Church Lake – Harry Baya
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Last updated May 12, 2020

Chapter 12:  Church Lake

I think much of what I try to convey in these memories would be greatly enhanced with photographs. I do have a lot of photos that would be relevant. However, I also think that pure text is much more likely to survive for generations. My plan is to pretty much stick to text until I have covered all the major areas I wish to cover. Then, if I have time, I may create a separate “edition” with pictures, or perhaps a separate document with a lot of pictures and notes tying them to these documents.

Some time before 1953 Uncle Harry, my father’s youngest brother, bought land on Church Lake, North of Tampa. Church Lake is a small lake – maybe a mile long and less than half a mile wide at its widest. Here is a Google Earth picture of Church Lake

air view

Uncle Harry built house subdivisions and each subdivision had a sales office building. He moved one of these subdivision offices out to Church Lake and placed it about 25 feet from the water. He told me that he picked this land because it would face West and be a good place for watching the sunset. It was. We referred to this building as “the cabin”, or more often as just “the lake”.

Over the years the original building was enhanced by adding “the bird house” ( a small elevated bedroom on the left side of the house as you faced it from the lake) and a back side room, also on the left side of the house. The main room and kitchen was one good sized room with a large screen window looking out over the lake. The other windows in the house were glass and could be opened one way or another. In the early years there was large wood flap hinged over the big window so that it could be pulled down cover the screen in a storm – or locked down to make the house secure when locked up

We have a video with a collection of scenes from a couple of days at the cabin in 1988. This was the last big gathering at the lake I attended. My son Matt was then 19 and had borrowed a video camera (still kind of new and rare back then) from Antioch college where he was a student. I have an MP4 file of the video – but it needs a lot of editing. I found the video. Unedited it is 2.24 GB. I plan to put it on the web and put a link here – but it would be wise to edit it as soon as possible. [ lake_video_1.mp4 ]

I mentioned that Uncle Harry must have put the cabin on the lake before 1953 because I remember going out there before we moved to Venezuela that year.

Directly in front of the cabin Uncle Harry built a sturdy dock about 50 feet long. It sometimes had a diving board at the end of the dock made from a sturdy piece of appropriate wood. It also had a little wooden ledge on the right side (looking out from the cabin) near the far end of the dock. The ledge was near the water height ( which varied by several feet from year to year). This was a popular hang out area for people in the water – you could sit on it, or hold on to it, or put things like drinks on it – depending on the water level.

Uncle Harry would periodically bring in truck loads of sand to create a nice beach area near the dock on the right side (looking out from the cabin). The water that side was kept clear of weeds and used for swimming and wading.  The left side eventually became quite thick with weeds.

Many kids, including my sons, and maybe me, and some of my cousins, learned to swim in the lake. I think it took Paul several years to learn to swim. Paul was 4 or 5 when we started going down there every summer. We did not hurry them. We let them play, supervised, in the shallow water until they got around to swimming. These were good times.

I have wonderful memories, spread over years, of groups of us in the water at the same time – three generations – pranks (lying on an inflatable raft was an invitation to be dunked) – jokes – sunlight, and rain (who cares about the rain if you already swimming). People would come and go over an hour so the mix would change.

My earliest memories are from before 1953. Madge and I, and my cousins, Sarah and Rosalie (Uncle Harry’s daughters) were usually there together. Mother and Daddy were usually there because Daddy would have been visiting Tampa on vacation from the army. Frequent visitors to the lake included other cousins : Emery (Uncle Harry’s youngest, just an infant), Gloria and Sally Joe (Uncle Joe’s daughters), and the Torres kids (Marcella, Maida and Pat).

My early memories are weak and we may have only been there a few times back then. Here are some of them.

I remember my Uncle Ed taking me out in the row boat and teaching me how to row. I particularly remember him showing me the two different strokes – one pulling both oars together and the other pulling on alternate oars. Uncle Ed was my father’s uncle, his mother’s brother, Ed Bending. I also remember Uncle Ed taking me out at night in the row boat with a flashlight. We would row around the edge of the lake – especially to the area to the left of the cabin (looking toward the dock) where there were no houses. It was jungle-like down to the water, and there was plant growth in the water. We would shine the flashlight toward the edge of the lake and every now and then two bright eyes would reflect back the light. Uncle Ed told me those were alligators. We never saw their bodies, just the eyes. My father, years later, said this would not have happened because there were very few alligators in the lake, but I have those memories – true or false.

