For author Ron Currie, childhood summers on McGrath Pond are the stuff of memories— wistful, fickle, and poignant.
Memory, as everyone knows, is a slippery, inexact business — particularly memories from childhood. There’s how a thing happened, and there’s how we experienced it, and never the twain shall meet. Further, there is how we continue to experience it. This is what we’re actually talking about when we use the word memory — not about what happened, but about the strange, fogged-in neural landscape where incident and emotional impression and time, combined and given a good stir, produce what we recall as our lives.
The chasm between how things happen and how we remember them is on my mind because recently, after sitting down to write about the lakeside camp where my family rented a cabin in my youth, I asked my mother to confirm something and learned that what I remember and what happened are two very different things. I believed we had continued going to camp as a family well into my high school years, when in fact, according to my mother, the last time we rented a cabin on McGrath Pond in Oakland was the summer of 1986, when I was 12.
This got me thinking: If I was so wrong about that basic fact, then what else, out of my hundreds of distinct memories of camp, couldn’t I trust? Would I be stuck trying to fact-check my first kiss? Or that night we kids lay out on the big lawn, watching a meteor shower? Did I convalesce on that screen porch after hernia surgery in 1983? Or was it 1985?
But camp isn’t a courtroom or a financial ledger. Camp is not beholden to facts. Camp is delightfully surreal, a place where time stretches out like taffy, hours becoming days, days expanding into months. Camp is where the stuff you’ll recall on your deathbed unfolds in the blink between when school lets out in mid-June and when the buses start rolling again the last week of August.
And so, be aware: This is not what happened. This is what I remember.
I remember six cabins for which the word “ramshackle” must have been created, set in an undulating row that ran slightly uphill, right to left when viewed from the water. They were built from scrap decades earlier by a man named Mr. Quirion, who by all accounts was gentle and kind and fair but who scared the bejesus out of me. Mr. Quirion had a perpetual Popeye squint and a wet stub of cigar forever clenched in his teeth; I imagined he slept with it in there. He spoke hardly at all and, to my child’s eyes, his squint seemed like a scowl, so I tried to avoid him at all costs. But I was also fascinated by him, experiencing a particular horrified awe whenever I caught a glimpse of his right hand, which bore two waxy stumps where his index and middle fingers were supposed to be.
The only man who frightened and fascinated me more than Mr. Quirion was my own father, who had been coming to Quirion Housekeeping Camps since he was a kid. It was the one time of year I saw much of him — otherwise, he was always on his way to work, just coming home from work, or sleeping between shifts. At camp, though, for two or three weeks, he got to linger in bed, kick back, and be a dad.
I remember Mr. Quirion had a bunch of 15-foot aluminum rowboats, each assigned to a cabin. If you were staying in Cabin #4, the #4 rowboat was yours to do with as you pleased. My father would load me and my two brothers into a boat and row us out to the center of the pond. Half-suffocating in our orange life vests, we’d bait our hooks with nightcrawlers, drop the lines until they hit bottom and went slack, then reel them back up 2 or 3 feet and wait for a school of white perch to come through. I had great enthusiasm for catching fish but little patience; if our poles didn’t start popping within five minutes, I’d start to gripe, and my father, ever indulgent, would pull up anchor and row some more, trying to find where the humpbacks were lurking that day.
When the perch started biting, they came fast. You barely had time to haul one in, rebait your hook, and get the line down again before you’d feel another insistent, thrilling tug. Sometimes, I’d be brave enough to get the fish off myself. Other times, I’d ask my father to do it for me because I was afraid I’d stab myself with the hook. He always did so, and silently. He never implied, with words or body language, that he thought I was being a sissy.
More than once, we were 20 minutes from shore, sitting in a boat made entirely from metal, when a thunderstorm would roll in over the trees. Lightning struck the water here and there; thunder rolled overhead. I was petrified we’d be electrocuted, as, I imagine, were my brothers. My father never seemed worried, although he rowed a little harder heading in on those afternoons.
