Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Once More to the Lake

In college my mother and then later both my mom and dad worked at Wild Waves motel along the shores of Lake Erie at Mitiwanga, Ohio. Motel is perhaps a euphemism. By the time my parents started taking me and my brothers and sister up to the lake, the place was getting ragged around the edges. The newer duplex cottages were all right, except the beds sank in the middle and the lamps had the dimmest bulbs ever. Worst yet were the original cabins made out of logs. Yup, little log cabins which might sound quaint if they weren’t infested with wood spiders. The one-room cabin was roughly the size of a double bed—so very little walking space. You slept pretty damn close to those spidery walls.

Wild Waves had definitely seen better days.

Situated between Vermilion and Huron along Route 6, Wild Waves at one time sported a dining room where guests could get their lunch or dinner, tennis courts, and a fine sand beach. There was also shuffleboard and a pingpong table constructed out of cement. On bluffs overlooking the lake were Adirondack chairs, the kind made out of metal and painted festive colors like green, pink, sunflower yellow. Stairs zigzagged down to the beach where there was a narrow dock that extended out into the water. Kids could run and jump off the end. At a corner, scratched into the cement was a name and date frozen in time. Ted ’52.

Deforest Ward had built the motel during the depression. The automobile meant people could travel. Indeed when his first wife got sick, he drove her to Florida when it wasn’t exactly a vacation playground. He took her there for the cure along rough roads or no roads at all. But the heat and damp did her no good and they returned to Ohio where she died. He was still a young man. So he began to build on property one log cabin at a time. He hired a girl from Oberlin College with a degree in dietary science to run the hotel restaurant. Helen eventually became his wife. They raised 2 kids: Nancy and Bill, who in turn lived nearby and helped out in the family business, raising their kids at the lake. It was Ted, Bill’s son who helped with the new dock, signing his name into the wet cement.

Father and Mother Ward hired college students to help out in the kitchen and diningroom or in housekeeping, or in Mom’s case, to run the front desk. I imagined that in its day Wild Waves had been a busy enterprise. But in the mid-60s when we were visiting Erie was the most polluted of the great lakes. Scientists had declared it a dying lake. Industrial waste on the Cuyahoga River had ignited, catching the river on fire.

News like that didn’t help bring in the tourists. Also the times were a-changin’. Families with money were beginning to travel further—like maybe Florida. Cabins the size of a pill box with rotting log walls didn’t appeal to the new middle class. Sometimes we were the only visitors at Wild Waves. As a kid I’d walk down to the beach and find all sorts of junk washed up—not the least dead fish floating in the water. The cement dock had crumpled, huge gaps between the sections, some parts tilted upwards with ends submerged. It was a green seaweed-slimed ruin.

Teddy was killed in 1967, during the Tet Offensive, a casualty of the Vietnam War.

Those glory days at Wild Waves were quickly evaporating. The tennis courts were riddled with tree roots, the paint on the pingpong tables had flaked, the Adirondack chairs were all rusted, left out in the rain. The cottages still stood, but the log cabins were used to store old furniture, shrouded in dust. Keeping up with the place was getting harder and harder for Father and Mother Ward. They eventually sold out and moved into a three-story house that once held the restaurant and diningroom—until that house was taken by the lake during an especially fierce winter storm that eroded the bluffs.

We stopped going to the lake or if so just for a quick visit to see the Wards. The Wild Waves that once was was no more. Bill’s family had scattered and Nancy and her husband Hoke kids had all grown up and left. Even the lake had changed. Not dead, but it seemed tired like a toothless old man. The economy was in shambles from 1970s’ recessions. The Vietnam War recently over had not given us dignity with honor. Teddy’s name was slipping into obscurity.

A few years ago my husband and I stopped there. It’s still standing, rickety cabins and all! It remains the Wild Waves, though the clientele rents on a weekly basis and are mostly transients. The front office is now a bar where on weekend nights the locals along Route 6 pull in for a quick drink. Once again I walked across the gentle sloping lawn, past the pingpong table a monument to the durability of cement. I climbed down to the benign shore of the lake, now healthy and recovered. The dock was a remnant of its former self. Decades of waves had sculpted the wood pilings into disjointed stumps. Under an open sky I was surrounded by shadows.

Nancy the last of the Wards died last year. And now Mom and Dad are gone too. There’s nothing left but those endless waves, those wild waves washing over Ted ’52.

1 comment:

DeVonna said...

Just beautiful, your memories are a lovely tribute.