Even fairly early on the cabin could sleep six kids in the bunk beds in the loft above the back of the living room area (or was it two bunk beds and one other bed?). The living room could sleep two people on the couches and sometimes we would sleep two or three people on the floor in the living room. The “bird house” had a double bed, and the added back room had at least two beds and lots of floor space for more. I think we had folding cots sometimes.  Madge and Susan would usually stay in their motorhome when they came out in later years.

I always loved staying at the lake for several nights in a row. Sometimes we would stay for a week.

Before we went to Venezuela ( I.e before I was 14, probably more like 12) I remember some nights when the kids would go to bed and the adults (the grownups) would stay up in the main room enjoying the party – drinking, laughing, singing, telling stories and jokes. The grownups often included my parents, Uncle Harry and Aunt Tillie, and Ling and Maida Torres. Sometimes Uncle Joe and LaFleeta would visit. Uncle Henry and Aunt Rosalie lived in New Orleans early on and would sometimes visit and come out to the lake ( I ought to find the years for events – like when they moved to Largo). After they moved to Largo they would come out. Sometimes we would organize a group at the lake to go visit them in Largo.

I remember one night when I was in my bed in the loft, as a kid, and we were all supposed to be asleep. The grownups were socializing in the main room below. I was awake, listening, and amused. I loved the experience. On this night a joke was told and my Aunt Tillie, Uncle Harry’s wife, was much amused.

I did not know aunt Tillie well. She was a little more reserved than most of the other adults, or so it seemed to me. She was still always kind, nice and appropriate with me, but I had never seen her loosen up much. On this night she loosened up. Here is the joke that amused her. I assume that she had had a bit to drink.


The Joke:

A: Did you hear about the near sighted snake?

B: No, what happened to the near sighted snake?

A: It tried to rape a rope.


For whatever the reason this struck aunt Tillie as very funny and she got a bad case of the giggles. My memory is that this lasted quite a while and even ten minutes later she would erupt with another fit of giggles. This experience changed my view of her for life. I will always remember that my somewhat uptight aunt Tillie had a joyful uninhibited side that had been hidden from me.

Concerning drinking – My parent’s generation, both the Bayas and the Whites, drank a lot. I heard three people specifically identified as alcoholics: Uncle Joe (who went on the wagon and stayed there sometime before 1953), my grandfather White ( my mother’s father) and aunt Harriet (my mother’s sister). There may have been others.  However, I did not witness problems with alcohol in the adults out at the lake.

My recall is that all of the adults would socialize at night at the lake drank a lot some evenings; all except Uncle Joe, who had stopped drinking. They would get pretty inebriated – laugh a lot and kind of talk silly. But I have no recall of anyone getting sick (vomiting), passing out, getting into an argument or behaving in any way that I would call drunk. They seemed to be able control their drinking.

Some of the adults would go home from the lake after one of these social evenings. I never heard of arrests for drunk driving or other incidents from driving while drunk. All in all I saw none of them abuse alcohol the way I have seen people with alcohol problems since then.

My family was in Venezuela from the spring of 1953 till the fall of 1957. I did not go out to the lake for those years.

We then moved to Atlanta where we lived until my father retired from the army in 1962  and moved to Tampa. I was at MIT during the school year from the fall of 1957 till the summer of 1963. I went in the Army in 1963 and went to Germany. I married Bonnie in the fall of 1964 and returned with her to the U.S. in the fall of 1965. We moved to Columbus, Indiana in the fall of 1965 and stayed there till the spring of 1970 when we moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. I lived with Bonnie and my sons (Paul was born in 1973), in Hastings until she divorced me in 1978. I’ve lade all this out because these dates pretty much controlled when I could have spent time at Church lake.

