My family has been devout lake-goers ever since my great grandparents bought a lot on Watts Bar lake over fifty years ago. Five generations of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents assemble at the lot to bask in the sunshine, compete in various activities, relax around a campfire, and gorge on any food we can fry.
We let the sunshine’s rays roast our skin during the day, lounging on floats or sprawling out on towels along the dock and then at night we roast marshmallows around a big campfire, smooshing them between chocolate bars and graham crackers. Each sweet, sticky bite melts into a delicious, satisfying end to the day.
When you’re as dedicated to the lake as my family is, you have to take the good with the bad, and sometimes the bad is dog bites, broken teeth, and black eyes. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
At the edge of our property, there’s a huge sign that exclaims Marlow’s Lotta Fun. Strangers have been known to pull up, survey the place and all of us running around, and ask where they can unload their camper. Although it looks like we’re running a campground, we’re actually just a big family, but no, sorry we don't have room for other campers, we awkwardly tell them.
One afternoon at Marlow’s Lotta Fun rain was trickling from the sky, soaking the grass and the basketball court and rippling against the lake. With nothing else to do, everybody huddled under the worn dark green shed to stay dry. The adults passed out Rook cards – their card game of choice. They played religiously, mentally planning their strategies like gambling addicts in the heart of Vegas. There’s a worn notepad, that might be as old as the lake itself, scrawled with scores from hundreds of games - proof that winning means everything in this family.
The storm picked up as the afternoon wore on and there was talk of packing up and trying again next weekend. I don’t have any memory of this day since I was barely two years old, but I’ve heard the story so many times I can see it unfolding at the edge of the battered shed. As the rain fell and my mom was finishing up the Rook game, I approached my great grandmother’s old Shih Tzu. I’ve never quite understood her obsession with the breed, but she's had at least one Shih Tzu for as long as I can remember.
I bent down to pet the old dog’s backside at the same time a bolt of lightning shot across the sky. Clearly frightened, the old canine whipped around and snapped at me, connecting her decaying teeth with the soft flesh of my upper lip. I had gasped at the initial shock and then began to cry when blood filled my small mouth and began trickling down my tee shirt. My mom had wanted to throw the dog into the middle of the lake, but somehow, she got talked out of it.
I may not remember the day, but I still have the scar – and a general dislike for Shih Tzu’s.
When it’s not raining at Marlow’s Lotta Fun, we cram onto the boat, squeezing in every seat; coolers are filled with water, Little Debbie cakes, chips, various fruits, and enough beer to keep the adults comfortably buzzed.
If we are extreme lake-goers, then we are radical tubers. We will do anything to soar through the air on an old piece of circled rubber. When we bring friends, they get a fair warning that the driver of the boat will not stop until all the riders have been beat nearly to death.
No one has actually died – yet.
I loved tubing so much that I would pretend I was a professional tuber. I didn’t know if this was a real sport, but I was a kid and wasn’t worried about logistics. My cousins were my competitors – if I could hang on longer than them, I’d win some sort of extravagant title and gold medal; the driver was the judge, trying to sling me off; my coach was a little voice somewhere in the back of head giving me strategic advice and encouragement; and of course, I pretended we were in the ocean – the threat of sharks and saltwater would only increase the sweetness of my victory.
There was no way of knowing if we’d hit a gigantic wave that would fling us through the air or if we’d be put through a death roll – an insane number of circles that usually ended with the tubes flipping over and everybody getting pounded by the brutality of the water as it sucked us under. It hardly made sense to crave this merciless activity, but as kids we didn’t care too much about rationale.
We soared over massive waves, gripping the handles as tight as toddlers with lollipops. I was laughing at something my cousin Shelby said when we bounced over a huge wave. We flew into the air and when the tube smacked the water, my face slammed into the back of her skull. It did not necessarily hurt, but I suppose I had too much adrenaline running through my veins to feel much of anything.
My mom –the most sensible tube puller in the family – stopped to check on us.
“What a wave!” She held up her fist like she was a reigning champion defending her title. “You kids alright?”
Everyone called out some variation about how they were fine and yeah – that was totally awesome. I, on the other hand, buried my face into the tube. The water crashed against us as I sprawled out on the rubber, trying to determine why my mouth was throbbing.
“Kels? You okay?”
I raised my head and immediately tasted the iron. Shelby let out a horrified shriek. My mom doubled back; her reaction was less than reassuring.
“Lay still,” she instructed me. I ran my tongue around my mouth and found a gap where my two front teeth belonged; they weren’t completely gone – but they had turned up horizontally, barely hanging on by the roots.
A puddle of blood collected in my mouth and I was scared that if I spit it out, I would lose a few teeth.
We zoomed back to our lot. None of my cousins said anything, but between their sympathetic looks and taking turns to make sure I stayed securely on the tube, I had a bad feeling. Once we were safely on the shore, my mom became a nervous wreck. Aunts, uncles, and cousins circled me, everyone wanted to get a good look at what the damage was.
