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Remembering Lake Ronkonkoma…

November 29, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

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We were recently on Long Island in New York, visiting friends and family, when we passed an exit for Lake Ronkonkoma, a place of many childhood memories. I’ve crafted a short story about one of our family’s trips out to the lake one Saturday morning. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did putting it together.

*****

It was early Saturday morning and we were going to Lake Ronkonkoma! Well, actually we might be going to the lake; if only the sky would clear. We kids had waited all week for that morning. And so had several of our friends and cousins who lived on our block and were lucky enough to be invited to go along with my family to the lake for the day.

Mom had made sandwiches, cucumber and potato salad and her famous cupcakes — chocolate, with the centers scooped out and hand-filled with homemade-whipped cream. The cone of removed cake was then placed back on top of the cupcake like a hat and dusted with powdered sugar. Yummy!

Old blankets, towels and a table cloth were neatly folded and sitting by the cooler holding my mother’s homemade lunch. Our big Belgian Shepherd dog Heidi watched from the back porch, whining softly; not positive, but suspicious that it would be missing out on a lot of fun that day.

A deflated truck tire inner tube waited patiently by the garage, knowing that the time had come once again for it to play a critical role in the upcoming family fun. Because of its size, it could not be inflated until we reached the lake. We chose an inner tube that was too big to fit in our car because of my father, who was six-foot-four and built like the truck driver he was. By far the biggest and strongest man on our street, he was often called upon when a strong back was needed, or by his union brothers when they needed someone of  intimidating size on the Teamster’s picket line.

Our white 1957 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon with its faux wood side panels was washed, waxed and fully fueled. The oil had been checked and the tires held the correct pressure. Dad never went anywhere unprepared for any eventuality.

The children were all in their bathing suits and carried a towel around their necks and a few coins in their pockets for a soda and ice cream at the lake. Our companions for the day were our neighbors; Jimmy and his sister Marybeth and our cousins, Karen and Kathy. They carried their lunches in crumpled brown paper bags and looked on anxiously as the final preparations were made. Everything was ready for the trip to begin — except for the weather.

The children were praying to Princess Poospatuck, our patron saint of Lake Ronkonkoma, to make the clouds part and the sun to shine. We peered worriedly up at the grey sky as my father carefully studied the clouds and considered the possibility of rain.

We were anxious to get going before it was too late. You see, there were rules about our trips to the lake. If it began to rain before we left, well, that was it. No lake until next Saturday. There was also a fixed deadline for dad’s ponderings over the weather. If too much time went by before he determined that it was safe to set out for the lake, he would announce that it was then too late to go that day and we would have to wait another long, hot week for the next opportunity.

As the minutes ticked by, my siblings and I began quietly and then more loudly whining and begging for him to please take a chance, knowing that even rain wouldn’t spoil our fun — if we could just get there. But my father stood tall, a giant among men, unaffected by our prayers and our whining; knowing that only he could make the ultimate decision and that he had the unfortunate power to crush the hopes of all of us poor children by uttering just three words: not this weekend.

In the late fifties the drive from Baldwin, Long Island to Lake Ronkonkoma in Suffolk County was considered to be a long one; at least by my father, who preferred to never be further than two hours from home and never far enough away to prevent being home by dinnertime.

He also preferred taking back roads to the lake and that meant no Southern State Parkway — the dream of State Park Commissioner Robert Moses and still under expansion at that time — nor the Long Island Expressway, which wouldn’t be built anyway until the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens. He avoided the highways because he knew that everyone else would be on them; sitting bumper-to-bumper for mile upon mile.

So it was twisting, two-lane wooded roads for most of the way there and back. To this day, I’m still not sure what the exact route was to the lake ; it was a closely guarded secret that avoided the weekend traffic jams as everyone headed for the beaches. It had been carefully plotted by my father as the quickest — if not the most direct — way to Lake Ronkonkoma. As a member of the mysterious and ancient guild of truck drivers, my father was aware of secret roads that the average driver knew nothing about. We also knew that the unwary or uninformed who tried to discover these hidden routes could get lost and might never find their way back to Baldwin.

Fortunately, most Saturdays God smiled down upon us and we would set out for the lake under a sunny sky. Our destination was Greene’s Pavilion; considered by my parents to be the superior beach among the several private bathing pavilions on the south shore of the lake.

With sometimes seven kids crammed into the backseat and the rear of the station wagon, we would set off down the street; calling out to those poor unfortunates who were going to be left behind that Saturday as our family went to the lake.

There were two important milestones on the way there. The first was what my father, who didn’t know the meaning of what would someday be called political correctness, referred to as the “nut house.” It was what people of greater sensitivity referred to as an insane asylum in those days and was located on a long stretch of road in Central Islip.

