Monday, July 31, 2017

Back when the bright lights hit the lake

Back in high school in Harnett County, I would sometimes here my classmates talk about going to Lake Artesia. For whatever reason -- maybe I wasn't invited (thanks, guys!)? -- I never made it to Lake Artesia. I think, in my mind, I imagined it being a smaller White Lake.

Earlier this week, my mother -- a proud Sampson County native -- talked about Williams Lake and the great musical acts that would play there in the 1950s and '60s. "We would say we were going to a friend's house for the night, but we'd instead go to Williams Lake."

I just had to look up the history of these places -- hot spots that were quite literally in the middle of nowhere.

Like my mother, Michael Parker is a Clinton native. Parker has written about Williams Lake and Lake Artesia. It's pretty remarkable the acts that made the trek down these back roads to play for sometimes up to 700 rural North Carolinians back in the day. (But, to be fair, every North Carolinian was a rural North Carolinian back then.)

Williams Lake was located near Mingo Township, in the northeastern corner of Sampson County, closer to Newton Grove and Dunn than it was to Clinton ...  The club had been drawing teenagers from all over eastern North Carolina since the 1930s, when a pavilion was built on the lake and the swimmers asked the owner, Clayton Williams, to put in a jukebox for jitterbugging. After a hard day in the tobacco and produce fields, which were the primary summer jobs for teenagers back then, a night at Williams Lake was a just reward. But its heyday was in the ’60s, when the shoulders of the country roads leading to the lake were clogged with the cars of kids looking to shag to the music of The Tams, The Drifters, and Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs. ...

Lake Artesia -- or "Amnesia" -- was similar, but different.

The club itself — an A-frame flanked by two wide wings that resembled, inside and out, a rustic lodge — was a good ways off the highway, down a sandy lane dead-ending in a huge field converted into a parking lot. A booth was set up at the highway. They charged by the head. ... During the three or four summers I spent going there, the bigger-name bands — The Tams, The Drifters, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs — seemed to regularly change members. But no one cared if this was the “original” Drifters. We just wanted to get up on the roof or under the boardwalk. We wanted to be young, be foolish, be happy. We wanted to say to the security guards who accused us of climbing into and out of someone’s dank trunk, What kind of fool do you think I am?

 Of course, Parker asks the legitimate question -- the same question any logical person would ask: Why? And how? What was it that led to these small "bodies" of water to attract national touring acts?

It’s a mystery to me now how these two lakes — one of them not much more than a pond — in the middle of the middle of nowhere, both within a half hour of my hometown, drew national talent night after summer night. There must have been money in it, despite the revenue lost to trunk and wood, but surely these bands could have made more in conventional dance clubs in Raleigh or Wilmington, Charlotte or Greensboro, places we small-town, rural kids thought of as big cities.

I’m just happy these places existed, for even though I know one of them only by the aura it left in the memories of its patrons, if it was anything like the one I knew in my teens, it was magical. A sweet drive down back roads, past tobacco barns and head-high corn in field after field as the brutal summer sun finally cast shadows and brought shade. The thrill of entry, legitimate or not. The chance of meeting someone you did not know whom you’d like to get to know better. Most of all, the music, which — after a long day cropping tobacco or packing produce or, if you were lucky enough, basking in a plastic chair overlooking squealing kids splashing about in some swimming pool — took you to the place where music takes you, which has nothing to do with parking lots or ponds. Lovelorn lyrics, tight horn sections, thumpy bass, and chugging rhythm guitar — these sounds are what turn my time there into a field of dreams.

Any first-hand stories from Williams Lake or Lake Artesia you care to share?