“Duuuuuude, you’re not going to be able to eat,” one cousin told me.
“Are they loose? Can you wiggle them?” an aunt wondered.
“Don’t mess with them!” another aunt chimed in.
“Good thing it’s her baby teeth,” an uncle inserted, “otherwise this would be a whole lot worse.”
Everyone had their turn to examine my mouth and give their two sense, but the longer I stood around with my two front teeth jutting out of my mouth, the more panic began to boil in my belly.
Even though it was a Sunday afternoon, my mom begged our family dentist to pull my teeth. He must have heard her desperation-soaked voice because he agreed to open his office for us.
While I sat in the big chair, my mouth was thoroughly numbed, and my teeth were yanked with what looked like a big pair of pliers.
“You did great, kiddo!” the dentist interjected, but I was probably too doped up and exhausted to feel much excitement about my teeth being ripped out of my mouth.
Without my two front teeth, it was hard to eat. My mom agreed to let me eat mostly ice cream and mac & cheese, at least for just a few days, and I thought this was a fair enough trade.
Back at Marlow’s Lotta Fun, years after my adult teeth had grown in, and after we had used all the gas in the boat and exhausted ourselves of splashing around in the water, my cousin Curtis and I decided to throw baseball.
Curtis is about six months younger than me. I’m responsible for his existence – which he is tired of me bringing up, but I refuse to stop. When my parents got pregnant with me, his parents decided it was a good time to start their own family; they wanted us to grow up together like they had. So, technically, if it wasn't for me, he wouldn’t have been born.
Years later, when Curtis’s wife got pregnant with their first child he joked that I better step it up so our kids will get to grow up together. I laughed hysterically and assured him that I was not anywhere close to giving his son a cousin to grow up with.
Curtis has always been the most outgoing of all of us; anything he did, we wanted to do. When he jumped off the big, jutted cliffs into the water, we all were right behind him, eager to duplicate such a daredevil act. When he wanted to see who could hold their breaths the longest, we all complied, nearly blacking out under the murky water as we tried to determine who had the strongest lungs. When someone was falling off the tube, Curtis would grab their life jacket – sometimes getting a handful of hair - and hoist them back to safety. He was our fearless leader during those weekends at Marlow’s Lotta Fun.
On one hand, he has only two fingers – his thumb and pinky. Where the other three fingers should be are sharp, protruding knuckles. My brother idolized Curtis so much that he would fold his three middle fingers against his palm, in an attempt to replicate what we refer to as Curtis’s nub. Although Curtis had been born with those three fingers missing, he often convinced people they had been bitten off by an alligator.
Curtis had one of our younger cousins paralyzed with fear of the lake because he had convinced him there were alligators in there and a big one had come up and bit off those fingers. I had laughed while my little cousin’s face clouded with a terrified look before he ran off to find his mom – no doubt to ask about these gators that were on this three - finger diet.
Curtis was always coming up with ludicrous games and activities, they typically were right on the brink of getting us all into trouble, but somehow, we usually managed to avoid that part.
Curtis played just about every sport. Football, basketball, and baseball were his favorites and usually what he wanted to do when we weren’t playing in the water or soaking up the sunshine.
He had brought his worn leather baseball gloves that weekend and asked me to throw with him. We tossed the ball back and forth, backing up several paces each throw until we were nearly a hundred yards apart.
We were having fun and undoubtedly cracking jokes the whole time, but the problem was – Curtis was at the top of a hill and I was at the bottom, making for some awkward angles.
He catapulted the ball and I held up my glove – ready for the satisfying smack of it against my palm. Except the ball didn’t smack in my glove, but on the top of it – like a scoop of ice cream hanging off a cone. Time, it seemed, had morphed itself into slow motion as I watched the ball hit the top of my glove, slowing it down only a little bit before drilling my face.
I don’t know if it was the shock or the force that knocked me down, but when I came back to Curtis was looming over me. I didn't know if minutes had passed or if it had only been a few seconds. The vision in my left eye was blurry and something warm and sticky was trickling into it. Curtis looked down at me with my limbs sprawled out and blood oozing from my eyebrow and he panicked, thinking he’d killed me.
He ran for our parents, who thought, by the look on his face, I might actually be dead.
The flesh above my left eye had been split open by the impact of the ball and since there isn’t anything but skin and bone there, you could see the white bone glittering between my eyeball and eyebrow. Butterfly band-aids, it was decided, would do the trick just as well as sitting in the hospital for hours to wait for stitches, so a few were slapped on my swollen eye, and I was fed some Ibuprofen. I was shaken up and sore, but okay for the most part. I couldn’t help but taunt Curtis since he had cried harder than me.
He had smiled, rolled his eyes, and gave me good nub – his favorite defense mechanism that consisted of driving his three protruding knuckles into the ribs of his enemy - a huge grin plastered across his face the whole time because after all, we still had a full weekend at the lake.