Re: Lake Merced Memories?

05/28/17 - posted by Paul Judge

From the hill slope in the Outer Richmond where I grew up the open spaces of Lake Merced and McLaren Park was foreign territory on the opposite corners of the City. Distant Lake Merced announced its presence acoustically. On a south wind we heard the faint pop of skeet shooters at the Pacific Rod & Gun Club and staccato of small arms practice of the SFPD firing range along its south shore.

Lake Merced was mostly familiar from peering out the window of the rear seat of the family car when we ventured by on drives down the Peninsula on Coast Highway 1 or the Skyline Boulevard. It was one of a string of landmarks I looked forward to seeing and marking on my mental map of Bay Area roadside attractions. On a southbound journey after passing and pondering the vastness of Fleishhacker Pool came the turn over the rise just inland from the Great Highway. Lake Merced emerged as a surprising expanse of water and surrounding greenery in its urban setting. The boathouse and small craft tied alongside and coursing the lake always looked enticing.

Another intriguing reminder of Lake Merced was the standoffish Bacon family who lived across the street a few houses down the hill. They had a beautiful varnished double-ended trailered sailboat that most weekends they rolled out of their garage and towed to regattas on Lake Merced. There was always the faint promise of possibly joining them sailing. But the older boys David and Johnny were rarely inclined to interact with the rest of us kids on the block and that hope fell to naught.

When we were in fourth or fifth grade Chris Abbott and I were dropped off on the west shore of the lake to spend the entire day fishing. The newspaper reported that a new load of trout had been stocked and it was our adventure to make or break. Dressed in layers of clothing against the foggy cold we began trying our luck and challenging our tackle box attempting to find the right lures and bait. At first we had our spot to ourselves but soon other kids arrived. Knowing that we were interlopers from another neighborhood we cast a wary eye towards to the other guys. Neither of us were troublemakers, more like trouble avoiders. Things went okay for a while but a lack of nibbles and normal kid restlessness led to some pebble kicking that soon escalated to pebble tossing into the lake. Then a few rocks were chucked in our direction. Chris and I edged away but the rushes hemmed us to our fishing spot. When the missiles kept coming our way Chris reached into his paper shopping sack and pulled out a bag of Granny Goose potato chips and a few cans of soda. The rock tossing stopped and more neighborly overtures were lofted our direction. The chip bag got passed around and tranquility was restored. Nibbles were scarce along the shore yet out on the lake those fishing from rowboats were hauling in fish. The fog burned off mid afternoon and we welcomed the rays of warm sunlight. A deck of card appeared and we began playing different games. Then comic books appeared from knapsacks. Sandwiches were eaten and a shirt pocket sized transistor radio turned on. When the Coasters’ song “Charlie Brown” and Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans” blared it got two of the older guys riffing their own versions evoking cautious laughter. Finally, finally the tip of my pole began jerking. I anxiously reeled in my hooked hopes of a sizable trout only to find a skinny silver fish that barely fit the palm of my hand. It was a candidate for catch and release but it had swallowed the hook. I pulled out my pocketknife to extracting the hook only to slice the tip of my index finger. Embarrassed by my cumbersomeness I yanked the hook and tossed the dying fish back to the lake. That caused the gulls standing at the margins of our fishing spot eyeing our lunch crumbs to scramble and gang tackle each other in their attempts to gobble the fish. To stem the bleeding I attempted washing the wound with lake water only to scrape grains of sand into the cut. For years after I could see those sand particles below the healed skin of my finger that reminded me of that day of fishing at Lake Merced.

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