MAXWELL:  Summer and the love of Stella

6/10/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Each morning, I walk beside Lake Maggiore, relishing its beauty at sunrise. It is more beautiful than ever now that summer has arrived.

Summer, I must acknowledge nostalgically, plays havoc with me, making me long to break free of this, well, this middle-age body of a professional writer.

I want to be a barefoot boy again.

My happiest childhood memories are of Lake Stella in Crescent City, a fern-growing, bass fishing town in Northeast Florida. Stella held magic for my dozen or so buddies and me. It had that “special odor,” as we called it. We could detect that odor after the late afternoon sun had warmed the grayish water and a gentle breeze blew toward Babylon, the unoffical name of our all-black settlement in the woods near the “Negro” graveyard. It was a mellow odor, laced with hints of decayed algae, cattail and the black shells of mussels baking in sun.

Constance Howard, our homeroom teacher, said that we could not smell Lake Stella so far away. “It’s all in your crazy little imaginations,” she would say.

We did not listen to her. We knew that when that special odor came, summer _ the most glorious time of the year _ had arrived.

And school was out: No more “Connie,” as we called Miss Howard. No more homework. No more cafeteria food. No more of those other strict teachers who made us behave despite ourselves.

Summer was our time, when parents and grandparents gave us just enough freedom to get into just enough trouble to warrant an occasional smack beside the head or a day’s grounding, the worst possible punishment because it meant being away from Stella.

Within easy walking distance of home, the lake was the center of our lives. Little more than 308 acres, it shimmered in the sun, and when a rare high wind blew, tiny waves stabbed at the grassy shoreline.

Most of us, all teenage boys, thought nothing of swimming non-stop from one side of Stella to the other. Our biggest problem was the game warden, a skinny, gnarled old white cuss who actually cared for our safety. He would chase us out of the lake because of the alligators. Seeing them plunge into the water, we would wait before going in.

If gators were in the water, we stayed close to shore. After they returned to land _ and we would count them _ in we went. We took turns being a sentinel, warning the others if a gator took to the water.

We even played a game called “gator.” We would draw lots using marsh reeds. Whoever drew the shortest one became the gator. The game’s object was to out-swim the gator. After the designated gator caught someone, a great struggle would ensue as it pulled the captive under water. After freeing himself, the captive would become the new gator. Needless to say, we often came close to drowning one another.

Over the years, we bought and borrowed several boats, sailing or motoring to every part of the lake. Our greatest adventure was an aborted all-night bivouac on one of the islands. One Saturday afternoon, 15 of us went there, making five trips in our tiny boat. We took hot dogs, marshmallows and pork and beans.

We were having a great time _ doing our Huck Finn thing _ until about 9 that night. Then, when mosquitoes began to reclaim their space with a vengeance, we realized that we we wearing cutoff pants and sleeveless tops. At first, we thought that a bigger fire would keep the bloodsuckers at bay. The plan might have worked had we not run out of usable wood.

“I can’t take no more of this s!” someone screamed. “Let’s git outa here!”

The 15 of us dashed to the boat. Someone shouted that only three of us could go at a time. Everyone, of course, wanted to go first, which was impossible. We drew lots. Since I would be in the fifth crossing _ each taking about 10 minutes one way, given the size of the engine _ and because the mosquitoes were eating me alive, I decided to swim ashore and risk the gators.

Seconds after I dived into the black water, I heard several splashes. Certain that gators were after me, I closed my eyes. When I opened them, I saw more than half of my fellow campers swimming past me. We stroked toward shore, chastened by the pain of mosquito bites, exhilarated by the terror of being gobbled up by gators. All of us got to shore in one piece.

Today, when I look at St. Petersburg’s Lake Maggiore, I wonder if my childhood buddies could resist the lure of this beautiful, dangerous body of water.