It was a favorite of the children in the car, who would crane their necks, hoping or fearing that they’d catch sight of a “lunatic,” hopefully on the other side of the ten-foot cyclone fence that surrounded the asylum. My father was always warning us of possible escapees that might be waiting along the roadside; ready to leap into passing cars!

The road was also a favorite of my father’s because the long straight-away gave him a chance to “open her up” and see how fast he could get the Ford to go. As the children howled in delight or pretended fright, grabbing onto each other or anything nearby (as there were no seatbelts back then), my father would stomp his size 12 right foot to the floor, making the big-engine howl and the car leap forward and race past the asylum.

My mother would sit, passive and silent until the car hit about 75 or 80 miles an hour and then would recommend that my father slow down. He would reluctantly begin to ease up on the gas pedal; once again explaining that it had been a necessary procedure. He swore that the practice was a prudent part of any car’s proper maintenance and was required to “blow out the carbon” that built up from normal driving. I wonder if he ever realized that, years later, my love of speed and racing began those Saturday mornings when he “opened her up” to “blow out the carbon.”

The next milestone was the children’s absolute favorite. It was, other than the lake itself, the highpoint of our trip. It was only a German restaurant that sat along a wooded portion of the road, but it caused joyful howls in the rear of the car whenever we spotted it — Heinie’s Restaurant. It was hilarious; no matter how many times we passed by.

Once we “saw Heinie’s” or even worse, “smelled Heinie’s” (and those were jokes we kids always made) we knew that we were getting close to the lake. The excitement in the back of the car began to mount. The Lake was nearby! We were almost there!

Our first and last stop before reaching the lake was a gas station in the town of Lake Ronkonkoma. Dad would get out and finally pump up the truck tire inner tube, which was then passed to my sister through the big back window of the station wagon. For the next few miles, Dad would drive slowly along as she hung onto the inner tube. The rest of us did our best to make sure that she didn’t fall out of the back of the car along with the inner tube.

Greene’s Pavilion sat among its neighboring and competing pavilion beaches along the beautiful southern shore of the pristine lake. Ironically, but not in time to spoil my childhood memories of Lake Ronkonkoma, it was during the late fifties that the pavilion owners began selling out to each other and several pavilions fell into disrepair or were abandoned; left to be vandalized or burned to the ground.

But in those earlier days Greene’s was a neatly painted white clapboard building with green-trim. It ran back from the road to a series of changing rooms situated over the water and connected by narrow wooden boardwalks.

The main building contained a large indoor dining and dancing area and the entrance to the pavilion; where my dad would pay for our admittance and then distribute our elastic wristbands with their brass numbered tags (which, we told the youngest in our group, the cops would use to identify your body in case you drowned).

On the left side of the building, an elevated and roofed pavilion ran along behind the roadside dirt parking lot and faced the water. The pavilion held dozens of picnic tables with benches. There were wooden steps down to the sand. The prime table locations were those that looked down upon the beach; where anxious parents could keep an eye on their children (and in our case, the neighbors and our aunt and uncle’s children).

After checking in, my sister and younger brother would rush to lay claim to a suitable table, while I followed proudly behind, rolling the majestic inner tube that now stood six inches taller than the top of my crewcut head.

Mom would clean the tabletop until it was fit for surgery and then cover it with our brought-from-home tablecloth. She would then lay out the day’s provisions and settle in for her mini-vacation away from her house and her never-ending housework.

We usually chose a table further down the pavilion near the swings, where Mom and Dad could watch us kids as we propelled the swings further and further up into the air until the chains were nearly horizontal to the ground. We would then launch ourselves out of the seat and into the air, seeing who could land the furthest away in the soft sand — all the while gleefully ignoring my mother’s warnings for us to please be careful! It was scary and wonderful!

And there were no swing safety seats in those days! No sirree! Greene’s swing seats were constructed out of several tons of solid steel and oak and would split open your skull the moment you turned your back on them.

Lake Ronkonkoma is spring-fed and was crystal clear in those days. Greene’s had a single metal slide set out in the shallow water and a wooden diving platform further out from where you could see a dozen feet straight down through the glass-like water.

The only problem with the springs was the ice cold current that flowed out of them, which would shock unwary swimmers and divers who ventured too near. The lake bottom was sandy and clean, marked only by an occasional sunken tree limb or lost possession.

As children, we spent our day at the lake swimming, diving, eating and pursuing fish with buckets and small nets. The sunfish and crappies that schooled near the shore and around the changing rooms were caught and released innumerable times. Those of us who couldn’t swim would often ride my father’s back while his powerful arms and legs propelled him through the water and out to the deep-water diving platform.

