Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fun Times at Lake O' the Pines

 My Uncle Elmo Ray and his wife, Hope, lived in Northeast Texas for most of my life. My first memories of them were at their house in Daingerfield. It was three hours from Crockett and mother and I would drive up for a visit two or three times a year. Their next-door neighbor at the time was Marvin Watson. He was the Postmaster General under President Lyndon Johnson. When I told my friends that my uncle lived next door to a prominent national figure, you guessed it, they didn't give a damn.
When I was in junior high school Uncle Moe and Aunt Hope moved eight miles south to Lone Star, Texas, which is the location of Lone Star Steel. It is a huge steel mill; far and away the largest employer in the area. Uncle Moe worked there as a welder. He rented a waterfront house on Lone Star Lake. Lone Star Lake surrounded the mill on three sides and was the biggest lake I had seen.
The lake was actually full of all kinds of deposits from the mill and nasty as hell, but at the time I didn't realize it. When I visited, I would fish off the pier in Uncle Moe and Aunt Hope's backyard. I was a big believer in eating what I caught, as long as someone else would clean it for me. Looking back, it is a good thing I never caught anything out of Lone Star Lake. I would have insisted on having it for a meal, and God only knows what kind of chemicals would have been released into my system.
Once I insisted on going swimming in the lake while we were there for a visit. I had a new yellow swimsuit and couldn't wait to get into the water. Mother and Aunt Hope drove me around to the local city park where there was a swimming area roped off, complete with a sandy beach. I swam happily for an hour until I was told it was time to go. When I got back to the house and took off the suit I noticed it was no longer yellow. It was covered with some kind of dark, greasy substance from the lake water. My skin felt like it had been rubbed down with dirty water mixed with used motor oil. I lost the urge to ever go into the water at Lone Star Lake again, or fish in it for that matter.
A few months later Uncle Moe called my mother and said they had moved from the house on Lone Star Lake. They were renting another house in town while their new house on Lake O' the Pines was being built. Soon afterward we drove up for a weekend visit.
Lake O' the Pines adjoins Lone Star Lake via a small body of shallow water full of stumps, trees, alligators and mosquitoes. It is a lake of more than eighteen thousand surface acres of water and is one of the most beautiful bodies of water in East Texas. Along the shore there are miles of rolling hills and thick forests. It was originally constructed to control the flooding at Caddo Lake on the Texas-Louisiana border. It was built by the Army Corp of Engineers and is still controlled by them to this day. Due to their strict regulations there were neither many commercial developments along the shore, nor many houses either. Uncle Moe and Aunt Hope drove us over to see their new house and I saw the lake for the first time. I thought it was one of the prettiest places I had ever seen.
It was cold and windy at the time, but Uncle Moe asked if we wanted to go fishing. I liked to fish in warm weather, but I wasn't too keen on the idea of freezing to death sitting on a pier in January. He took us to the Big Cypress Marina and showed us what he had in mind. It was a large floating building about twenty yards from shore. The entire center of the inside was open to the water. There were heaters blowing warm air, a snack bar and chairs along the railing next to the water. That was my kind of fishing!
We stayed there for several hours and I had a blast. I didn't catch a thing, but I drank enough Coke and ate enough candy bars to put pimples on a cue ball and had a sugar rush to keep me wide awake. I never wanted to leave. A few months later a tornado came through and removed the floating paradise from the face of the earth.
The house at the lake was completed in the spring and I couldn't wait to go see it. It was a quarter of a mile from the house to the shore, and the lake was visible through the tall pine trees. There were very few houses in the area at the time, but Uncle Moe had purchased two lots to keep a buffer zone in case the neighborhood ever started to fill up. The lots were covered with pine trees.
Being a welder, Uncle Moe was always building something out of steel. He had a couple of large steel tables and a big barbeque pit next to the house. It was the perfect place to sit and relax and enjoy the scent of pine trees and the breeze off of the lake. I thought it was truly heaven on earth. From that time on we made several trips a year to the lake to visit.
The following April we went for a visit the week school was out for spring break. My Uncle Hardy and Aunt Elouise had driven from Odessa to spend a few days. There aren't many places to fish in West Texas, so Uncle Hardy was eager to get on the water as soon as they arrived. He and Uncle Moe asked me to go with them and I said yes. It was decided that we would camp out at Johnson Creek campground, which was a mile from the house. It sounded like a good idea at the time.
They decided to set out lines in the trees in the middle of the lake and check them every few hours. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped as soon as we got on the water. Uncle Hardy and Uncle Moe could probably sit on a frozen lake and fish through the ice all day long wearing shorts and tee shirts, but I am very cold natured. I was sure I was going die before they finished. They checked the lines every couple of hours throughout the night, and each time they came back with a few fish. I refused to go out again, preferring to sit by the fire and drink coffee. Until that night I had never cared very much for coffee. When I did drink some it was heavily loaded with milk and sugar. My uncles only drank it black, but they had a pot full all night long. I was so cold I didn't care, as long as it was warm. By the time we went home the next morning I had been converted to a black coffee drinker and still am to this day.
