By Amy McVay Abbott
Amy McVay Abbott is an award-winning columnist and author. Her columns, “A Healthy Age” and “The Raven Lunatic” are syndicated by Senior Wire News Service. She is the author of multiple books, available online from favorite booksellers. Her online home is www.amyabbottwrites.com and her Twitter handle is @ravensenior. She likes to hear from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Above, Amy and Andy are ready for a dip in the Lancaster’s pool. Photo courtesy of the Abbott Family Archives.
Childhood summers were rich with promise. Neighborhood kids on the south end of South Whitley loved Lancaster’s Swimming Pool. Almost every weekday afternoon, our mother gave my brother Andy and me quarters, and we walked the block to Lancaster’s Pool.
I might as well have worn a sign that read, “Beat me up” along with my bathing cap and nose plugs. I took swimming lessons from John Lancaster at the pool but I didn’t like getting my hair wet, and God forbid, holding my breath.
The pool was always full of raucous children. Boys showed off for the girls, seeing who could do the best dive into the deep end. Mitch Winger was the undisputed king of the pool.
Mitch, the third son of Joe and Rosie Winger, was born with physical deformities and needed artificial legs. As he grew older, he traveled around South Whitley on his lawn tractor, from the pool to the baseball fields where he scored games. At the pool, he was the clear leader and king of all he surveyed. He loved teasing me and would occasionally hold me under the water. (Did I describe how I looked with my bathing cap and nose plugs?)
Mitch held my head under the water, and another kid rescued me. Getting the attention from Mitch made me a tad cooler. Mitch was a powerful swimmer and a funny and fun kid.
Mitch was an important part of growing up in South Whitley. Because of his positive attitude he triumphed over what he did not have. He demonstrated to the South Whitley children that he was not about to let his disability come between him and a summer’s day with his friends.
He also went to Ball State. I saw him occasionally on campus, no different than any of the other Whitko kids who attended the Muncie campus. He never let on that he had any struggles.
He is an amazing person and probably has no idea how positively he affected a group of children fifty years ago.
Apart from Lancaster’s Pool, we played in the backyard and in the yards and houses of neighbors. Andy and I both rode our bikes all over town, back to the school and its playground and ball fields, downtown to the park or library. Summer was a commodity spent slowly and enjoyed. I have faint memories of going to concerts at the bandstand that was behind where the Post Office is now, and of a carnival called Tomahawk Days.
Children left in the morning, rounded home for lunch or mooched off friends. Mothers in that era didn’t work outside the home, and the few who did were teachers, nurses or secretaries. Children knew to be home by “supper” time. Dinner was something you ate on Sunday after church.
We spent more time outside than children do today. My stay-at-home mother shooed me out of the house in the summer as soon as breakfast and Captain Kangaroo or Engineer John finished on our Dumont black and white pedestal television.
I rarely came inside, unless the Rudd’s noisy dog, Chi Chi, spooked me.
We had no cell phones or means of communication. Our mothers weren’t that worried about us. Other parents served as a sort of South Whitley mafia, with eyes and ears everywhere. Don’t try to check out an inappropriate book at the library or buy an untoward magazine at Clark’s Rexall Drugs. You’ll be found out.
If someone misbehaved, there was an old-fashioned convenience known as the landline telephone. Whitley County phone numbers were only four digits. Ours was 4790; my Grampy’s line was 4200. Tunker was on a party line, so you couldn’t always reach the Enzes on the first try.
If your parent got a call, you might have to take your bike and go home as quickly as your Keds Red Ball Jets could get you there.
We stayed out all day and mostly behaved ourselves. Mom didn’t want us at home. She had too much housework to do: clothes to hang on the line in back of the house, dishes to wash, white shirts to iron for Dad.
We stayed outside because it was hot. Our little yellow house had no air conditioning, nor did our Bel Air station wagon. I went from kindergarten to eighth grade at South Whitley Elementary School, which had no cool air. St. John’s Lutheran Church didn’t have air conditioning. We opened the windows and let fresh air in.
How else did we survive without air conditioning? We had fans: loud, whirring, banging, irritating electric fans. My parents had a tabletop metal cage fan with blades sharper than any kitchen knife. I suspect this cooling apparatus was unsafe at any speed. I’m lucky I didn’t lose a finger or two. But that fan kept the air flowing in our tiny house, a pre-fab house built on a concrete slab from house plans shown weekly in Parade Magazine.
Until I was about nine, my maternal grandparents had a summer cottage at Lake Wawasee. I loved going there. The brown, wooden cabin has long since been torn down and the area where it once stood—between the channel and the lake—is now flush with condos and luxury homes. The cottage sported metal bunk beds, wooden Adirondack chairs, and ill-fitting screen doors. I remember the faint, dampness of the cabin, wet bathing suits, and musty fishing gear. We thought it was wonderful.
Summer weather in northern Indiana is delightful. I will argue with northerners about this to my dying day—the humidity in southern Indiana is far worse than what I experienced as a child in northern Indiana. Evenings at Wawasee were often cool and pleasant. In the style of the American middle class, my parents dressed us like East German refugees from the Cold War on those chilly nights. Our hats were pulled down over our ears, and we wore long Blue Bell denim pants, warm knee socks, and shoes.
Grampy, my grandfather Carl Enz, trolled for bluegill and my grandmother cleaned and fried them. I couldn’t fish with my grandfather because I refused to bait my own hook. If you didn’t bait your own hook, Grampy would not allow you to fish. I inherited this from my mother, who refused to bait her hook on family trips to Wawasee or Spooner, Wisconsin.
You could accompany him on the boat, but not hold a fishing rod. I didn’t clean fish either, but I was allowed to share in the feast. Fried bluegill has a distinct taste like no other fish.
Grampy had a shiny, red speedboat, and going out with him in the speedboat was loads more fun than the rickety, unstable fishing boat. My favorite time was taking the boat to the other side of the lake for fuel. A throwback to the Texaco Star days when men in white uniforms ran out to service your car, the boat could be filled up right from the dock.
Today the Weather Channel has been showcasing a huge red map with half the country in a dangerous heat wave. Our local heat index is 105 degrees. We haven’t opened our pool in two years and probably need to have it removed. We’ll stay locked up in our antiseptic, air-conditioned house, reading and writing and avoiding the humidity of the Ohio River Valley.
On a hot day like today, I think fondly of days on Lake Wawasee, cool nights sitting in front of the cabin. I remember how pleasant it was to sit at Grampy’s side in the red speedboat, racing across the lake.