The ‘grand old lady’ weaved her way down the sun drenched roads, zooming past the concrete milepost markers that peered out of the tall, summer high grass that now graced the edges of the blacktop… Warm air became cool as it rushed through the open windows of the station wagon and blew the floppy rim of the little boy’s hat up and down, and he squinted his eyes, anxiously searching the oncoming hill for the next, telltale sign…
     “First Crown gas station, coming up!!” he shouted, dutifully announcing the passing landmark, as the kid-filled car lumbered along the country roads that twisted and turned under the arching branches of great trees and on to the final destination that was it’s mission- a magical place called ‘Lake Terramuggus’…
     “Matty! It was MY turn to say that,” whined his little brother…. Matty grinned with delight… He WAS the oldest boy, even at 10 years of age, and with that position in the family hierarchy, came certain privileges, even rights… “Oh, you’re just mad, because you saw it so late!” responded Matty, smirking at the twisted face of his 7 year old brother, who was now pouting, and making his frustration evident to everyone.
       “No fighting!” proclaimed Mom, as the 2 boys started their back and forth elbow battle, trying to hide the assault from the front seat parents, tho not very successfully, since there were now 4  irritated sisters starting to chime, in unison, “They’re fighting again, Mom!”
      Both boys froze momentarily, until Mom pivoted back around, and with one last shove, got their final licks in, and laughed at the scolding look of the oldest girl, who turned away, in disgust….  The car continued it’s happy journey, it’s tires occasionally chirping as it rounded the final curves of the tree covered landscape…. and then, to the delight of all, the first glimpses of water could just barely be seen, filtering through the dense green foliage that lined the lake’s shore…
       The children giggled with anticipation, as the car slowed to a crawl, searching for the hidden, dirt path that led to the ‘secret’ beach that was ‘Uncle Barney’s place’. An overgrown passage appeared, little more than a breach in a grove of young poplars, barely recognizable as the entrance that, over the course of the Summer, would become well worn and noticeable, till next Spring, when the thicket returned, and the road would again need discovery…
      Turning into the tall grass, the wood paneled Ford, creaked it’s way foward, and Matty imagined the creatures that hid in the tall bramble, scattering to the safety of the treeline as this metal creature pushed into the jungle, crunching over the stone rubble and fallen branches that were strewn here and there, after the last Winter snows receded. The car lurched and bumped along and forded a large and deep puddle that brought a collective sigh of relief from the 6 children… You see, that puddle was the very last obstacle between the now sweaty family and the cool waters of the glistening lake. A tiny cheer arose as the Country Squire came to a halt, at the top of a large, stone covered hill through the middle of which a rough, wood staircase ran, in teetering fashion, down the steep embankment to the sandy, flat beach below.
       The ‘all clear’ sounded, and the doors of the wagon flew open and out spilled the various kids, some tow headed like Matty, others with curly dark hair (the family mutants) and all wearing bathing suits and carrying some item of clothing, towels or bags of food stuffs for the day ahead… And, what a day it was!! The sun shimmered on the tiny wave tops of the tranquil lake… A small flock of mallard ducks swam offshore, and as the children ran down the stairs and into the large, hand hewn pavillion, the ducks gathered and then made a beeline towards the structure, anticipating the ritual of the ‘feeding of the ducks’- a family favorite for many Summers now…
       The 2 brothers jumped up onto the perimeter benches that graced the cedar beamed structure, and tried to climb the tree- like support posts to get a better look at the large bird’s nest that peeked out from the pavillion’s rafters, near the roof’s apex… Then, the inevitable order from Dad, ” Get down from there!! What are you two, a couple of monkeys, or something??” The boys descended, and headed for the family staging area, where blankets were being spread on the rose colored sand. The picnic items were unloaded and distributed into serving containers or placed in strategic areas for cooking, near the huge stone barbecue with the heavy iron grilles upon which many a hamburger, hotdog or chicken leg had been cooked to sizzling perfection by the master chef- Dad!!
       Now, however, was the early swim, and the kids ran for the water’s edge or the long dock that stretched some 25 feet into the lake, that was buoyed  by a series of 55 gallon barrels, secured to it’s underbelly. Matty chose the dock, his favorite, and ran to the end… Looking out over the lake, he felt the gentle, cool breeze caress his naked upper body and skinny legs, as he hoisted his brown and white checkered swim suit up, one last time, and tied the draw strings tightly… Far across the lake, he could make out the shape of a man in a kayak, as he paddled the inlet of a feeding stream. The blond haired boy kneeled down and reached into the cool water, testing it, and then, raised his hand to his face, and with his 1st two fingers, made the sign of the cross, moving from his forehead to his belly, then to his left shoulder and then right, whispering, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”.
  