Three months later, mother and I were back at the lake for July Fourth weekend. John and Dawn Rials and the Douglas family came up from Crockett a couple of days after we arrived. Uncle Moe rented a houseboat big enough for us to all spend the day on the water. It was actually a large flat platform deck on Styrofoam pontoons with a small enclosed toilet.
One thing about the toilet should be noted. Today it would drive the environmentalists crazier than they already are. The toilet was simply a chute that opened directly into the water below the deck. Everything discharged dropped into the lake. When we were diving off of the top of the covered area and swimming around the edge of the deck we tried not to think about what was being deposited into the lake from houseboats all over the lake at any given moment.
When the holiday weekend was over and everyone else returned home, I stayed. I wanted to spend some more time at the lake, so mother agreed to leave me for a week. She was to come back for me the following weekend.
Uncle Moe and Aunt Hope both worked, so I spent the day at the house alone. There was a small miniature golf course a short distance away, so I used up a lot of time and money playing round after round. I would then walk to the little drive-in for a Coke or some ice cream to cool off. There was a neighborhood swimming pool that I had all to myself. When Uncle Moe got home he would take me down to the lake to fish off of the pier. I dreamed of the day when I could drive around the lake and see the sights.
Uncle Moe and Aunt Hope had a daughter, Connie. She was several years older than me and was attending college at East Texas State University in Commerce during the first years they lived at the lake. She was rarely home when I was visiting. When she was home she always made it a point to entertain me and show me a lot of attention. I'm sure I was a pain in the ass, but she never seemed to mind. The summer before I was a freshman in high school Connie spent part of the summer home at the lake. She had just bought a brand new Pontiac GTO. What a ride!
Charlie Jackson and I spent a week at the lake that summer. Mother took us one weekend and came back for us the next. I didn't have my driver's license yet, but Charlie had his. It is hard to believe, and she must have gone temporarily insane, but Connie gave us full use of the GTO on several occasions that week. Uncle Moe replenished the gasoline when we would burn it up. Together Charlie and I probably didn't have enough cash on us to put in a quarter of a tank of gas. The GTO had a high performance engine and a four-barrel carburetor. When Charlie put the pedal to the metal on a straight stretch of road, we would be shoved back against our seats from the force of the acceleration. We could almost see the gas gauge drop as the speed increased. Ninety percent of the roads around the lake go up and down hills and around sharp curves, so we didn't have many opportunities to endanger ourselves. I'm sure Connie was glad when we went home.
Before mother left we were sitting around the kitchen table catching up on the latest happenings. Mother mentioned that Charlie and I had been to a few baseball games at the Astrodome. Connie asked if we ever tried to get any autographs? We told her no, and I think we might have had a little hint of a smartass tone when we said it. Later that day Connie mentioned that one of the neighbors was an actor and spent about six months of the year in California. He was a regular on the TV series "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." His name was Ralph Odom. We asked her several questions about him and began showing some interest. Just before mother left for Crockett Connie came in with a couple of sheets of paper, one for me and one for Charlie. She said, "I've just been to Ralph Odom's house and he sent these for you." Each piece of paper had a note addressed personally that thanked us by name for being loyal fans, and was signed, Best Wishes, Ralph Odom.
We both thought it was great! We thanked Connie and asked if she could take us to his house and introduce us. She said he left for California immediately after signing the autographs and wouldn't be back for a long time. We showed them to lots of people over the next few months. Mother finally told me that Connie had gone in the other room and written them herself while Charlie and I were out running around. She had suckered us pretty good.
One of Connie's good friends at the lake was Steve Rutledge. He and Connie had attended school together in Daingerfield. Steve's father was a doctor in Daingerfield and had a house on the lake. Steve and his sister Rosalyn spent a good portion of each summer at the lake house. I had been there with Connie on several occasions over the years. Steve brought Rosalyn and her friend Cathy to the house to introduce them to us so we would know someone close to our own age. I had met them one other time the previous year, but I'm pretty sure neither of them remembered me. As a joke Connie told them Charlie and I played football for Plano High School. It meant nothing to us, but Rosalyn and Cathy both glared at us with contempt. Connie then told us that Plano had knocked Daingerfield out of the state football playoffs the previous year and anyone from there wouldn't be welcomed. Connie and Steve had a good laugh, but Rosalyn and Cathy still seemed to view us with suspicion.
