Thursday, May 5, 2011

Crystal Lake in the Piney Woods of East Texas

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.


25 comments:

Mandie said...

I was looking for this lake online and your post came up..As a child I never knew it was such a small lake,it was so huge to me. This is where my daddy taught me to swim,well he didn't that zip line did though. I was just saying to the kids that I would love to go back there for the weekend,so sad how things change over the years. Thanks for this Blog! Mandie

Anonymous said...
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Carolyn Lackey said...

Mandy! I'm just now seeing your comment! Can you believe we survived Crystal Lake!? We should have T-shirts "I Survived..." made up! Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

I am reading this and our family spent many wonderful times at this lake. Many of our old home movies are taken here. I have similar memories including the wooden plank walk way that seperated the shallow water and deep water, the slide in the shallow water. I can remember going into the deep water and holding on to my Dad's neck for dear life. I enjoyed reading your story very much.

Carolyn Lackey said...

Hey, Anonymous! Wish I could see your old home movies!!! What fun!
cel

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this! My husband and I both spent time there as kids. He couldn't remember the name of the lake while talking to his buddies so he called me. It took me less than 3 minutes to find this page. Reading this brought back a lot of good memories! Pam

Carolyn Lackey said...

Pam! Thanks for stopping by! I wish that Crystal Lake would have a reunion someday! I would totally go to it!

Anonymous said...

We use to go to Crystal Lake in cars without seat belts, so the metal toys and Pulley ride were nothing. Don't forget the shower room and the basket to put your clothes in. And then there were those tags on safety pins to pin to your bathing suit to show you paid. And then I remember the big wooden rafts to climb up on, why did we not get splinters? I remember a rope separating the deep from the shallow where there were kiddie toys. We sure did love going there. About 15 years ago, I use to drive by there on the way to Shreveport from Houston, and it is still there, just a little overgrown. But it sure is neat to see it and remember. Thank you for your blog. Enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Someone has posted a picture of Crystal Lake on Facebook now that you can see. It's really cool to see that.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about Crystal Lake and googled it and found your blog. Boy do I remember it just like you did. The scariest thing was reaching out for that handle on the pulley. It was a bit stretch to reach.
Once you had it you felt better until your bathing suit bottoms got pulled off when you reached the bottom!

Anonymous said...

We all survived! What fun, just kids being kids, no government oversight!lol

Anonymous said...

I grew up in little Joaquin, Texas, where this very dear childhood memory lingers. I still live here to this day, and still get a bit nostalgic when I drive by. Hearing the laughter of the children, remembering the girl who actually DID let go too soon and came up with pine cones embedded in her bathing suit! (She was ok otherwise)
Sadly, the owner died at some point, and his heirs couldn't pay all the money to get the lake up to standard (The previous owner had been taking advantage of a grandfather clause for years).
So, there it sits. All the slides, platforms, and zip lines are still there. It'll probably never reopen, as the cost of getting it to standard as well as the maintenance would just be too much.
But what a great childhood memory! Thanks for this blog!

baseballgary said...

My great-grandparents lived right beside Crystal Lake. Oh what fun!

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Joaquin and spent many hours at Crystal Lake. When you paid your 50cents fee, they would give you a bracelet with a tag to wear showing you had paid and not sneaked in. There was a dressing room to change into your bathing suit. A buddy and I would watch for the out of town school busses to go by our high school on the way to the lake with kids from out of town. We would play hooky the rest of the day and go to the lake to meet the out of town girls. The high school principal would come looking for us, but we would hide under the "rafts", wooden platforms floating on steel drums in the deep water for people to lie on and sunbathe, until he gave up and left. There was also a meeting hall where the kids could go at night and play music and dance.

Anonymous said...

Oh what memories - I was a friend of the owners daughter -a wonderful coach at our local Junior High. When my children were very young she allowed us one last swim in the lake. They got to experience the tops and slides - just us and the turtles and fish. Susan still lives by the lakeside, although only nature is swimming now. The springs that fed the lake were so cold that you could go get a watermelon and drop in and in an hour get it out all cold. We all were a little bit better after a crystal lake visit.

Carolyn Deas Roberts said...