I remember the anchor, sometimes a proper piece of iron, sometimes just a cinderblock tied to a rope, smearing the hull of the boat with primordial slop from the bed of the pond.
I remember, after successful excursions, my father cleaning perch at the picnic table outside the cabin, how the scales would stick to everything as if glued on, how he dredged the filets in milk and flour before pan-frying them — a delicious, humid stink. My father and I had caught dinner together, cooked it together. What could be better? Afterwards, he would make root-beer floats, and even though I didn’t care for the way they tasted, I cherished them all the same, coming, as they did, from his hand.
I remember waking on the screened porch in the predawn, going barefoot through the wet grass to the pond, and sitting alone on the dock as the sun crested the trees on the far side. The water, shimmering and smooth, looked as though I could walk on it, like I’d heard Jesus did once.
I remember that my job in the mornings was to walk to a rusted old iron pump adjacent the woods and fill plastic pitchers with drinking water. I remember I had to work the pump handle a good 10 seconds before water issued forth, and I remember it seemed a minor miracle every time, being able to draw such cold, clean water up out of the dirt.
The kids kept our own counsel, the adults theirs. We spent endless days swimming with siblings and cousins, catching crawfish in the rocks for bait (and, once, to boil and eat ourselves), and using a snorkeling mask to gather attractive rocks from the bottom of the swimming area, which I collected in a bucket for three days, until someone dumped them back in the water for reasons still unclear to me. The adults sat on lawn furniture, half-watching to make sure no one drowned or disappeared, smoking cigarettes, and talking about adult things, bottles of Bud Light and Bartles & Jaymes going warm in the sun.
There were, of course, things the kids and adults did together. Mr. and Mrs. Quirion owned a boat with impossibly loud twin Evinrude outboards, and everyone would take turns skiing behind it, or trying to. Everyone, that is, except me. I was too afraid: of failing, of being hurt, of the way those motors roared to life when the throttle was engaged. I never once even attempted to ski, but I enjoyed watching others do it. Especially my father, who’d learned to ski in the Navy and had a few tricks in his repertoire: dropping a ski to glide around on just the one, throwing up great rooster tails of water, jumping the wake, spinning. He was better than anyone else, except perhaps Mr. Quirion’s son Kenny. When they skied on the same afternoon, I thought of it as a competition. Maybe they did too.
I remember one of the twin Evinrudes losing a prop, which apparently are expensive, because instead of just writing it off and buying a new prop, Kenny and my father, both trained divers, spent the rest of the day searching the pond for the lost one. They found it too.
I remember my father and uncle deciding one night to make a vat of popcorn and treat the kids to a showing of Friday the 13th, Part III. I remember a fishing spear going straight into some unlucky teenager’s eye. I remember not sleeping at all that night.
At the time, to the south of the campground, the woods stretched unbroken for at least a mile. Down a narrow shoreline path were two sites of interest: a rope swing and an old clapboard house, abandoned and crumbling and forever in shadows and thus, obviously, haunted. I remember the rope swing being close enough to Quirion’s that, on a still day, when someone launched themselves off it, you could hear the splash from your cabin. The swing’s arc carried you out over a cluster of rocks at the water’s edge; the key was to let go only at its apex, as you were about to start swinging back towards shore, so your momentum carried you out and away from the rocks. Some days, I felt brave enough to pull this off; other days, I just went and watched. I remember a crushed Budweiser can lodged in the rocks just under the water’s surface, the red on it bleached pink by years of exposure, as reliably there, year after year, as the trees and the water and the rope swing itself.
I remember the abandoned house in the woods had no driveway, dirt or otherwise, just trees in every direction. This undoubtedly contributed to the sense of it being strange and inexplicable and haunted. The roof had caved in, and there was no furniture inside except a single rocking chair on the second floor. Story was, the ghost of the old woman who’d lived there would sit in that chair and rock back and forth all night. I never went in after dark to investigate whether this was true. I was, after all, a kid afraid to waterski.