Charlie and I climbed into the GTO for another spin around the neighborhood. Steve was about to take the girls back to the lake house, but he pulled Rosalyn aside and said something to her. Connie said later Steve was telling Rosalyn to invite the two of us to the lake house later. As Rosalyn approached the driver's side window Charlie was playing with a small pen he had just found in the console. There was some kind of trigger device on the side. He pulled back on the small lever and let it go. It was a tear gas pen and it was loaded. It blasted through the open window just as Rosalyn was about to bend down to give us an invitation. The blast startled her and she jumped back. The tear gas charge was a small one, but the sound of it going off scared all of us. The invitation was never delivered. We drove away while Rosalyn and Cathy left with Steve, never to cross paths with us again. I looked back just in time to see the look in Connie's eyes. It was a scary sight. A couple of days later my mother hauled our sorry asses' home.
That fall Uncle Moe began work on a houseboat. He was working for a steel company in Longview, so he was able to obtain the materials at cost. While most of the houseboats on the lake were kept afloat by Styrofoam blocks, Uncle Moe decided to roll two huge steel pontoons and build up from there. After only a few weeks it started taking on the appearance of a small naval destroyer. Neighbors were driving by and staring. I'm sure bets were being taken on the odds that it would float or sink. In April it was finished. Mother and I were invited to the great launch, but at the last minute something came up. We called that night to see how it went. It hadn't gone well.
Uncle Moe had contracted a man from Hamp's Ramp, the closest marina, to haul the monster craft down to the water. It attracted a lot of attention as the trailer moved slowly down the ramp and into the waves. More people gathered as the craft moved off of the rollers and began to slide under the waves. Perhaps they thought they were witnessing the launch of the first submarine on or under Lake O' the Pines. Two tow trucks were summoned to pull it out of the water and back onto the trailer. The following month Styrofoam blocks were installed between the steel pontoons and it was safe to sail. For several years afterward I would make a couple of trips to the lake each summer and spend as much time as possible out on the houseboat.
Connie married George Stephens and moved to Longview. They more or less took charge of the houseboat over the next few years. Aunt Hope hated to go out on the water and Uncle Moe used it less and less. The challenge of building it had been his greatest enjoyment. From early spring to late fall Connie and George could be found on the lake entertaining their friends on the houseboat.
One summer during my high school years, mother and I went to the lake for a long weekend. I invited Bruce Bennett to come along with us. It was the hottest part of August, so we were ready to go out on the water and cool off. George and a friend of his from Longview were loading down the massive ice chest on the deck with several cases of beer when Bruce and I arrived at the marina. Connie had decided it was too hot, and everyone else had concurred. That left the four of us to hit the open water.
George sat on the deck in a lawn chair and was in charge of steering the boat, with his buddy sitting beside him and navigating. Bruce and I sat on the roof so we could spot any pretty girls in passing boats. There was no breeze at all and we were roasting in the sun. The only thing that broke the monotony was George calling to me every few minutes saying, "Jim! Bring us a couple more beers please!"
The more beer the captain and first mate consumed, the more concerned we became for our safety and the safety of everyone else on the lake that might wander into our path. Once in awhile when it appeared we were about to plow into some trees or a pier, I would quickly climb down the ladder and casually mention it to George. He would squint real hard at whatever was in front of us and make a quick adjustment. While I was nearby he would have me fetch a couple of beers. By the end of the day George and his friend appeared to be on the verge of alcohol-induced delirium while Bruce and I were sunburned to the point of needing medical attention. That was the last weekend I ever spent on the houseboat.
Thirty years somehow slipped by. Uncle Moe and Aunt Hope sold their house at the lake and moved to Hallsville. Uncle Moe passed away. Connie divorced and wound up in Fort Worth. After living in Colorado for years I got a job in Longview. We moved to Lake O' the Pines and bought a house on the water. The lake was as beautiful as I remembered, but nothing else was the same. The little drive-in I once walked to for a milkshake is now a beauty shop. Several of the new resorts of the late sixties and early seventies had fallen down, literally. There had been a development that was being promoted by the actor, Dale Robertson. He was well known for the western series on television, "Wells Fargo." On Farm Road 729, near the entrance to Deer Cove Resort stood the official US post office at "Dale Robertson, Texas." It now is nothing more than a barn. The old sense of awe of Lake O' the Pines was gone.
One night I was sitting at the computer writing and dreaming of getting something published. This led to some websites offering tips to aspiring writers. The very first one that popped up was the homepage of Rosalyn Alsobrook. I started reading her biography and I couldn't believe my eyes! Rosalyn, the pretty girl Charlie had almost shot in the face with a tear gas pen is a famous and successful author. It gave me the inspiration to keep writing.
Teresa and I moved back to Colorado to be near our kids and grandkids. I often think of my summers at the lake and how perfect things seemed thirty years ago.

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