A bittersweet look back

Little did I know at the time it would be the only trip we ever took together as a family.  The Lake of the Ozarks in the 1970s wasn’t as busy as it is now, a regular summertime Mecca for city dwellers.  We visited a roadside reptile garden that resides long in my memory even though it has seemingly receded into its wooded backdrop over the subsequent generation.  Fences and buildings weathered away and slunk down into the foundation when the attraction lost its novelty over the years. Entertainment tastes change with time, and the amphibian kingdom didn’t last the decade.

Vacationers moved on down the highway to a dam built over the man-made lake where carnival games, miniature golf courses, bumper cars, and funnel cake stands drew in crowds. The strip, as it was called, became the paying public’s destination of choice for a new generation. Parking was a rare commodity in its summertime heyday.

crappy wagonThe Oldsmobile station wagon was big enough to get us all there. Seemingly as long as a Greyhound bus, it was hard to fit in those spaces. Serving multi-purposes, though, the Olds sometimes even delivered feed to the horse lot behind our house. Mom took a sharp turn once and caught the side door on a corner of the house. A deep dent remained throughout its ownership as reminder of a tank’s lack of maneuverability.

At first, the car was a novelty to us. It had an automatic rear window in the tailgate that we considered something rich people usually had, not us. I had a great time riding there, laying down actually. There was no seat, just storage space for an extra kid when there was no other room. Laws didn’t regulate restraint seating back then, so my baby brother lay between my sisters, and I had the back-back where the sun shone through the new-age electronic window.

A hot wind blew in the passenger windows with heat only a humid Midwestern July afternoon can generate, much like a blast of furnace cranked to capacity. It slapped my face if I rose above the back bench seat, so I maintained my prone position on the factory-grade auto carpet. Tiny fiber tendrils itched bare skin exposed by a summer tank top. Its thin cotton provided little protection through to my pale, spindly torso.

The glass had no tint, and the UV rays cast an orange glow on my bare skin. A fair complexion meant a precarious day in the mid-day sun. The first stop was Max Allen’s Zoological Gardens outside Eldon, Missouri. Photographed sitting atop a somnambulistic giant turtle, I suspect I was balanced in fear of becoming its snack lest I tumbled to the ground. Wet tendrils of wispy blond hair hung limply down my temples in the mid-western summer swelter but tired eyelids masqueraded any worry of danger.

courtesy NeatoCoolville
courtesy NeatoCoolville

The only other existing trip photo was of my dad holding me as we looked out at ducks skimming the lake’s surface. Our family potentate. He always had the final say, and what he said went. He looked cool in his khakis and brown “dress” cowboy hat. An onlooker wouldn’t know if sweat seeped through his pearl-buttoned white shirt with its sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He was cool as a cucumber, head bowed and a hand reaching down to my own, perhaps getting food from a bag purchased for an expectant mallard.

We went to Max Allen’s whether anyone else wanted to or not, with four kids fascinated yet frightened to visit snakes and gila monsters.  If we offered any pleas otherwise, they likely fell on an autocrat’s deaf ear.  Nostalgia usually comes in hindsight, not with preferences of the time.

I drive through that area every summer, as “The Lake” is still a sacred place to me. It now looks a lot different, though. Home Depot is where a bumper car emporium probably used to stand, and a graffiti wall that once fortified Max Allen’s reptilian compound lies crumbling in ruin.  Faint letters hint at where leering alligators and monkeys had entertained curious kids of all ages. I look back with fond memories conjured from aged black and white Polaroids in a long-yellowed album.

But all good things must come to an end, and the strip itself even gave way to shopping districts and chain restaurants. People who still want to take passenger boats tour of the Lake are the only ones still obliged with waterfront access, yet pricey passage, to a short ride. They can’t, however, frequent the now defunct carnival atmosphere, as it gave way to progress of land development and interest of viable profit. Even Skee-Ball has reached its demise there.

The strip’s inevitable death ultimately realized, our family’s longevity of vacationing followed not long afterward. Maybe it was lack of expendable income. Money was always scarce, especially for such “extravagances,” but I’d dare say it had more to do with patience. Specifically, adult patience of car rides with kids and the inherent noise level. Much like the roadside park, our togetherness became outdated, a thing of the past that lost its popularity as we matured and our attraction to traveling with each other waned as well.


This post was prompted with orange at Studio 30+, an online writers’ community.


  1. I loved this. I loved the pacing. I loved the images it gave me (I will never forget the unbearable hotness of Missouri’s humidity) and our own experiences in the famous Ozarks…

    We had a station wagon with the rear view seat in the back. How I loved sitting there with the window rolled down (no kids of today would have survived our youth right? Either that or our parents would all end up in jail for neglect…)

    This was a beautiful portrait.

    • Thanks, Marie! You always have such positive, encouraging responses to my writing, and I appreciate it. I love the water, especially skiing, and am so lucky to have friends who invite us to spend summer weekends at the lake. Great memories there as an adult, too. Much different times but fun!

  2. Love it. It paints a clear picture and is unabashed in its wallowing in nostalgia. It makes me think of my own childhood trips to the beach, and of how much that trip, and that beach, and all of us, have changed.

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