While I was at MIT my family would visit Tampa in the summers and I would visit with them unless I had a conflict (e.g. working in Laurens, SC.) My family moved to Tampa in 1962 and I visited them often until I left for Germany. I did not visit the lake from the summer of 1963 until, probably, the summer of 1966.  Durning that time I was in the army and then starting work in Indiana. While I was married to Bonnie (1964 to 1978) we visited the lake in the summer, at most, twice. It may have been only once.  Bonnie did not want to visit Florida in the summer.

Here are some memories from while I was at MIT, before I went to Germany in 1963. I went out to the lake on visits to Tampa and I loved it. I lived with my grandmother Baya, my father’s mother, during the summer of, I think, 1960, and went out to the lake when my parents visited Tampa – but I don’t recall spending the night out there when I was in Tampa without them.

During that period, before I went to Germany:

Uncle Harry bought a small outboard motor, 7.5 horsepower, and I used it a lot. I remember I found that when I was alone in the small aluminum boat I could get it to go a lot faster if sat I more toward the middle between the rear motor and the front of the boat. This shifted the center of gravity and the boat would “plane”. I used to even sit so far forward that I could not reach the motor. I could guide the boat somewhat by leaning to one side or the other.  I explored the lake, and Echo lake. I felt amazingly free with that little motor. I would take others out in the boat and I was the pilot… though in fact almost anyone could take the boat out alone if they wanted to, and some, like June Kosky and Rosalie, were comfortable doing that.

Various things happened. The motor got stolen at least once, and replaced. I dropped one motor in the lake and Uncle Harry had me diving in the lake looking for it. I may have seen it fairly deep, but got scared and never found it again.

The nearest store was a kind mini-grocery, hardware and bait store called Fox’s Corner about two miles away. Going there was a fun outing, even if just to get cold can of coke, and we would visit more days than not.

I remember that during some of those years out at the lake my father and I would be the only males there and we would be surrounded by females. In addition to mother, Rosalie, Sarah and Pat Torres, my mother’s nieces from Virginia, Kay White (Uncle Bill’s daughter) and Harriet Gwathmey (Aunt Harriet’s daughter) would often visit for weeks during the summer. June Kosky was often there. Madge, or Madge and Susan after they were living together, would come out to visit. Pat’s sisters, Maida and Marcella occasionally visited. I remember my cousin Sally Joe being at the lake, but I don’t know what years those could have been.

At some point aunt Rosalie died and Uncle Henry married Millie. Millie’s daughter Cathy came out to the lake sometimes. Little Emery (my father was big Emery), Uncle Harry’s son would sometimes come out and sometimes brought friends. Cathy, Kay and Harriet all like Emery.  Cathy won out and eventually married him – and that’s another saga.

I was older than the girls so there was no romantic or sexual interaction. Actually Marcella was close to my age and I eventually had a couple of dates with her. She had other interests so that went nowhere – in spite of my finding her very attractive and both families rooting for us. Oh yes, June Kosky and I had occasional dates years later, after I was divorced from Bonnie, and I did think of getting more involved. After aunt Tillie died Uncle Harry married aunt Gregory. She had two stunning daughters, Gregory and Lucretia. Though I saw them at Christmases I don’t recall them being frequent visitors to the lake.

My memories of days, and weeks, at the lake all blend together in some ways. It was hot during the middle of the day, but even then it was a nice experience to go out in the cool water of the lake. The best time for many people to be in the water was later in the afternoon, probably starting around 4 or 5pm. On a weekend night there would often be 6 or more people in the water together. We would float around in inner tubes, or on an inflatable raft, or wade in the shallower water, or sit on the dock. We’d have splashing fights, dive in, laugh and enjoy being there. Mother would often be in the water with us, and sometimes Daddy would come in. A cold beer went well with this scene once I was old enough to drink.

After I was divorced in 1978 I began to come to Tampa, and go out to the lake, with my sons every summer. This continued until my father’s death in 1987, and there was a big gathering at the lake in the summer of 1988 to which I took Matt, Paul, and Elaine. That’s when the video was made. I may have missed a few summers, but not many.

My favorite memories of the lake are from 1978 to 1981. I started coming down for a week with my sons, probably in 1978, and certainly in 1979. 1980 and 1981. Mother died in the fall of 1981. From 1978 through 1981 I and my sons spent a summer week with mother at the lake. It seemed like a lot more than three years. Matt turned 9 in January of 1978 and Paul became 5 that year. I was forced (that’s how I see it) to move out of my home and live separate from then. I hope not to get into how awful that was for me in these memories. It was the worst experience of my now long life.

