“Put on your life jacket!!!”
“Can I go fishing now?”
“Wear your life jacket.”
“What if we want to go swimming?”
“Not without life jackets.”
“Can we at least go down by the water?”
“With your life jackets.”
“We’re going out in the canoe.”
“Life jackets ON!.”
“Can I get on the boat now?”
“Where’s your life jacket?”
“Can we go exploring?”
“You need to wear life jackets.”
“Can we roast marshmallows?”
“Go get your life jackets.”
“But other kids don’t wear them!”
“You aren’t other kids.”
“Now put on your life jacket!”
“Because I’m your mother and I said so!”
“You heard your mother.”
“But I KNOW how to swim!?”
“RICHARD T. MONROE- WHERE IS YOUR LIFE JACKET???!!!”
We rode bikes, no hands. We played helmetless baseball with splintered wooden bats held together with screws. We threw rocks at glass bottles, caught snakes with bare hands, breathed second hand smoke, rode in cars without seat belts, took big gulps from Gramps’ beer. We had our own tackle boxes full of fishing lures with sharp hooks, whittled with pocket knives, played street hockey at home, school mandated Dodge and German Handball in gym, built rickety tree forts from scraps.
But God help the child who dared go near the water without a life jacket! That embarrassingly big, yellow, hot, bulky, behind the head, waist strapped, Coast Guard Certified fun robber.
I moved a lot as a kid. 7 times in 7 years. 9 times all told. Every time Dad changed jobs or got promoted, we moved. Growing up, I thought everyone did.
In 1969 we moved (back) to Northville N.Y. Mom and Dad rented a two story grey stucco house, just down the street from the Sacandaga Bridge. We had a wooden dock on The Great Sacandaga, floating on empty fifty gallon drums.
Dad had a little Starcraft with a green outboard 5 hp Scott-Atwater. We trolled for Walleye and Pike. Older kids jumped off the bridge into the lake while we fished. THEY weren’t wearing life jackets. My brother and I, however, were. We took swimming lessons at Northampton Beach. I was about 7, my brother was 5.
Before that, we lived in Stanfordville, took swimming lessons there too. At the Stanford Pond Beach. Dad was District Ranger He drove an old red open top Willy’s Jeep with two Indian pumps, fire rakes and shovels mounted in back. I rode in that jeep, down dirt roads and back trails, berry picking and hiking with Dad to the fire towers. No seat belt. No life jacket.
So, by the spring of 1972 when we moved to Lake Placid, my brother and I already knew how to swim. We were experts! Regardless, Mom signed us up for more swimming lessons, at the Mirror Lake beach, down past the toboggan run. I’m surprised she didn’t make us wear life jackets at the beach.
We lived in a house on Saranac Avenue, halfway up the hill, kitty corned across the street from St. Agnes School. Custard & Mustard was at the bottom of the hill. That was the year Mc Donald’s first opened there. Which was a big deal.
Every morning that summer, my brother and I would get up, put on our suits, get our towels, and walk over the hill, across town, and down to the beach for our lesson. I was 9. That early morning water was always very clear, and pretty cold. I really didn’t like swimming lessons much.
I spent the rest of that summer on my bike, with my fishing pole. I would ride down over the hill to the park on Mirror Lake and go fishing there with two old men- Father, and Sam. Sam lived with his wife above the Pontiac Theater. Father was a retired Catholic Priest who spoke heavily accented, very broken English.
“Boy will bring worms?” I was “Boy.” I would go out at night with a flashlight and pick night crawlers that I kept in a wooden box of wet leaves in our garage. I filled a coffee can with fresh worms every day, took my pole, my tackle box, and rode my bike down to fish.
They taught me how to cast out a night crawler on a hook, with a big barrel sinker for weight. We’d cast out as far as we could, leave the bail open, and sit on the bench there and wait. Father or Sam would give me a dime or a quarter and I would go up to the Potluck 5 & Dime store above to buy gum and penny candy.
