Memorial Day began in the United States on May 30, 1868, after the Civil War had ended. The holiday is observed in honor of our nation’s armed service personnel who were killed in wartime.
It has come to signify many happier events as well, all made possible by the sacrifice of our war heroes. It means an extra day off from work and school, a barbecue, and a parade. For me Memorial Day means that the summer holiday season is finally here.
When I was younger I used to spend summer vacations at White Lake. White Lake is in upstate New York in a town called Bethel. Technically half the lake is Kauneonga Lake, home of the historic 1969 Woodstock Festival. I remember driving over the George Washington Bridge on my way up to White Lake one fourth of July. It was 1976, our country’s bicentennial birthday, the year of the Tall Ships. From the bridge I saw the ships sailing on the Hudson River to help New York City celebrate. The country was celebrating its bicentennial birthday and I was a perfect twenty years old. July 4th 1976 was celebrated in grand fashion, suitable for such a perfect age.
The Viet Nam War was over yet I still carried my draft card to remind myself how blessed I truly was. I was spared that experience simply because I was lucky enough to turn 18 in 1974. The United States had already begun its withdrawal by then and my number was never called. Gerald Ford had helped heal the country after the constitutional crisis that the Watergate incident had created. A general feeling of well being was spreading throughout the country. It was a wonderful time to be 20.
Water skiing was the most important thing we had to worry about on most days in White Lake. One morning we were getting the boat ready for an afternoon of water-skiing with our friends. The sun reflected brightly off the fresh water. It sparkled like bits of broken mirrors, reflecting the perfect day for our youthful eyes to see. The smell of oil from the two stroke engines was the only smell that was unnatural. Yet that smell seemed to be a part of the lake, a part of this perfect moment.
I remember floating in the water with the tow rope floating between the skis, waiting with excited anticipation. I gave the spotter the thumbs up and my friend, David, would ramp the speed up quickly. He was trying to plane the boat and I held on for all I was worth struggling to keep my skis under me. Finally, slowly pulling my self out of the water, the boat would plane off. As I gained confidence I gave the spotter the thumbs up and then pinched my fingers together. This was the signal to go faster, just a little. Next I made a circular gesture in the air over my head. This indicated I was ready to leave the protective cove and circle around the lake. Occasional I’d try to jump over the wake and surf. This inevitably would lead to a wipeout. The boat would make a wide turn and circle back, trying to bring the tow rope as close to me as possible. Those minutes, floating alone in the middle of the lake, waiting for the boat, were suddenly quite. Absent was the sound of the Evinrude outboard, allowing time to contemplate how big and beautiful the lake was. How sunny the day, how perfect the moment.
After we all had our turn and were finally tired, we docked the boat and went in search of food. The group of friends disbanded making general plans to meet later. My friend David held back. He said “Mike, how about me and you go to the bar for a beer and a game of pool”? I was young and had only been to a bar once or twice before, “Sure, cool”. We walked down the dirt rode by the summer cabins and up to the street. It was brilliantly bright outside in the hot noon sun. The bar was cool and dark and inviting. With eyes slowly adjusting we ordered a cold picture of beer. David and I played pool and sipped ice cold beer, waiting for the afternoon heat to subside. I don’t know what it was that made me stop and think, but I stood by the screen door in the back, looking over the lake. I was waiting for David to take his shot, and I felt something. I knew that this time was perfect. I would remember this perfect moment for the rest of my life. It was tattooed in my mind like the tattoos on the arms of the motor cyclists that thundered through White Lake every summer. Indelible, always there.
To this day the smell of the gasoline oil mixture, be it from a lawn mower or an outboard, evokes the vivid memories of that perfect day in White Lake New York. Some moments are perfect; so perfect they can last a life time.