Sunday, October 23, 2016

October Closures

Late last week Atlanta temperatures reached a record high of 88 degrees. In a matter of hours our wooded ridge east of the city braced for a fast-moving cold front that dropped temperatures 25 degrees. Seriously, it was the first hint of fall in our typical lingering late summer. Sometimes those Indian summers last far into November. Occasionally they allow us to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner on the patio under a warm sun surrounded by the last color of the season and bathed in the crisp aroma of dry woods and burning oak.

Actually the first hint of fall doesn't have me thinking about the future. In fact, this time of year my mind floods with wonderful memories. For most of the first half of my life the Ides of October marked an important event. The story descends out of my dad's membership in  a lodge - the Knights of Pythias -  born out of the search for national reconciliation following the Civil War.  Within the Pythias organization was an elite military-style uniformed rank or company organized by the individual lodges. Most companies maintained campgrounds including lodging, mess,  parade grounds, a recreation pavilion, and often more.  My dad's lodge built its campground adjacent the village of Burlington, West Virginia. The grounds served as a regional park, complete with pre-OSHA playground equipment, and was often rented by the day for family reunions, company picnics, church functions, and other large gatherings.

Burlington - 1949
The place was paradise for a young boy. A creek bordering the camp offered hours of fun. Woods and fields provided plenty of opportunities for exploration but camping there was by no means a wilderness experience. We were fortunate to use a cottage that had every comfort of home.Frequent social events made the playground a great place to meet new friends. There was a drive-in theater next door where I enjoyed the snack bar as much as the movies. Across the road was a small airfield with several Taylorcrafts and Piper Cubs, and a hangar that gave birth to many "homebuilts" over the years.  I can say with confidence that Burlington was never boring.

Burlington - 1959

Through the summer of 1974, I spent many weeks at the camp every year, including several weekends of "cold camping" in the off-season. Opening the cottage and grounds for the summer was always exciting but not especially memorable. Freezing temperatures lingered into May, so the campground usually opened on Memorial Day weekend. On the other hand, winterizing the place was like saying "Goodbye" to an old friend. Thoughts of family, friends, the big fish, fireworks, that scary movie, the old biplane, all those memories accumulated over the past six months filled my mind. 

Hulling black walnuts - 1972

Amid the blazing gold sycamores, brilliant fire oaks and maples, the smell of wood smoke, and a harvest of black walnuts, we went through the year-old closing procedure until the last item - pouring anti-freeze into sink traps - was checked. At that point, it was time to load the car, proceed with all those repetitive tasks one does "just to be sure," then close and lock the big red door until Spring.

As American society changed, lodges fell out of fashion. Their members grew old and passed away. In 1974, the lodge itself and all its assets were dissolved and proceeds were divided among the surviving members. I haven't locked that big red door for 42 years now, but I still have the key and a remarkably detailed mental picture of the cottage and landscape that I loved. In many ways, Burlington is with me every day, for my experiences there helped shape my values and define my career, hobbies, and general interests. The impact has been so profound that I have asked my children to do their best to provide the same opportunity for their own families.  And so in weaving all of the memories about this weekend, I ask you, my readers, to do the same: Find a nearby paradise and escape to it often while your children - even your grandchildren - are young. There will be no sorrow there. The bracing change that life throws at all of us will soften in the face of the warmth of the Burlingtons in our lives.

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