September 22, 2013
Today I close a chapter of my life. I am leaving Lake Martin.
I was born a lover of the water. Like my grandfather T.B. Bufford and my mother Luda, I had almost an unnatural love of the water. By age seven, I had passed all available swimming lesson classes including swimming a mile and swimming across the deep end of the City Pool with a 10 lb weight. Since I only weighed about 60 lbs myself, swimming with a 10 lb weight was impossible, so I jumped in the pool, sank to the bottom, and walked across bottom of the pool. Up the ladder I came and watched Coach Charles Bailey smile and check off ‘complete’ on the scorecard. I lived at the pool. The diving board was my best friend.
In 1967 at age nine, my father rented a lot on Lake Martin from Alabama Power Company. We paid $110 per year. We worked hard clearing the forest and building a concrete-block cabin. When we finished a day of work, we swam in the fresh, clear water. We also fished and boated in our green aluminum boat with our six-hp mercury. It was good family time. We shared our lake cabin with friends, family, and… well everyone!
I learned to water ski that summer. My friendship with the diving board ended. Water skiing became much more than a hobby. I enjoyed other sports, but skiing dominated my interest. I played little-league baseball with my older brother Mike and other friends and loved the competition, but when they told me I could not swim or ski on baseball days, I shrugged and walked away from baseball.
These details are unimportant, but it shows my love for the Lake. My energy and focus was on the sport of water skiing. I spent every moment I could on Lake Martin. As a family, we did not have the funds for boats and gas, so I did a lot of begging for pulls. Mostly we skied behind small boats with 30 to 55 hp outboard engines. The ‘big dog’ on the lake was a family friend named Wilson Gonce. He was a young, athletic man who moved to the area to teach at the high school. He had a boat with a 75 hp Mercury engine. It was far bigger and more powerful than anything else available to us. We loved it, but it did not have a neutral or reverse. You had to be ready to ski when he cranked that big boy. It was going forward!
I will spare you the 100s of stories of good times on Lake Martin. Good friends. Good memories.
The sport was new to the world and interest was exploding especially with the national photos and articles pushed out of a place called Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Florida. Over the years, I spent more and more time behind the boat and became obsessed with learning new tricks. By age 16, I was traveling to ski tournaments. My first was in Pell City where I won the overall trophy (which I still have). When I enrolled at Auburn University, I became part of the water ski team. We traveled to Florida and skied in competitions in places like Lakeland, St. Peterburg, Gainsville, Tallahassee, and many more. I was thrilled to compete on the famed lakes of Florida, but I quickly realized that even though these sites were famous for water skiing, these locations were no match for Lake Martin. The fresh-water sites were murky, often black with cypress acid, and shallow and full of vegetation - and alligators. The salt-water sites like Tampa Bay had things that would sting you and eat you, and lacked to calm of my beloved Lake Martin.
I loved competition, but in time had to accept that I was not blessed with the natural athletic ability nor the financial resources to compete on a national level. It took a lot of money for boats and gas and travel. My world changed in 1977 when I earned a position in the Callaway Garden Water Ski Show. Show skiing was different than competition skiing and I seemed to fit in. We taught ski lesson and performed in daily shows. As a part of the team, we were granted unlimited practice time on the most famous ski site in the world and with seven new Correct Craft Ski boats! I was in heaven! But even the famous water of my heaven - Robin Lake at Callaway Gardens - was no match for Lake Martin. There were no opportunities to explore new sloughs, jump off huge rocks, or just skim for miles on glass-calm water.
Show skiing provided opportunities for me that I never dreamed of as a child. At age 20, I landed a job at Marine World Africa USA near San Francisco. I spent the summer of 1979 in California where my job was to perform in four ski shows each day. Thousands of people would attend our shows where I would routinely play the role of our clown, a comedy version of Clark Kent and Superman. People seemed to enjoy Clark with a strong southern accent! One of my unique comedy lines was to say that I came all the way there from L.A. to ski. The announcer would of course say Los Angeles and I would interrupt to say “No! L.A. Lower Alabama” in my natural and strong southern accent. It was a great summer, but I missed my Lake Martin. The water at Marine World was dark mixture of salt water pumped in from San Francisco Bay combined with a steady run off from local parking lots and various animal habitats. Skiers would suffer from infections and huge pimples that we called boils because they would grow or “boil” until they burst with infection. This never happened in my Lake Martin. I missed standing on the dock and peering into the clean water where it is common to see a small bass swim by.
When career jobs came along, it meant living away from Lake Martin. I continued to perform with a group of show skiers throughout the Southeast until I was nearly 50 years old. It gave me an opportunity to reunite friendships and travel to new locations. As beautiful as some of the lakes were, none were as attractive as my Lake Martin.
When the career opportunity arose, I was able to return to Lake Martin. I have lived on the lake and continued to water ski regularly. In addition to water skiing, I soak up Lake Martin. My wife and I swim almost daily. We ride on our pontoon to Kowaliga or Blue Creek for a meal. We stop by and watch the dare devils jump from Chimney Rock. (yes I do know that it is actually Acapulco rock). We visit her childhood ‘cabin’ and mine, a distance of about 30 miles apart. On my 60th birthday, I skied for 60 miles – from Wind Creek State Park to Chimney Rock, to Willow Point, through the narrows, and back to Lake Hill. I love Lake Martin and experience all of it – from the shoals to the narrows, and all 800 miles of shoreline in between.
This week I was saddened to flip the switch on my boat lift and lower my boat into Lake Martin for the last time. She is a 2002 Correct Craft Ski Nautique. She has been faithful to ride us and tow us for years. She offered lots of thrills, laughter, and pleasure. Except for a little fading by the sun, she is holding up well. In almost every lake, a boat will quickly develop a stain along the water line. Due to the quality of our water, this is not an issue on Lake Martin. However, this day I noticed a faint stain on the side of her from all the years. She has been a good one. As I leave Lake Martin, I think I will leave the stain on her.
Preparing to leave has been emotional. I love this place. As I exit, I dwell on how blessed I have been. I am a better person because of Lake Martin. My shoulders are broad due to the years of slalom passes in the ski course. My arms, back, and legs are strong for a 60 year-old. My mind is replete with good memories. My soul has been nourished by the beauty of calm sunsets and stunning sunrises. Except for a little fading by the sun, I am holding up well. I then realized that I too have been stained by the years on Lake Martin. It is a tarnish I am content to keep.
This chapter of my life is ending. We sold our lake house and are moving. However, this is not the end of the book. We are just entering a new chapter. We have planned this adventure for several years. My wife Roxanne and I will be traveling the country in an RV. We will be experiencing new and exciting places and hope to visit a lot of friends along the way. Yes, I will be carrying my ski along, so look for me somewhere waiting on a dock begging for someone to give me a pull.
Although I will miss my Lake Martin, I hope to test the waters of lakes all across the country in search of a better lake. I already know I will not find one.
Leaving Lake Martin is sad, but in the words of the Terminator, “I’ll be back!”