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A Little Misdirection

A lake by any other name isn’t always as clear

By Bill Fields

Photograph © The Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library

Our next-door neighbor, Dom Scali, was a good man: World War II veteran (European theater), father of a boy and a girl who were my pals. A native New Yorker and a butcher, for years after moving to Southern Pines — where he ran the Mid Pines Golf Club locker room from fall through spring — Dom went north with his family in the summer and worked in his old trade on Fire Island.

Dom drove an Oldsmobile Delta 88, dark green with a white top, a first-class car that made the parade of bargain, well-used models in our driveway feel like junkers. One late summer day around 1970, though, I discovered Dom’s sense of direction wasn’t as good as his sense of style.

We didn’t have school because of a teacher workday, and the Scali family kindly invited me to join them on a day trip to White Lake in Bladen County. This was a big deal because White Lake was to freshwater bodies of water what a Delta 88 was to sedans.

White Lake is one of many Carolina bays, oval depressions in the Coastal Plain. There were many theories about how the bays were formed, from the impact of meteorites to the spawning of giant fish. Experts eventually agreed that when the ocean receded, waves created pools of standing water shaped in elliptical forms by wind from a constant direction (northwest to southeast).

Many of the Carolina bays were the color of strong tea, but the water in the 1,200-acre White Lake was so clear it was as if it had come from a bathroom faucet. You could walk in up to your shoulders and still see your feet on the smooth, white sand bottom — you didn’t have to worry about stepping on something icky. I never saw anything that compared to the pristine water of White Lake until a few years later on a trip to the Florida panhandle and a visit to Wakulla Springs, which was so crystal clear the manatees could spot one another from a football field away.

I never rode a glass-bottom boat at White Lake, but there was a pier, concession stands and carnival rides. Away from shore, expert waterskiers performed tricks. It was about half as far from home as the Atlantic Ocean, but nearly as much fun as our annual vacation to the beach. In flip-flops, bathing suit, T-shirt and carrying a beach towel, I eagerly piled into the back seat with Donnie and Karen for the 75-mile drive southeast to White Lake. Dom was behind the wheel with wife Rose riding shotgun.

We were counting license plates and otherwise entertaining ourselves. After a while, the chatter in the front seat led to a stop at a gas station. We spent dimes on Cokes from the drink machine. I saw Mr. Scali speaking to the attendant. “It won’t be long now,” he said when getting back behind the wheel.

In fact, it wasn’t too long until we found ourselves on a commercial strip and saw signs for . . . Spring Lake. We had spent most of the morning heading toward the pawn shops and military surplus stores of the town near Fort Bragg. Mr. Scali had maneuvered us to the wrong “lake.”

I sat quietly. Dom’s wife and children were capably critiquing what had happened.

“We’ll get there,” Mr. Scali said after everyone had calmed down.

And we did, a long time after we should have. As we rolled into the parking lot in late afternoon, we saw families packing up their stuff to head home.

We had a swim; the White Lake water as clean and the bottom as smooth as I remembered from my previous trip. We weren’t there long enough to worry about getting sunburned. Before we knew it, we were knocking the sand off our flip-flops and getting into the Olds for the ride home — a journey that fortunately didn’t include any wrong turns or detours to Spring Lake.

Our stories of the day lasted longer than that roundabout ride to White Lake and were always told with a smile.  PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.