When I was a kid growing up in San Francisco, it seemed like everyone I knew had their summer “place.” A place where families headed every summer FOR the summer (or a good chunk of it). A place that prominently featured a body of water. A place to play, to gather, to swim, to explore.
To run wild.
For some, it was Lake Tahoe or Donner Lake. For others, it was Twain Harte or Lake Berryessa.
For us, it was the River.
The Russian River.
And ALWAYS in the month of July.
For middle-class families like mine, the times economically and culturally allowed for this exodus.
And the foggy summers of San Francisco demanded it.
Every July 1 from the early ’60s to the mid ’70s, we’d pack our Oldsmobile to the gills with everything (and I mean everything) we’d need in a rental cabin for an entire month that we shared with my maternal Uncle Mike’s family of (eventually) five girls, their mom my Aunt Kathy, my paternal Aunt Mary and my cousin Michael. Close family friends the Bardaros also joined us for stretches as well as other family friends.
We’d head across the Golden Gate Bridge, out of the fog, and wind our way up US Highway 101 through Santa Rosa. And as we headed down River Road a few miles from our destination, I would stick my head out of the window for one reason.
To smell the redwoods.
And that’s when I entered the zone.
As I reflect on all of this now, the logistics kind of stagger my mind.
In this summer scenario, moms and kids were full-time at the River (my mom was a teacher and had summers off). My brother Rob remembers waiting for Dad to come up on Friday evenings for the weekend. Uncle Mike joined us as well on weekends when his work schedule allowed.
Life at the River revolved around – you guessed it – the River. It’s where we headed almost every day. A daily ritual made possible by lots of blankets and towels spread out on the hot rocks of the River’s banks, two large beach umbrellas, beach chairs (never enough for everyone), inner tubes, rafts, bags and coolers full of sandwiches, chips, sodas, and magazines (I remember Mad Magazine in particular and how we kids all took turns reading it in its increasingly depreciating condition).
And lots of Sea & Ski.
Remember Sea & Ski? I absolutely loved the smell of that stuff (so did Saffa Bardaro, our close family friend). I’d rub it all over my face, arms, and legs. Mom rubbed it on my back.
And then – braving the gauntlet of the hot rocks under my feet – I’d head straight into the River.
We all did. My cousins and my brothers. Like all the kids at the beach, we were constantly in and out of the River. Lying on rafts and in inner tubes, swimming, sliding down the Monte Rio slide into the water, jumping off boards and the rope swing at Summer Home Park, then back to the beach towels to dry off, read, people-watch, check out canoes paddling downriver, sunbathe, apply more Sea & Ski, eat a sandwich, then head right back into the water.
Sometimes our moms came in, but let’s face it: They were our lifeguards, and they weren’t giving up those beach chairs and umbrella shade.
Except I remember one time. It was at Monte Rio Beach when I was about 5. A girl I didn’t know invited me out on her raft. I remember feeling like we were going out pretty far. The next thing I remember is floundering beneath the surface of the green River water long enough to instill the fearful memory.
A memory made possible by the hand that then suddenly pulled me up from beneath the water.
My mother’s hand.
And after being sentenced to some towel time, the River called again.
Of the approximately 10 years I remember, half were spent in cabins in the Guerneville area, and half were spent at Summer Home Park, about 7 miles upriver from Guerneville.
These digs were not fancy. But they were sturdy, rustic, surrounded by redwoods, and, of course, made of wood.
It’s a wonder we all fit. But the right mix of bunk beds, decks, porches, and floor space not only made it all possible, but afforded ample opportunity for adventure, play and laughter.
My cousins Kathy and Michael remember one night in particular (in fact, everyone who was there remembers). In Kathy’s words:
“I remember the tall, shaded Keith house at Summer Home Park, built on the side of a hill with stilts and lots of stairs. We had a problem with raccoons breaking into our fastened-down trash can and making a mess most nights. One night, Mike, Rob, and Pete came up with a plot which involved dumping a bucket of water on them from the third floor (where the kids slept) when they heard them. Late that night, upon hearing the raccoons, Uncle Al stuck his head out of the second story to see what the noise was, and the bucket of water ended up on Al’s head, which brought the house down.”
My cousin Michael cops to being the “dumper” and remembers my dad’s ensuing laugh. “One of those infectious laughs that overcame him – and then others – on occasion,” Mike recalls.
Another year – my cousin Kathy and I think it was ’69 – we (uncharacteristically) stayed at the Surrey Inn on the west end of Guerneville. The Surrey Inn was a cluster of rustic cottage houses on a large property. While our house there left much to be desired (bad plumbing and doors that wouldn’t shut), the Surrey Inn was a happening scene “in the day,” with its sprawling lawn packed with families (and, unfortunately for us barefooted kids, yellow jackets), a large swimming pool, and a poolside jazz bar that attracted an impressive number of celebrities and athletes of the time. My cousin Mike remembers he and my brother Rob playing pool with the very gracious and witty Phil Harris (voice of Baloo the Bear in the original “Jungle Book”) and that several Bay Bomber Roller Derby team members partied at the Surrey Inn, including their crazy and legendary star, Ann Calvello, who competed in roller derby over seven decades (from the ’40s to the 2000s).
Apologies for the nostalgic digressions.
After a day at the beach, we’d head back to our cabin near dinnertime.
But first, there was Happy Hour. Moms’ weekday happy hours were a hoot. Manhattans were our cabin’s drink of choice. My brother Rob remembers Tom Collins mix. For other cabin moms, I’ve heard it was martinis.
For dinner we’d barbecue hot dogs, chicken, and hamburgers, or we’d have spaghetti, salad, and garlic bread.
And one night a month, our whole gang would caravan to the Union Hotel in Occidental and enjoy a family-style Italian dinner on red-checked tablecloths.
And there was NEVER a TV. Not once.
The word “computer” had not yet even been coined (LOL).
There was so much else to do.
Pee-wee golf and the Giant Slide in Guerneville, outdoor movies at Summer Home Park, evening walks, hiking at Armstrong Woods, picking blackberries, listening to and singing along with Disney records on our phonograph turntable, playing pedro or gin rummy, playing pinball at the Lodge in Summer Home Park, reading.
Talking. And laughing.
And after the sun went down, the crickets and stars would make their appearance, setting the stage for a night of sound slumber as we all made our way to our sleeping bags and beds.
Only to rise and repeat the next day.
Happy Summer, Folks.