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Family Stories: "A Summer Afternoon"

Written by Mary Ann Mankell Petteway

Every farm had one. It stood, parked under a cottonwood tree, ready to haul hay bales or straw or greasy farm equipment, looking like it came from a set used to film "The Grapes of Wrath." The color wasn't too bad; it still had its original finish of a dark forest green, but it was dented and scratched , the fenders were rusted, it had no windows, and one door was tied shut with a length of twine.

On a hot summer afternoon, my younger brother and sister and I would implore our mother to take us to the lake. After she had agreed, we would take a quick look around and discover that the only vehicle left for us was the truck. The truck! Oh no! We have to take the truck! We had to decide if it was worth the risk of being seen by somebody we knew or not to go to the lake at all. The lake always won.

We would make a lunch of strawberry Kool-Aid and thick cheese sandwiches on homemade dark bread, throw some inner tubes in the back of the truck, change into bathing suits, and pile into the cab. After a few kicks and sputters, the engine would roar into action. The floor shift would grind and screech and finally fall into place. Lurching and jerking, leaving behind clouds of black smoke, we would be off, Mom at the wheel.

I think our mom rather liked driving that old truck. She didn't seem to be embarrassed at all, laughing at us as we slunk into the seat and tried to disappear into the floorboards. She pushed her dress up to her knees, hands planted firmly on the steering wheel, and drove through the cloud of dust kicked up on the gravel road. Sometimes she would pick us up at school, which was even worse, because then everyone would stand around and watch. I would sit at my desk as the clock edged towards the end of the day, dreading that I would hear the telltale sound of that truck rumbling down the gravel road.

There are several lakes in the area from which we could choose, but Lake Florida was definitely the best. The water was clear, colder than some of the smaller lakes since it was fed by a natural spring, and there were several big leafy trees where our mom could rest in the shade. There were no lake homes and the only resort was quite a ways away so we didn't have to share our spot with strangers.

My dad never did learn how Lake Florida got its name. He was a man known for his story telling and I especially liked to hear his tales about the history of the area. Games Lake was named for the 'games' the Norwegian settlers played on May 17th, a day of celebration in their country and a custom they brought with them when they immigrated to this new land. Norway Lake and its subsidiaries, West Norway, Little Norway and East Norway, honor the immigration from Norway. "But Lake Florida," my dad would say, slapping his knee and laughing, "that one I don't know." He was born and raised on our farm as we all were, and his father before him. There was very little history of the area that he didn't know, but this strange name continued to perplex him.

The last mile to the lake is hilly and the truck jerked ahead with new energy after each successive downshift, carried out by Mom like a pro. Grinding and whining, we at last reached the crest of the final hill. Below was a panoramic view that Lake Superior or even what I imagined the ocean to look like could not rival. Sometimes I would close by eyes just before we reached the top, suddenly opening them on the other side. Then I could see the entire scene in one blink, the lake lying there like a giant blue gem edge in green.

Mom would pull into a shady spot and we would quickly scan for any familiar cars under the trees or familiar bodies in the water, hoping our friends had been as lucky as we were in convincing their mothers. We'd stumble out of the cab, red faced, brushing off the prickly straw and chaff which clung to our sticky bodies., inhaling the lake smell of water and fish and dampness. There were usually a few cows standing knee deep in the water, lazily swishing flies with their bushy tails. They would grudgingly move over to give us their space. The farmer whose farm adjoined the lake would amble down to smile and say hello. He was a tall lanky man, always wore bib overalls, and he didn't talk much. His wife would come down later on. She was tall and lanky also and wore an apron. Mom could usually persuade her to have some lunch with us.

The water was always cold. I would go in slowly, inch by inch, holding myself tightly with my arms to guard against splashes. This was better than plunging in; the shock of the cold would numb your body and your heart felt like it was going to stop beating.

The hours we spent in the lake zipped by. Mostly, we played with the inner tubes, perfecting dives from underneath or diving through the top, trying not to touch any of the edges. Finally, the sun would be sinking in the western horizon and we would emerge, wrinkled and shivering and teeth chattering, hoping to warm by the last rays. Cows were mooing in the distance, like a signal ending a day, as they got in line and leisurely ambled back to the barn from the pastures.

The truck was quieter on the way home, somehow. The engine purred instead of sounding like a tractor. Cooled by the water and grateful for the hot rays of the sun already disappearing, we were all quiet as we bounced and jostled home. Mom would park under the cottonwood, leaving the keys in the ignition, ready for its next venture into a summer afternoon.

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Last updated: March 15, 2008