When Life Was Dreamy

We all ordered a DiPacific specialty, the club sandwich. Crisply toasted quarters of white bread between stacks of mayo-slathered ham, beef, tomato and lettuce were saved from toppling apart by America’s great keeper-together, the toothpick.

Terry and I ordered iced tea to drink. Patti asked for a glass of milk, which, when set down beside her, momentarily threw me a curve. Milk is for kids, I’ve always thought, not for people in their 60s, which all of us were at the time.

In a skewed sort of way, though, “kid” fit well into our luncheon that noon at DiPacific’s Steakhouse, corner of Routes 332 and 96, 10 minutes north of Canandaigua. We, especially Terry and I, were reminiscing about our childhoods in the Finger Lakes, Owasco Lake and Auburn, to be specific.

Our conversation was tinged with sadness. “It’s a long throw from here to Fort Myers,” Terry said.

“Cuz” (Terry’s my cousin) was referring to an almost yearly ritual, back when we were young, of tossing a softball to one another both up on Ross Street Extension in Auburn and on Rockefeller Road in the Town of Owasco, a little southeast of Burtis Point on Route 38A along Owasco Lake. Terry was born and spent his life in Auburn. I, too, am a native of that city. My father, however, in search of better jobs during the 1930s, moved my mother and me first to Binghamton, then to Hamilton, a small city near Cincinnati, Ohio.

But I spent my summers in Auburn, living alternately with my grandparents on Westlake Avenue and the ones on Swift Street, and hanging out with kids my age – Louie, Bobby and Eda Contiguglia, and Terry and his brother, Tom.

Terry and his wife, Patti, were finally leaving Upstate New York. He’d sold his business, Midlakes Memorials, and was retiring to Florida. Down there it’s warm and sunny most every day, all day, a sharp contrast to Finger Lakes country where coaxing three months of more than 75-degree temperatures and skies without threat is considered “a great summer.”

But Terry will be near water in Florida. Water, hands down, is the great mystique of the Finger Lakes. Swimming, yes. Boating, yes. Natural beauty, yes. But just being able to gaze across any one of the familiar or not-so-familiar Finger Lakes and dream, that’s the allure.

Like some sort of secret potion, the gentle lap, lap of Owasco Lake, especially in the early morning, triggered wonderment of the far off, especially in the minds of kids like me. I felt that way about the Lehigh Valley Railroad, too. Just as the morning mist disappeared in the warm sun, I watched the train wiggle its way north to south along the lake’s west shore toward Cascade and Cortland, then maybe Ithaca, Elmira or Scranton. They were towns I’d heard of but never visited, except in my thoughts.

The baseball thing
Back in the late 1940s, Auburn was home to a classy Class C professional baseball team, the Cayugas. They were classy because the club usually finished atop five other Border League clubs that included Watertown and Ogdensburg in New York, and Kingston, Sherbrooke and Granby across the St. Lawrence in Ontario.

“Freddy Gerken’s in town tonight,” my grandfather, William J. (Bill) Lee, warned me when the archrival Watertown Athletics appeared to challenge our beloved Cayugas. “We’d better get down to Falcon Park and root for our guys.”

It was Grandpa Bill’s loving way of inviting me to join him at the game; he was as much a baseball nut as me. Gerken was a big homerun hitter. While Auburn beat Watertown most of the time, the score was usually a shaky 9 to 6, with all the losers’ runs knocked in with a pair of three-run Gerken homers.

I thought of that as I sat on the dock at Burtis Point looking out across Owasco’s waters, just like I dreamed of dancing like Fred Astaire or dating movie stars June Haver, Esther Williams or June Allyson from those wonderful Hollywood movies of the ’40s. Bobby Contiguglia, who became a judge, and his bother Louie, a lawyer, and I kept up-to-date on the silver screen’s tuning and wooing every Saturday night at the Auburn Theater on South Street.

It was a few miles south of Owasco Lake, but the city of Auburn was, nevertheless, the lake, and the lake was Auburn, at least in my young mind. Pristine physically for sure – you could look 20 feet down off a floating raft and clearly see the bottom. Only stones and plants down there; no garbage, cans or other man-made stuff.

Pristine, too, in the minds and hearts of all of us kids. Nothing could go wrong in that place where we played, learned, grew and dreamed.

Except for occasional visits, I’d left the Finger Lakes behind years ago, opting for Ohio and later, Rochester. Terry, my softball-throwing cousin and his mate, Patti were leaving lake country, too. Forever. No drive-bys. No weekends. Maybe a holiday to see their kids, but basically Owasco Lake and Auburn would have to exist without them. Without us.

Fort Myers is simply too far.

“Hey, but you can do it!” Terry said to me as he waved from his SUV.

“Do what?” I yelled back.

“Toss me the softball!” he smiled. “It’s a helluva distance, but you’ve always had a great arm.”

In his dreams, I thought. But know what? Maybe he’s right. Thanks to the rolling hills and clear, clean, gentle waters of the Finger Lakes, we’d done a lot with dreams. Tossing a softball to Fort Myers might just be a piece of cake.

Owasco Lake and Auburn will never be that far, especially in our memories.


by Lee Burgess
Lee Burgess believes his life was shaped by the years he spent in Auburn, and points out that, “The Finger Lakes are not just holes in the side of a state, courtesy of the Ice Age, but an entire lifestyle.” He lives in Webster.