       The sound of a car door echoed from the hilltop, and Matty looked behind him, and up the hill, to see a group of his cousins, running from his uncle’s car, and sprinting down the rickety stairs, shouting their ‘hellos’ all the way, laughing and shoving each other, in a young competition to see who could reach the water first… Matty grimaced when he saw the leading boy, his cousin Kevin… Kevin was a year older than Matt but not taller… Matt was almost always the tallest in his class, and even towered over some of the older kids, a grade or two ahead! No, Kevin wasn’t taller, but what he lacked in height, he made up in arrogance… He wasn’t intentionally mean, mind you, but kind of spoiled and self centered. When things didn’t go his way, he became moody and upset, and somehow, the younger kids around him would start to get hurt… A poked eye here, a bruised leg there… Matty preferred to keep some distance between himself and the boy with the crew cut…

       As the adults reacquainted themselves, the large group of children entered the water, splashing and yelling, some wearing the quickly donned orange life vests that were mandatory for anyone that hadn’t passed the beginners classes of swim lessons yet… Matty, who was already swimming like a seal, having started at age 5 with lessons, had no need for a life vest… He was capable of swimming long distances, either using the crawl or alternating between the back stroke and crawl… Many people had commented on his natural swimming abilities, and he was often expected to keep an eye on his younger siblings as they played in the gentle waters of the lake… But, for now, it was time for the ‘older’ kids to have some unfettered fun, so Matt dove from the end of the wooden dock, into the emerald green water and streaked through the lower depths and rose back towards the rippled surface and the warm, summer air, and inhaled a deep breath… Oh, the water felt so nice! Matty swam in a large circle, using a breast stroke, and surveyed the frantic activity in the sandy areas to his right… Two of his cousins were pushing and kind of wrestling, as they tried to ‘dunk’ each other, in a sadistic game of one upsmanship… This activity was noticed by the adults, and after some correction, came to a tentative end, replaced by a simulated ‘ drowning ‘ game, that started with a raised hand with one finger (going down once), followed by a second hand with 2 fingers (going down twice)as the child sank below the surface, and finally the third hand with 3 extended fingers ( going down the final time), at which point the kid would hold his breath and pretend to have drowned…  Great fun!! After not sitting well with the parents at first, the game just went on and on, sporadically, and was more or less being ignored by the adults, who were preparing the BBQ for the soon- to- be ravenous kids.

        Matty swam for a while, in and out of the group, and participated in a few games of ‘chicken fights’ with his little brother on his shoulders, till he was tired and swam away from the group, and resurrected his own version of the ‘drowning’ game, only noone was watching anymore… On the third or forth lazy attempt to get some shoreside attention, and failing, the 10 year old boy, added a few dramatic somersaults to the routine, to no effect!!

       The darker and deeper waters of the lake now beckoned  the young blond boy… He swam a little further out and treaded water, then throwing his hands towards his head, propelled his body down, into the deep murkiness, trying to reach the lake bed with his pointed toes… It was just too deep, and Matty rose back to the surface, and with one last somersault and loud laugh, twisted and turned in the water, trying to get some attention…   Suddenly, he was inhaling a mouthful of acrid water, and choking as he flailed his arms in an attempt to right himself and return to the safety of the surface. His struggle had the opposite effect, and continued to push his sinking body deeper and deeper until his racing, panicked mind calmed and his flailing arms ceased their futile attempts and he lost the strength to move… The blond haired boy rolled gently in the deep water and now faced the surface, some 10 feet away… A final, almost curious thought went through his stilled mind; “This can’t be happening… I’m a good swimmer…”

      A beautiful golden glow now illuminated the surface of the lake, out of the reach of the silent boy, and filled him with a loving warmth as the rays reached his little body, and enveloped him… He rested in it’s embrace and worried… ‘What would my brother and sisters feel? What would happen to Mommy and Daddy when their oldest boy was gone?’  The boy could no longer see the surface, but at last felt the worries lift and a quiet peace overtake him… A voice or realization now filled his heart and he understood that his time on the earth was not yet finished, and he drifted towards the darkness and the fear slowly returned….

     He became aware again…. water gushed from his nose and mouth , burning his throat as it spilled onto the sand under his head and slowly he heard the frantic yells of the adults and the whimpering cries of the little ones as he lay there… He choked out a large throat full of water and gasped his 1st breath of air, groaning and twitching his arms and legs, and he was back in the earthly realm again… “Are you OK, are you OK, Matty?” his mother cried. He didn’t answer, he couldn’t. Instead, he looked up at her, and all the faces of his family and cousins and started to cry….

        He cried for the little boy that had lost his Daddy to an assassin’s bullet last Fall, he cried for his granddad that had died when he was 6, but most of all,  he cried for the loss of his Father’s embrace and the return to a world of pain and suffering… Everyone around him in that circle on the beach thought that he cried because he was afraid… They would never understand, the real reason, how could they?

      His Dad picked him up in his strong arms, and carried him up the hill to the ‘grand old lady’,and placed him on the large red jump seat, where he slept the rest of the day, and planned his future… He had many years ahead of him, this he knew… He would not waste them….

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