Because we I no longer lived with my sons these week or more vacations with Matt and Paul in Florida were poignant, wonderful experiences.   I was out at the lake with mother and my sons only three or four summers. However much it was it was enough to give me some of the best memories of my life. We continued to come down to Tampa and stay out at the lake in the summers after Mother died, but I think we missed some years. It was still great, but part of the magic was gone. For me it was as if my mother had an aura of love, safety, and comfort that embraced everyone near her. The lake seemed to magnify this for me and I think the others who were there with us felt quite a bit of the same magic. I was so glad to share this with my sons. I am fairly sure they have memories of those weeks that are almost as precious to them as mine are to me.

Coming down to Florida with Matt and Paul was an annual adventure. First there was the planning. Then there was the day I would pick them up with my car. I had big old station wagons for many of the trips, and we would drive South. I remember once telling someone that it was like having a big ball of knotted string inside me that was composed of all the worries and pressures of my life. I would tie an end to the doorknob of my home in Hastings and drive off with the string unwinding, the knots popping as they detached from the ball, all the way to Tampa.

We would stop in a motel somewhere along the way, and would usually visit South of the Border, a large tacky tourist center just South of the state line between North and South Carolina. We had a good time on those trips. Even meals at MacDonald’s or Burger King were special (though Matt liked one and Paul liked the other). Sometimes I had a CB radio in my car and that added to the fun. I could write out pages of some the adventures the three of us had going back and forth- go karts, a broken ceiling lamp, a whip, a trip to the emergency room, a little airplane on the hood ornament of the car with a turning propeller in the wind, telling Paul he could put a “South of the Border” sticker on my rear bumper ( I thought it was tacky and tasteless) if I felt sleepy – since it would annoy me and keep me awake. I got sleepy and had the sticker on my car for years.

One year I decided that it would be fun to ride the train down to Tampa. We got on in Penn Station in New York City  and were delighted to find a set of three seats just right for us. I did not book a sleeping compartment. When the train got to Philadelphia the conductor told us that one of us had to move. We were in the handicapped seats and a handicapped person wanted one of them. It got worse, at least for Matt and Paul, after that.  They didn’t care for the food or the dining car. They did not sleep well sitting up in the train seats. They were not happy with me making buttons with my button machine in the dining car. I think it embarrassed them. They were just not happy.  When we got to Tampa they asked me to promise that, no matter what, we would not take the train back to New York. They said they would rather walk. As it turned out Madge’s partner, Susan, was selling her deceased father’s car, a large Mercury Marquis, and I bought it. I think I got a refund on the train tickets.  We drove home in the Mercury.

While the three of us were in Tampa we would go on day trips. We went to the St. Petersburg pier one afternoon. When we got there it was pouring rain, a typical extra heavy rain for a Florida summer afternoon. We wanted to rent fishing lines, buy bait, and fish off the pier. We waited in the car for at least five minutes- but the rain did not change. Finally the three of us agreed to just go out in the rain. We did, laughing all the way. We fished off the pier. We were drenched to the bone. After we were through we went, as planned, over to Florence and Louis Hosch’s house, not too far away, where my parents were visiting. We came in, put on bathing suits and put our clothes in dryer. It was a wonderful day!

Another time we went out to eat one night while staying at the lake – maybe on the way to a movie. We found a drive-in diner and while eating heard a strange sound. We discovered it was many tiny frogs in a small canal behind the diner. We loved it. We came back another night to the same diner and they were still there. I treasure these memories.

One summer Uncle Harry asked me if I would work on the dock while I was there. He said that many of boards on which we walked had aged, were warped, or weakened, and he would like to have them replaced. I said I would be glad to do that. He told me exactly what lumber to get (exact type and size) and where to get it and have it cut to the right size. He also told me what nails to use. It may have taken two car trips to bring all the wood out to the lake.  I spent hours replacing the boards, some of them in hot sun. I loved it. I felt useful. It was something I could do well in that it was kind of difficult to screw up. Matt and Paul helped me and we all felt good about the project – at least that’s how I remember it.

