of that but it was pretty funny.
One of our favorite activities was climbing down the rope that anchored the rafts. The idea was to stay down there holding your breath as long as possible. Strangely enough, me with my asthmatic chest, won those contests more than anyone else.
Then there was the booth. My friend Linda's mother was one of the women charged with watching me since both my parents had jobs in Toronto and Linda's mother worked at the booth doing the food preparation and serving the customers. One weekday afternoon Linda and I heard shrieks of laughter from behind the closed shutters so sneaked inside to have a look at what all the fun was about. A lot of ladies at that time were what you might term statuesque, not necessarily fat but big, buxom women who'd given birth to several children. An old brass balance scale was part of the kitchen equipment inside and when we peeked around the ice cream coolers we couldn't believe what we saw them doing. There were five women with their blouses unbuttoned and their bras lifted up or unfastened and they were having a contest of their own to see who among them had the biggest, heaviest breasts. Linda and I sneaked back out without them knowing we'd been there.