Drinking the Kool Aid and Dirty Dancing on Gopher Pond
A giant black and white photo of a group of people who look like campers straight out of the 1979 movie “Meatballs” hangs on the wall of the General Store on “Gopher Pond” in New Jersey.
“Is this right before you guys drank the Kool Aid?” I ask my childhood friend, Joanna.
“HA! No.” She laughs and scoots by the kids playing ping pong next to us. I follow her and then we wait near the counter for our Taylor Ham Egg and Cheese sandwiches (a delicacy which can only be found in Jersey).
A blonde woman enters the General Store. The screen door slams shut behind her.
“This is my friend, Sue, from middle school,” Joanna says. I haven’t been called “Sue” since we met when we were 12 years old but right now it feels perfectly appropriate. “In every other place it would seem like we’ve known each other a long time, but not here!”
“I’ve known Joanna since she was in diapers,” the woman says.
“You win!” I say and shake hands with her and immediately forget her name. I’ve met at least 20 people since I got to the lake the night before. I can’t keep them all straight.
“Did you play in the tennis tournament?” Joanna asks the woman. About a hundred feet away people are whacking tennis balls in the 90 degree plus humidity heat.
On the other side of the store, a basketball tournament is taking place. Later today, there will be canoe races.
It feels like I’m at Kellerman’s and any second now Baby and Johnny will dirty dance across the porch.
“We lost,” the blonde woman says.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. You’ll get ‘em next time!” Joanna says and scoops up our sandwiches that have magically appeared on the counter.
The screen door slams again as we exit into the thick air and walk along the gravel road back to her lake house.
“Tonight, we’re having dicks at six and then there’s a dance,” she says.
“Dicks at six?” I ask.
“A hotdog fest.”
“Oh. Cool. I love hotdogs,” I say.
We eat our sandwiches, listen to music, and relax on her dock for most of the day. Giant fluffy clouds drift overhead and a breeze blows the heft out of the air.
Hours later, when Joanna gets in her boat to take the band on boat tour around the lake, I say, “I’ll see you at dicks on sticks.”
Joanna laughs and yells, “Not dicks on sticks! Dicks at 6:00!”
I walk to the hotdog fest with Vanessa, Joanna’s adult daughter. She’s a fabulous musician and a smart young woman who feels more like a friend than my friend’s kid. As we approach, hundreds of people mill around the community center which looks like a log cabin. I recognize it from the “Kool Aid” photo that hangs in the General Store.
“WHOA. That’s a lot of people,” I say.
“Yep,” Vanessa wades into the crowd and introduces me to Judy, a librarian who is also a writer. Somehow, I mention that I first started writing for Seventeen and Teen magazines.
“When I was a teenager, I was a teen consultant for Sassy magazine,” Judy says.
“What?!” I’m starstruck as we delve into a fascinating conversation about writing, books, publishing, and libraries.
As we chat, I gobble two hotdogs. When the band begins, Judy and I exchange phone numbers and part.
In the sweltering community center, Dirty Dancing comes to life. The band is loud, everyone waves their arms in the air. Couples twirl and someone starts a Conga train. I bounce all over the dancefloor. I haven’t danced to a live band since before the pandemic and it feels AMAZING.
All around me, couples, kids, families, old and young, dance, dance, dance around this giant wooden building that looks like a log cabin from the outside and feels like a steam room on the inside.
I’ve never experienced anything like it. Generations of families coming back to the same lake for over a hundred years to spend the summer eating hot dogs, playing tennis, and dancing together.
It’s such a departure from how I have lived. If I had been in LA on that summer Saturday night, I’d probably be with my single friends watching the sunset at a beach bar or maybe having a drink at the Sunset Marquis.
Here, we dance for hours and drink beer from a keg. It almost feels like a wedding without a bride and groom.
To end the dance, the band plays “God Bless America,” as it has been played at the end of every dance on this lake for the last 100 years. Neighbors sing along, arms around each other’s shoulders even though it’s really too hot to touch anyone.
It feels like a slice of Americana, a world I would never have known existed had I not visited. And I wonder, how many little worlds are there like this across the US? Are young girls line dancing in Nevada too? Are there canoe races somewhere in Texas?
And if we just took the time to learn about each other’s little worlds, could we love each other just a little bit more?