The highpoint of the afternoon came when dad carried the truck tire tube down to the water and climbed on. He never got to enjoy his float for long because as soon as he was spotted, the word went out and kids attacked him from every direction. My father’s large frame and 270 pound weight made him a formidable opponent in our “sink the battleship” game. It usually took all six or seven of us kids to rock and finally tip him and his rubber boat over and dunk him in the water. Our other game was to see how many of us could climb on top of him until the tube and everyone onboard flipped over.

By the end of the day, we were all sunburned, waterlogged and exhausted. Some of us went home looking like Algonquin warriors; spike-haired, swarthy from our suntans and war-painted with red stripes of mercurochrome that my mother had swabbed on us to treat the scrapes we had collected from our beloved tube’s inflation valve. It was mounted on the end of a long metal pipette that protruded into the tube’s inner circle and would never fail to snag one or more of us as we wrestled for possession of the tube during the day.

We’d lug everything back out to the car, where dad would make sure that each of us carried not one single grain of sand into his car. Little did he know that we were carrying half the sand on the beach home in the crotches of our bathing suits. With everything and everyone back on board, including our now deflated inner tube, we would set off for home.

During the ride back to Baldwin we huddled together in the back of the car, tired and chaffed from the sand in our suits, but always happy about the time we had spent. We shared tales of the day’s adventures and planned for our next outing; hoping there would be no rain clouds in the sky on the coming Saturday morning.

No longer a pristine lake; Ronkonkoma has suffered the usual after affects of suburban sprawl and runoff pollution. It pains me to think of it this way and so I’ve decided to continue imagining it as it once was over fifty years ago. Now — where did I put that inner tube?

Additional Background on Lake Ronkonkoma

The Smithtown side of the lake was settled by the 1740s, but it was not until the late 1890s that the area gained widespread public attention. That’s when boarding houses and hotels were erected to accommodate a growing number of tourists drawn by claims that the lake’s waters had special healing powers. It had remained fairly isolated until the Long Island Railroad extended its tracks and opened its Lake Ronkonkoma Station in 1885, which helped transform what had been a sleepy farming hamlet.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the lake had been an exclusive retreat for the rich before it became an everyman’s day resort.

From 1908 to 1910, auto races were held on the 48-mile Long Island Motor Parkway built by William K. Vanderbilt II. They drew international attention to the area.

The two-lane concrete speedway stretched from Queens to Vanderbilt’s Petit Trianon Hotel on the Islip side of the lake. The hotel was fashioned after an 18th-Century building at the Palace of Versailles in France. It was the site of swank parties enjoyed by Long Island’s elite after their drive through the countryside.

By the 1920s, the beach pavilions had sprung up.

It is a lake of myth and legend. Ronkonkoma, or “Raconkamuck,” translates as “the boundary fishing place” in the Algonquian language. What is now known as Lake Ronkonkoma served as a boundary between lands occupied by four Indian communities: the Nissequogues, Setaukets, Secatogues and Unkechaugs. It was a no man’s land between the four tribe’s territories. That is why it was said to be the meeting place of the Sachems, or chiefs of the Algonquin tribes.

One popular legend was the story of a Native American couple from neighboring tribes that fell in love and would paddle across the lake to meet. The Gods did not look favorably upon this mixing of the tribes and sunk their canoe, which descended down into its unfathomable depths. Thus began the legend of Princess Poospatuck.

Another myth concerned its depth: it was said that a local fisherman had lowered a lead sinker hundreds of feet into the center of the lake and never touched bottom.

Long Island’s largest freshwater lake was created by a retreating glacier. Some geologists refer to Lake Ronkonkoma as a “kettle” lake, or a depression left after a large portion of glacier breaks off and is buried in the glacial sediment. It later melts and leaves a deep depression that may fill with water. The Lake Ronkonkoma Basin has no surface drainage; runoff is percolated down into the groundwater, evaporates, or runs off into closed depressions.

Oh, and it’s not bottomless. It is approximately 70 feet at its deepest point.

This work is copyrighted and all rights belong to its author, G. Schaefer, aka The Traveler. 2011.

Till next time,

The Traveler

Comments

2 Responses to “Remembering Lake Ronkonkoma…”
  1. MrOAK says:

    Great write up. I grew up in Lake Ronkonkoma and remember the beaches, pavilions, and tourists with fond memories. In the winter I was a townie and in the summer the family friends would appear for the season from the Bronx. It was a great lake to swim, sunbathe and catch the perch/sunnies.

    really good write up.

    Jim

  2. Traveler8343 says:

    Hey Jim,

    Boy, what I would have given to have lived in Lake Ronkonkoma as a boy. Then the lake would have been a short walk or a bike ride from my home. And that would have been great. I would have grown gills being there so much!

    Traveler

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