There was a kind or ritual that we heard about when we arrived in Tampa. It was the ritual of getting cabin ready at the start of the summer. I kind of thought of it as getting ready for our visit, but I think they had been doing it for years before we started coming down. It went like this:

Weeks before anyone would spend a night at the cabin mother and available girls (Rosalie,Pat & June were usually there) would go out to the cabin to start getting it ready for the summer. Sometimes Kay or Harriet would time their visit to be able to help with this. It would have been closed up and unused since the previous fall. This was hours of work done on various days over several weekends. . In addition to washing everything, wiping all the surfaces, and sweeping all the floors a major task was to get rid of as many insects, especially spiders, as possible. Some years, maybe every year for all I know, they would seal the cabin as best they could and set off insect bombs (spray cans that would empty into the sealed house) that would fumigate the house.  A lot of the cleaning had to be done after this. They would also collect up all the towels and bed linens and take them in to be washed.

By the time Matt, Paul and I arrived from our drive South the cabin would be ready. Clean, de-bugged as much as possible, and stocked with food and drinks for the first few days. They were proud of their hard work and we were glad to express our appreciation. Though I think we often stayed at the Bayshore home for a night or two after arriving from our drive, the cabin was our primary goal and we would go out as soon as possible.

One of the fun things to do was to fish off the dock. Though large fish had been caught there (Emery has a large bass mounted on his wall.. more later), usually we would catch small fish called brim. They were in the water when we were swimming. Some were tiny, like ½ inch long.  There were many an inch or two long. We would fish with a small fish hook and a line. You could use a fishing pole, and we sometimes did, but you could do about as well just dropping a line over the side of the dock. Bait was also pretty random. Though we would sometimes buy bait up a Foxes Corner, like worms, this was not needed. We caught fish using pieces of hot dog for bait, or even pieces of hot dog buns.

Matt and Paul would often get up early and be out on the dock fishing early. Mother was an early riser and with luck the boys would bring in a fish. The deal was that mother would cook it for breakfast if were big enough. However, the fish were rarely very big. The boys would use their best judgement and throw back the smaller ones. However, sometimes they would bring in one that was clearly on the small side. Though mother would occasionally reject some, she would also occasionally cook some very small fish. On a good day we might have three or four that were 5 or 6 inches long. These were some of the many good experiences at the lake.

The story of Emery catching a large Bass off the dock at age 10 and mother wading into the water to help is in the section of these memories about my mother.

Snakes:

Where to start. There were poisonous snakes around and near Church Lake. However in all the time I was visiting there I never heard of any one being bitten by any kind of snake. The most common snake was a water moccasin. The ones I saw were usually fairly small and I rarely saw them in the swimming area. One summer there seemed to be a bunch around the water area next to where the dock ended on land. My father, then about 74 or so, decided to attack them with a hoe or a rake from the dock. Unfortunately he fell off the dock and we had to take him to the hospital. It was a bad sprain and I think he had to use a crutch for a few days.  I think his embarrassment at being so careless may have been worse than the sprain.

I once saw a small coral snake near the dock. It was about 5 inches long and brightly colored. I went to get a hoe to kill it but it was gone by the time I got back. Another time I opened the bait well in the center of the aluminum row boat and discovered a good size water moccasin. The bait well had a stopper in the bottom that allowed draining the bait well. We think it got left open with some bait in it while the boat was tied to the dock and the snake came in the hole to eat the minnows. It scared me a bit. I was able to get it out. I don’t recall killing it.