We would sit and watch those lines by the lake, and when a line started going out, we’d wait patiently, let the fish swallow the hook. Then, one of us would pick up their pole, close the bail, and start reeling. Nearly every day that summer we caught at least one or two big rainbow trout, 18-24 inch beauties!
I was never made to wear my life jacket on my bike, or fishing there by the lake. Not sure why. I never asked.
That summer my Dad bought a bigger Starcraft, and two canoes. He and I would troll on Lake Placid, up by the inlet, over by the outlet, he with hand tied flies, me with a spoon of some type. We caught bass and trout. Occasionally we trolled Christmas trees deep along the rock outcroppings for lakers. We camped in the island lean-tos. Life jackets required.
That winter I was in 4th grade. My classroom was in a little tin annex behind Lake Placid High School. That was a rough winter. I got a concussion (my first of several) one day, falling on my head on the ice while skating on the public rink in front of the school.
Later that winter, I broke my collarbone. I was sledding with a runner sled at a park near St. Agnes. Some kids had soaked a small hill with a hose, turned it to glare ice. I went down the hill on my sled, couldn’t steer those runners on the ice- and slammed smack into a big sugar maple. My best friend Chris pulled me home on the sled. His Dad was my dentist. Neither time was I wearing my life jacket. I probably should have been.
The next summer, we moved again. This time to Saranac Lake. My parents bought a big stone house on the corner of Stevenson Lane and Pine Street, by the river, next to the bridge. It was a dead end road, with the Stevenson Cottage above us, and Quisnell’s game farm/bait shop at the end.
My Dad bought a bigger boat. We fished less trout on Lake Placid, more northern pike on the Saranacs. We camped on the lakes, sometimes by boat, sometimes by canoe. Somewhere along the line, Dad bought us new life jackets. Vest types that zipped in the front. They were more comfortable- but we still had to wear them. I was 10.
We started camping at Martha Reben. We liked that site, it had the lean-to, and was a straight shot from South Creek. We would put in with our two aluminum Grumman canoes and paddle over. Sometimes we took the boat. The site gave us easy access to Little Weller and Weller Pond where we would go exploring and fish.
At Martha Reben I met THE ROCK.
“THE ROCK” is actually two rocks. Two huge danger buoy framed boulders jutting up out of the water like petrified dinosaurs about 20 yards off the Martha Reben shoreline. My brother and I would stand and cast out towards them, in our life vests. We would canoe out around them, in our life vests. We would water ski past them, in our life vests.
Finally, I asked. “Dad, what do I have to do NOT to have to wear my life jacket all the time any more. Dad stopped, thought, and pointed out to “THE ROCK”.
“If you can swim out and back to that rock, on your own, that’s when.”
It was further than I thought. It got deep, and was choppy. Twenty yards seemed short enough, until I had to swim it. And it was 40, without touching, out and back. I tried and failed, had to practice. I wasn’t allowed more than one try a day, and we weren’t at Martha Reben all the time. I worked on treading water, my back float, learned the side stroke.
THE ROCK, became my focus, my goal, my freedom ticket. I got to a point where I could swim out, climb up, rest a minute, catch my breath, dive in, and swim back. That wasn’t good enough for Dad. That wasn’t the standard. I had to do it all at once. I kept practicing. I kept trying.
At some point that summer, I finally succeeded. I DID IT! I SWAM THE ROCK! It took my brother a bit longer, he was younger. I’m not sure when he got there, another year maybe. I didn’t care. What mattered was – NO MORE LIFE JACKET FOR ME!
Well, not exactly – some rules changed, some didn’t. I no longer had to WEAR my life jacket in the boat or canoe, just have it with me. I no longer had to even have it with me if I was fishing from shore! I still had to wear it when I was water skiing, or when Mom or Dad said so, but that didn’t matter. As far as I was concerned. I had conquered THE ROCK.
I was free.
Photos of the “THE ROCK” and new lean-to in the site from this story provided by Richard Monroe