We spent many a summer Saturday at Crystal Lake - a small lake somewhere near enough to Carthage, TX to make for a good day trip but enough of a drive to keep a 6 year old lounging on the back dashboard watching the telephone poles whiz by asking "are we ALMOST there?!" about a thousand times. Yes, indeed. It was a very special place back in the day to kids who thought of visiting Disneyland as an unattainable pipe dream and a day at Six Flags as the trip of a lifetime. It was way more likely that Frankie Avalon would ring your doorbell and kiss you on the lips than it was that you would hop on an air-o-plane and head to the wilds of California. Mom's announcements of upcoming trips to Crystal Lake were always met with enthusiastic shrieks of "Gee-yaaaw! We're going to Crystal Lake?!!! We're taking a picnic and a cooler of bottled Cokes?!!!! Yipeeeeee!"
After 40-plus years, this is how I remember Crystal Lake. It was a small lake about the size of two city blocks that sat next to a little two lane highway in the middle of the Piney Woods of East Texas. There was no parking lot. No boat dock. An attendant stood on the shoulder of the highway taking "by the carload" entry fees from the cars lined up just off the pavement. What made the lake special were the "aquatic amenities" - none of which would pass any sort of safety inspection in the year 2011 amongst young parents concerned about whether or not plastic sippy cups are full of toxic BPA. What made the lake tricky was the fact that it tended to be a bit stagnant and filled with gallons of child urine, so there was always the chance that we would all end up with nasty pink eyes after one glorious day of splashing about it its murky waters.
There were paddle boats and tall metal slides that sat in the shallow water. These were the good old slides that had no handrails until about two steps from the top. There were 3" lips on either side of the actual slide that acted as some sort of "safety barrier" - wink, wink - that kept our tiny wet bottoms from flying out into deep space and shallow water prematurely. On a blazing 4th of July afternoon, those slides and paddle boats were hotter than the griddle at Joe's Cafe making the lugging around of a metal sand bucket filled with lake water necessary for temporary quick cool downs.
There were big metal "water tops" floating on the water that were basically huge top-shaped drowning devices that lured small children into the depths of no return. In the middle of the tops were steering wheels that were about chest high on the average 6 year old. The trick was to hoist your body up out of the water onto the tipsy turvy top. This hoisting had to be perfectly synchronized with your spinning partner to keep the top from tossing you into the drink like the Titanic. From the laying-on-the-belly-holding-on-to-the-"steering column"-for-dear-life position, you and your partner would slowly, carefully slither to your knees before rising to a standing position ready to make the top spin with the steering wheel. The process usually required 4-5 "false starts." [See "Titanic toppling" above.]
It would have been really helpful to have a couple of responsible adults there holding the top upright and boosting our bottoms up to a standing position. Hmmm. Where were all of the adults? Let me think... Oh, I remember! They were in the shade sitting in a circle of green and white webbed lawn chairs around the red "Coca Cola" cooler filled with beer. The men smoked cigarettes and flicked their ashes onto the ground where the pitter patter of little bare feet followed by screams of pain were soon to be heard. Every now and then they would scan the horizon and yell out, "Where's your little sister?!" Our squeals of "Mo-ooom! Da-aaad! Look at us!!! We're spinning!!!" were met with a quick glance, "Uh-huh!" and a wave. If they were secretly concerned that we might knock out all of our teeth on the slides or water tops, it was a very well kept secret.
The biggest, scariest attraction at Crystal Lake was the 1960's style "zip line" that we called The Pulley. At one end of the lake stook a tall wooden tower. I don't remember if it was 20 or 200 feet tall. According to my little girl memory it was about as tall as the Empire State Building - give or take a few floors. We ran on tiptoe along the soft mud path to the tower as fast as our little tiptoes could fly to climb the steps to the top. There was no "you must be this tall" sign of warning to be found. I guess the assumption was that a kid would figure out soon enough if he or she was up to the challenge - the hard way.
At the top of the platform was a little wooden rail that encircled three sides leaving the lake side open for zipping down the rope. A guy with a cigarette teetering precariously on his bottom lip used a rope to haul the pulley with handlebars attached back up to the platform. When your turn came, he would blandly instruct, "OK, kid. It's your turn. Don't drop off of the pulley until you're way out over the deep water. If you drop too soon, you'll break your neck in the shallow water." Turning back in fear was out of the question. The peer pressure on the platform was palpable as the kids in line were hissing, "Huuuuuury! Just go!!! What are you, chicken?!!!" With a blook-curdling scream and a jump, you'd be hurtling through the air shocked by the weight of your own body which was totally dependent on your sweaty little child-sized hands clutching hotter than heck metal handlebars.
Once in flight, there were two choices to carefully consider: 1.) drop from the pulley when you were over water that seemed to be deep enough to avoid being paralzyed from the neck down for the rest of your life, or, 2.) hold on for dear life for the last 6 feet of the ride being dredged through lake water that grasped your bathing suit bottoms pulling them down to your ankles. Paralysis? Public nudity? Paralysis? Public nudity? In the 10 seconds it took to zoom down to the water, the choice loomed heavily. I generally opted for nudity over being the only quadriplegic second grader at Libby Elementary School come September.
I could tell you about the time that a huge splinter imbedded itself into my tender little girl foot sending me hopping on the other foot howling for my mother. And, how Daddy released the splinter back into the wild with his none-too-clean pocket knife. But I shall end my story here for the time being with a glide down the pulley, a giddy scream, and a big splash of Crystal Lake water.