I had two bad snake scares. The first occurred one summer when I was cleaning out the storage area beneath the birdhouse bed room. It was dark in there, kind of like a cellar and the ceiling was only about 4 feet above the floor. Junk, like old cushions, wicker baskets, flower jars and lumber and been tossed in over the years and somehow we decided it would be good to clean it out.  I got the job. I had to kind scoot in sitting down. I had been tossing stuff out for a while when I noticed something near the back wall. I think I had a flash light. It turned out to be a rather large snake skin – brown and yellow – and I could see that the snake that left it would have to be at least 4 feet long, maybe bigger. It looked like the snake had been fairly fat. This is all a distant memory so I’m just throwing in guesses as to the sizes and the exact sequence of events. In any case I did see a snake skin. I think I came out and went back in later. I had gotten comfortably in and was looking around when I saw a large brown and yellow snake coiled up a few feet in front of me. I didn’t really take time to get a good look at it. I think it was a copperhead, coiled with the head up like you see in pictures of vipers. I would say, now, it was over four feet long. I don’t really know what it looked like or how big it was. All I know for sure was that there was a big snake in front of me and I wanted get the hell out of there as fast as I could. Pat Torres saw me come out. [ remember this was long ago so I’m filling in as best I can ] and she said she had never seen anyone move that fast backward while sitting on the ground. It took me a while to get over this. When I looked into the storage area the next day the snake was gone.

Now for my big snake story.  The story isn’t big, the snake was.  One day I was in the water with Paul. Paul wasn’t swimming yet and we were walking in shallow water, maybe two or three feet deep, beside the dock, maybe 12 feet from the shore.  I felt something brush against my leg and looked down to see what it was. I saw the body of an utterly enormous snake passing by going toward the dock. My memory is that it was 8 or 9 inches thick. (they say fearful memories tend to be exaggerated – maybe so, but I am sure it was pretty damn big). I was horrified. Grabbed Paul, high stepped over the snake and high stepped very rapidly up to the land. I looked back – nothing. I began telling everyone about the giant snake. Paul had not seen it. No one but me had seen it. No one outright called me a liar but I could see a lot of doubt expressed when I tried to communicate how large it was. I felt kind of foolish, but righteous none the less.

I was vindicated. Praise the lord! I think it was the next day, but it might have been two days.  I was standing on the dock about 2/3rds of the way out and looked over to the side into the swimming area. I saw the snake coming through the water so that it would pass under the dock not far from where I was standing. I hollered out a loud as I could and several people, including either Matt or Paul (maybe both, help me out her guys) came running out to the dock. We stood in awe as this huge snake passed by. I claim it was a least 10 feet long and thicker than my lower arm – maybe 9 inches wide. I saw the head very distinctly. The snake was a blah color – greenish brown – kind of dark. It passed under the dock and I looked on the other side to watch it go away. The other side was filled with weeds and plants, thick with them. I could not see the snake. It amazed me at the time that something so large could pass through those weeds without even a ripple on the surfaces.  I never saw it again.

We had a snake book in the house, a small booklet with colored pictures of 50 or so snakes. I found one that looked kind of like the one I had seen. It was poisonous. I decided that is what I had seen. However, the book said these snakes were rarely over 4 feet long – and that just did not fit.  Still, it looked like the snake. We were all very careful  when swimming the rest of that week. Later, maybe even the next year, we went on an outing to a nature park at Crystal River. On the trees were little plaques with information about various creatures. I saw my snake. It was called a Florida Water Snake. It was not poisonous or dangerous. My memory is that the description I saw allowed for snakes 10 feet in length ( I thought it was longer than that).  However, I just Googled Florida Water snakes, and looked at information on several varieties. These snakes are indeed harmless, but, the largest I saw mentioned was 72 inches- 6 feet. I swear it looked a lot bigger than that. I have the memory, just maybe a bit distorted.

Alligators:

After my big snake story this is anticlimactic. I DID see an alligator in church lake. I was standing on the dock and saw something small swimming across the lake a good distance from the dock. I got in the boat and rowed out to it. It was a tiny alligator, maybe 10 inches long. That’s probably the only alligator body (remember I saw the eyes…) I saw at Church lake. BUT, I did hear of a big one out there. If you look at the Google Earth picture of Church Lake at the start of this you will see that there is very small lake, more like a pond, not far behind where the cabin was. I was told by someone near the cabin (you know, one of those un-named strangers you can say told you something) that a rather large alligator had been seen in that pond a few months earlier.

My cousin, Ryan Baya, Uncle Harry’s grandson (Emery’s son), now lives with his family in a lovely house built on the site where the cabin used to be. He has lived at church lake for over five years and I want to believe he will have heard of large alligators out that way. After all, his mailing address is on “Gator Hole Road” in Odessa, Florida.

My Church lake memories are among the happiest from my life.