Some of my fondest memories are of Crystal Lake.For years it was an annual event that on the last day of school my Mother would load up my Daddy's old truck with our friends to head to Crystal Lake. We were told we could ask two friends. Of course how do you leave any one out. By the time we left we usually had over twenty kids crammed into the back of that old truck.Sometimes my Mother would see hands coming over the window & she would have to stick her head out the window and tell everyone to sit down. Of course we never did. It was about an hour drive, no seat belts, no concern of any dangers. Never lost anyone and no accidents!! The biggest problem was for my poor Mother. She had to keep up with each child's money. She got these little brown paper bags & put everyone's name on it and that is how she kept it separated. Great memories of my friends and my Mother. We often talked about it. Still go by there often.When you pass now you don't see how grown up the weeds are, you only see MAGIC. There is still enough left that you can hear the sqells and laughter of youthful innonce.My kids were able to experience this magical kingdom, my grandsons now listen to the stories and want to stop when we pass. Kids today really don't realize what it means to have such simple things in life to make you so happy. All the different comments will attest to the fact that it was really special place. Who would have thought a old muddy lake could hold such memories.

Dovie Carrell said...

Summer was not complete without a church youth trip to Crystal Lake. I never got the nerve up to go off the highest zip line. You were guaranteed the time of your life and the worst sunburn of the summer all on the same day. Crystal Lake was the Schlitterbahn of East Texas. My last trip was in 1988 and I believe the lake closed soon after. I still live in East Texas and drive by there occasionally. What amazing memories.

Krista said...

I remember visiting Crystal Lake - such fond memories! It's too bad the children of today will not get to experience the fun we all had at this great little lake!

Anonymous said...

I think everyone in East Texas has wonderful memories of Crystal Lake. I know I do.. Driving by there with my kids I when they were little I would tell them about all the fun me and my family and friends had.. They were like WOW wish it would open back up .. Great times and memories..

Anonymous said...

As a child my huge family and I went to this fun filled lake at least 2 times during the summer! I have as well as most of my family members have some great memories at Crystal Lake!!! Why don't everyone that ever attended crystal lake do a fun raiser to he with expenses of reopening this fantastic little get away! Then mabe the owners could maintain it after the huge part is taken care of!! Just a thought! I would love for my kids and my grand kids to be able to enjoy this wonderful place!!! It don't take that much to put together a fundraiser. I will even put my number put there if anyone is interested!! And if the owners agree! 318 220 6280 Melisa

Anonymous said...

I was born in the late 70's, and after seeing an article in Texas Highways about Crystal Lake, my parents took us there (likely around 1985). I remember the zip line, and it having 2 levels. At that time, I don't think much else was there. I would love to either find that article, or know exactly where to find Crystal Lake on Google Maps, or the like. - Jake

Anonymous said...

I'm a Crystal Lake Survivor too! We would go every summer when visiting my grandmother in LA. On Our last visit, circa 1978, my older brother, who was home on leave from the Air Force, took my sister and I. My sister had a nasty fall from the zip line, hitting the water head first and knocking the sense out of her. Literally. She came out of the water confused and amnesiac. It was terrifying! My 18 year old brother loaded us into the car and we went searching for a hospital. After driving around east Texas for what seamed like hours we found a hospital. Sister suffered a concussion and recovered fully (or did she!? Ha!)
Regardless of this traumatic last visit, in full disclosure, I found this blog while searching internet to see if it still existed. Would love to take my kids! Ah, Crtal Lake!

Elizabeth said...

What memories this brings back. Thank you so much for sharing this. I,too, and a survivor of falling from top level of The Trolley. My older sister and I were going to ride it together. She said, "Are you ready" and off we went before I had a secure hand hold on my set of handles. Down I went, way before the "3rd barrel" safety recommendation. As I fell, I just knew I was going to die or be paralyzed but thankfully, all I encountered was 10 broken fingernails, the breath being knocked out of me, and the scare of my life. It was a very long time before I braved The Trolley again but eventually faced my fear and conquered it!!! How I miss those good ole days!!!

Carey Noble Pugh said...

I spent many a summer and had a lot of great times at Crystal Lake. I remember pulling my own rope up on the Zip line! I do not remember how much it was for entry, but it had to be rather cheap for us to go as much as we went. It was good wholesome fun without a corporation trying to gouge you for every penny. You reminded me of this by pointing out there was no parking fee for your car! Carolyn, thank you for such a poignant remembrance of a place that is near to my heart.

Cricket4Christ said...

I loved reading these posts. I had the honor of living in the same town as Crystal Lake, so we went almost every weekend in the summer (Lake Murvale) during the week. It was my aspiration to be a strong enough swimmer that my mom would let on the tower.. alas - we moved to Georgia before that happened and I'll never know :( . Reading your article though, the back of my legs twitched at the thoughts of the hot slides.. I think I left half my skins cells there each summer. It brought back such great great memories - thank you for posting.

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