Back when I was a kid, my absolute favourite family vacation was at Paignton House, one of the old Muskoka lodges on Lake Rosseau. My sisters and I (my brother wouldn't be on the scene until years later) would clamber into the back of the family station wagon, play I-Spy and sing Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer until my mother reached her breaking point and swatted us into silence. That was the cue to stretch out as best we could, legs entwined, and count telephone poles. “Wire, wire, wire, wire, pole, wire, wire, wire, pole, wire, wire……sky, sky, sky, sky, sky….” Another swat. Silence. “Wire, wire….” and on it went. Inevitably, one of us would vomit just as we arrived. We’d stumble out into the parking lot, newly released from our four-wheeled prison, grateful to gulp the pine-scented air.
The guests were a mix of Canadians and Americans, evenly divided. This resulted in a friendly rivalry probably dating back to the War of 1812. We’d stage Canucks versus Yanks volleyball games. The winning team was awarded bragging rights, and the privilege of pitching the hapless ref into the lake. Of course, by the end of each stay, we were all best friends - the American kids now drank pop, and the Canadian kids, sodas.
Drew, the ref, was also our bus boy. A tall, wiry kid with Buddy Holly glasses, he was habitually late and exhausted and always arrived barefoot. He left his loafers outside the kitchen so he could slide into them and smoothly enter the dining room. One morning, someone put a couple of raw eggs into the toe of each shoe, but Drew took it in stride with a shrug and a smile. He was always rewarded with the biggest tips.
We thought Drew was the coolest boy ever. Every evening, he donned a formal jacket and marched through the grounds swinging a brass bell to announce dinner. The gaggle of children trailing him grew with every step, until he resembled the Pied Piper. The kids clamored as loudly as the bell, begging for a turn, but it wasn’t as easy as it looked. The bell was heavy, you had to get the rhythm right, and the clanging made your eardrums dull with pain.
For many of the other young staffers, it was their first time away from home. They boarded in a few cabins behind the main lodge, and empty liquor bottles and scattered girlie magazines gave away their secrets. We found one of the magazines in the woods, featuring a large-breasted woman with thighs the size of the prime rib they carved up on Sundays. We giggled over it and held it up in front of our flat chests until our mothers caught us and dragged us off by the ears. The offensive magazine was turned in to the front desk manager with stern warnings about the corruption of minors. If anything, it drew us closer to those cabins, where those insouciant boys would lounge against the clapboards and draw lazy pulls on cigarettes between cupped fingers, and stare at us, daring us to say hello.
Second-storey rooms in the main lodge were used mostly by couples, since the cabins were reserved for families. The hallway was long and good for races if you didn’t get caught by the housekeeping staff. Big, old-fashioned locks and iron keys in the doors meant it was easy to spy on the occupants. Once, a group of boys gathered around one door were giggling, and they called me over. I remember a large naked woman with pale skin and violent red hair who had been willingly thrown on the bed by an equally large and naked man. I had no clue why they were wrestling like heathens, but judging from her squeals, she really loved to wrestle. The boys shoved each other and laughed beside me. Suddenly the naked man turned and fixed a beady eye on the keyhole. We fell on the floor in a knot then ran screaming down the hallway, out the side door and down to the dock where we leapt, fully dressed, into the water.
It was a heady time of canoe races, shuffleboard, and tennis during the day, bingo games and starlit dances on sultry summer nights. Dads got silly and played ‘strip golf’ dressed in layers of aprons, frilly skirts and shower caps, and moms sipped martinis, smoked, and gossiped. We kids ate on our own at the early sitting in the dining room, and we pretended we were grownups. That’s how I met Fred Beasley, the love of my twelve-year-old life. While I sipped my Shirley Temple and batted my eyes, he picked up a Cornish game hen with two forks and made it dance. You just don’t meet a guy that suave every day.
Paignton House is long gone - it burned down years ago and was replaced by a giant timeshare resort. But sometimes, if I concentrate, I can almost smell the pines, and hear that brass bell ringing through the woods, announcing one more dinner.
Have a great summer!