Freddy’s Beach at Lake Delhi, Iowa; August 1957
Oh, this is the joy of the rose: / That it blows, / And goes
~ Willa Cather
My skin is toasted a faint caramel color, not unlike the marshmallows I squeeze between Hershey’s chocolate and graham cracker squares for a perfect childhood dessert. Hot August days spent floating atop a giant inner tube on Lake Delhi can create that kind of caramel tan.
The day stretches long and languid.
I feel the sun’s warmth on my face. Off in the distance, motor boats buzz. Water skiers zip back and forth like dragon flies. My brothers and sister splash around in a lively game of water volleyball with other guests at ClairView Acres resort. Mombo – my mother – is back at our cottage, playing bridge at the picnic table with friends who drove the fifty miles from Dubuque for the day. Dad lounges in a green-and-white nylon web lawn chair on Freddy’s Beach, immersed in a favorite Zane Grey adventure.
“Daddy! Daddy! Look at me! I can dive off the raft now!”
He waves back from the beach in encouragement. Soon he too is in the lake. The water barely ripples in his path. My chest puffs with pride at what a good swimmer he is. It’s not the result of any country club membership. He’s just had many years of practice, swimming in the Mississippi River. We love hearing his stories of swimming downstream and across the river when he was just twelve years old.
“Okay, Elvis. Let’s see how you do. Remember − left arm out of the water,” he instructs. I want to please him. I also want to swim like he does. I’ve already achieved the Minnow Badge during my lessons at the “Y,” but still have a long way to go. I stretch my left arm as far from my shoulder as it can possibly go.
Swimming is one thing for which I can count on his patience. “Nice ‘n easy. Up and over. That’s it!”
Practice complete for now, we swim over to the raft so that I can demonstrate my new diving skills, punctuated with just an occasional belly flop. By late afternoon, we are ready to savor orange creamsicle push-ups from the snack shack at the beach. I slip into the hand-made terrycloth beach jacket that matches Mombo’s. A lively ping pong match rounds out the afternoon’s schedule.
After dinner of grilled hamburgers at the cottage, our family walks the dusty path back over to Freddy’s Beach. A rousing game of euchre in the shack engages my card-loving parents. My brothers Dennis and Terry knock around a wiffle ball in the ball field nearby until it gets too dark to see the white plastic orb with holes like Swiss cheese. My sister Mimi and I tune into “Gunsmoke” on the black and white television nestled in the crotch of the tree outside the snack shack.
Finally, with the Milky Way shining above, a big railroad flashlight leads us back down the path to our cottage. A chorus of crickets serenades us home. We crawl into our lumpy beds to rest up for another bucolic day at the lake.
Dad knew Freddy, the owner of the ClairView Acres resort, through their respective jobs on the railroad. Freddy and his wife Dorothy, then only in their mid-20s, had bought the lakefront property in 1950. Freddy eventually built rustic beach cottages, by hand and on weekends and evenings. Spanning generation to generation, Freddy and Dorothy created a collective memory shared by hundreds of families. ClairView Acres, and its iconic Freddy’s Beach, became a well-known summer destination throughout Eastern Iowa.
By the time of my toasted caramel summer, we’d been coming to the lake for two weeks each summer for five years. My inauguration to Lake Delhi had been in August 1957, when I was just four years old. It was my first delicious introduction to “vacation,” a luxury that I have loved and annually claimed ever since.
I hadn’t even reached kindergarten that first summer, still small enough that my bed was a clunky metal-barred toddler crib with a blue and white ticked mattress. After some reassurances from Mombo my first night, I slept in the tiny girls’ room next to nine-year old Mimi. Dad would sometimes take us out for an early morning jaunt in the small fishing boat that magically spun spider webs overnight, after which we would return to the cottage for breakfast. The combination of crispy bacon, scrambled eggs, and “Hi C” orange drink in little Dixie cups was a gourmet feast.
Our cottage became a gathering spot to welcome other friends and relatives for a day at the beach: my uncles and their families, Aunt Sallie, a neighborhood friend from Dubuque, Mombo’s bridge club, the square dance club. I loved that our cottage could entertain others, as well as our family.
Our rented cottage on Lake Delhi in the late 1950s
Each year on the Saturday in the middle of our two-week stay at the lake, we’d host the Tri-State Twirlers, the square dance club that Dad and Mombo co-founded with another dance couple. After a cook-out at our cottage, the Twirlers retreated to the beach for a barefoot square dance at dusk. With his little portable record player blasting musical accompaniment, their favorite caller shouted dance directions.
“Bow to your partner.” “Circle left.” “Allemande right.”
Skirts of sparkling blue, green, and coral − and their bouncing net petticoats − swirled around the beach. Other cottagers looked on and occasionally were pulled into the square to give it a try.
I beamed like a celebrity.
After the first few summers, my now-teenaged brothers had summer jobs at the railroad yard or working on a farm, so were seen only on weekends. Eventually the lake became crowded with more cottages – and too many people for our tastes. Our annual vacations shifted to road and train trips around the Midwest. My last visit to Freddy’s Beach was a day trip with my best girlfriends in July 1971, before we all departed for college.
In 2010, a ferocious summer thunderstorm caused the 80-year old river dam that had created Lake Delhi to fail. Deflating like a burst balloon, the lake spilled millions of gallons into the Maquoketa River, flooding the lake properties as well as communities downstream. Within hours Lake Delhi became a crater. Lonely boat piers resembled the skeletons of dinosaurs. Six years later, a new dam has been erected through the tireless efforts of hundreds of volunteers, some of whom had been at the lake for decades and across multiple generations. Although still a shadow of its former glory, Lake Delhi promises to return.
Freddy’s Beach and the snack shack are no more. No television is nested in the branches of the tree by the beach. Freddy himself is gone. So are Dad and Mombo, my aunts and uncles, the bridge club, the original Tri-State Twirlers.
Yet the memories of those idyllic summer days at Lake Delhi remain. The metal crib. Square dancers on the sand. Dad’s swim coaching. Belly flops off the raft. Mombo’s beach jackets. Picnic table meals. Indelible.
Me at age 4, by one of my ever-favorite picnic tables