I remember going out through the porch door of Cabin #4 and, seconds later, feeling a sharp, mind-erasing pain on my scalp. I remember crying out and running around the lawn, waving my hands over my head. I’d been stung by a white-faced hornet, the nest of which I’d disturbed by opening the porch door and letting it slam, as I’d been told hundreds of times not to do. I remember everyone having a good laugh at that one. Ask them now, and they’ll still imitate my frantic little dance.
I remember my mother screaming one night, over and over, the shock of lights turned on suddenly, and an unlucky bat flitting about in a panic, like a leaf blown on the breeze. I remember my father catching the bat in a fishing net, taking it outside, and smashing it against the side of the cabin. I remember being shocked at the casual way he inflicted violence on something so small. I didn’t sleep the rest of that night either.
I remember snagging my older brother Rick in the back with a lure — treble hooks, which as any bass can tell you, do not come out easily or painlessly. I remember this as one of the only times my father got visibly angry at me, and that he seemed to do so almost in spite of himself. I think he believed I’d been careless, a considerable sin in his view. Maybe I had been. Either way, brothers being brothers, I probably felt at least a little like Rick deserved it.
I remember my cousin Kevin and I, no geniuses, taking the paddleboat clear across the pond on a storm-tossed day, and the whitecaps swamping the boat, and being half-convinced we were going to die before someone on the near shore noticed our distress and came out in his boat to rescue us. I remember this man tying the paddleboat to his stern and dragging it, still half-submerged, all the way back to camp, where Kevin and I were obliged to explain our stupidity.
I remember when the lot next door was purchased and cleared of trees and someone built a very large, very modern, very unremarkable year-round home within sight of the ramshackle camps. I remember recognizing even then that this was somehow an inflection point, the end of an era to which there would be no returning. Money had come to the pond. It was not, by a long stretch, the last large, modern, unremarkable home to be built on the shores of McGrath.
I remember when Mr. Quirion sold the camps to my aunt and uncle, how providential this seemed at first, then how, in order to make their investment viable, my aunt and uncle had to raise rental prices, until we suddenly couldn’t afford to spend time there anymore.
I remember how my aunt and uncle formed an owners association and how, over years, one by one, the old cabins were sold, torn down, and replaced. The buildings that replaced them ran the gamut, but none were made from scrap, none smelled like old raw timber, and none had floors that squeaked and bowed when you walked on them.
I remember my father having a heart attack, and how, the next spring, when it came time for us to put the docks into the pond for my aunt and uncle, I took the job of being in the water while my father ratcheted and pounded poles and stayed dry. I was afraid the cold water would give him another heart attack, so instead, I ended up hypothermic, sitting at the dining room table in the very modern house my aunt and uncle had built in place of Cabin #2, wrapped in blankets, my hands trembling so violently I couldn’t bring a mug of tea to my lips.
I remember, a few years later, taking my father to the pond to go fishing, after he’d gotten sick with cancer. It was an early-September afternoon, sunny and warm, oil-painting clouds motionless in a distant sky. Our roles had reversed, as they inevitably do: I picked the date and time, I did the driving, I manned the little outboard and steered the boat. By then, my father was very weak. The fish weren’t biting, but that didn’t matter. I just wanted to get him out on the water for what seemed likely to be the last time. As the sun started its descent over what had been Quirion Housekeeping Camps, my father lay down in the bow, his legs hanging over the side, and slept. I remember the orange light warming his body, and I remember being very, very glad I had brought him to this place once more.
I remember, later, taking my father’s ashes to camp, riding in my uncle’s pontoon boat to roughly the part of the pond where the perch used to run most often, and dropping anchor. My mother, brothers and sister, and I each took a handful of ashes and did our part. I remember thinking I should say something, then deciding against it, and I remember throwing out a handful of what had been my father in a long arc, not unlike the rooster tails of water he used to carve with his single ski.
From the rest of my childhood, I remember precious little. But from camp, I seem to remember everything.