Not a picture of Sunshine Lakes. This is a picture of the bridge crossing the creek at Pennypack Park near Rhawn Street..

Pennypack Park
A Collection of Essays

Sunshine Lakes

Janet M. Gibson

Index of Essays


V.  Sunshine Lakes

            In my childhood, the family went to a lake in New Jersey for swimming and sunbathing on its beach.  This place, Sunshine Lakes, was my heaven on earth.  My memories of this place drip with nostalgia that I wish I could go there again in a time machine.  Located in New Jersey off of Route 73 near the Berlin circle, this lake was a world of its own.  You could not see it from the highway.  To get there, we drove over the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge--paying a 5 cent toll--across the Delaware River, and we followed 73 past some stores, drive-in movies, several circles, Olga's Diner, and lots of country (most of which is commercial property now) about 25 miles.  We turned right soon after passing a giant Wise potato chip Owl sign and a New Jersey Transit bus stop, and drove down a dirt road which cut through the pine forest on both sides.  Down a distance there was the ticket booth, a wooden painted white booth in the middle of the road where my Dad paid for the carload.  I think a few times one of us may have hidden in the back of the station wagon to save on the price, or I may be confusing this with the drive-in movie, also in New Jersey.  Our light blue station wagon was packed with lawn chairs, inner tubes, and picnic bag—a red, plaid, zipped vinyl rectangular bag that held liverwurst or bologna or egg sandwiches—and a round Kool-Aid jug.  At the gate you still could not see the lake, but by now we were eager to get out of the car after the half hour trip.  Further down the road was the area to park amid pine trees and sandy/rocky soil.  I have no memory of the parking lot, which might mean that we parked between pine trees right at the beach area.  I think sometimes we selected a picnic table by the car, but mostly I remembered sitting on a blanket on the beach, and I don't remember what we did with the car.

            The lakes in Jersey were brown.  The beach had deep sand, very grainy and rough, not at all like the fine sand at the shore.  The swimming area was wide and roped off so that you could not swim out to the middle of the lake let alone to the other side.  The lake was large, taking up the view, and the swimming area was large enough for the crowd.  The horizon was pine trees.  Seclusion.  There were several diving platforms, wooden planes built on concrete pillars that you could swim around, but the platform was not high enough for a tube to fit under.  Teenagers sat on them and younger kids jumped or dived off of them.  The platforms may have varied in how high off the water they were; the higher one was were the older kids hung out.  I recall a painted gray wooden platform with perhaps a ladder like a swimming pool for getting up.  In my memories I do not recall being on the platform very much, but going around them in the water was one of the things to do.

            Inner tubes.  One of the greatest inventions of humankind.  The challenge to get into one into just the right position.  My tube was brown—smaller than my sisters, which were a silver black.  They had patches and nozzles for added texture.  The nozzle had a way of jabbing you or scratching you in the thigh if you weren't sitting just right.  They were soft yet firm giant donuts I hugged.  You could lay in them, on them, or between them; come in from under them, lay on your stomach, or just let your backside sink in the middle of them with legs hanging over the rim;  they were pillows and tug-of-war toys.  Inner tubes are peaceful even if name of the game is to dislodge a sister floating in them.  You could spin, push, and pull them.  My dad often walked me around the lake with me in the tube and he getting the fun job of pulling me along like a kid in a wagon.  Or inner tubes were good for just sitting and existing with the water.  [If I were to write a fantasy novel where the dead king is put on a raft to float to the horizon, I would send him off in an inner tube.  That is the way to sail into heaven.]

            Sunshine Lakes also had a concession stand—food that was more attractive to me than what was in mom’s plaid picnic basket.  I was not allowed to get hot dogs or snacks from the stand too often because money was tight and my mom brought all that was needed.  There was an enclosed room next to it with a screen door that banged when it closed.  We had metal screen doors in Philly, so to me the wooden banging screen door felt like "country."  I believe the room had a pool table in it and teenagers hung out there.  I was not interested in any of those scary and boring adult activities.  There was also a little shallow, rectangular pool around back, about a minute walk through the pines perhaps near to where cars parked.  I think even this little pool had a "baby" pool beside it.  I was not pleased with this pool as we could not use the tubes nor was it deep enough for any games.  I don't think it had any chlorine in it, and there usually was a collection of dead bugs in it and rust stains on the sides of the pool.  I can recall my mother encouraging us to play at the pool but there was very little one could do there without space, depth, and inner tubes.  I recall discussions with my sister there about the need to wait one hour after lunch.  Perhaps since we were not allowed back into the lake, we strolled around and came to the pool.  I can remember thinking about drowning from cramps; not really knowing how it happened and wondering if there would be any warning before I was sucked under.  I do recall that if I wasn’t wearing flip flops or sneakers that the walk between this pool and the beach was hard on the feet—the surface was either too rough or too hot for a pleasant walk.  In fact, I remember the sand at this lake being hot, something about it was not as pleasant as the shore’s beach, which could be hot, but not always.  The type of sand by the lake was hard to mold, so building sand castles was hopeless, but it was till good for digging holes and burying parent's feet as they sat on the blanket to rest from our activity.

            But the lake water is remembered as wonderful, although I think every trip required a getting-used-to-the-water period before I made it where the water was above my waist.  My father and sisters were braver and usually were completely soaked before me.  My mother didn't like getting her hair wet, so she was left to watch at the beach or stand with me ankle-deep while I got used to the water and ventured out to have fun with the inner tube and sea-monster sisters.

            Sunshine Lakes must have had financial problems or perhaps pollution problems, and it closed long before my parents’ divorce.  I don't know how old I was on my last trip, perhaps seven.  It turned out, though I did not know it all those years we went in my young childhood, that my father’s parents lived rather close to the lakes.  I knew that they lived further down on Route 73 and that we turned and drove the same direction as the lake, but I never associated the two as connected.  The only connection in my mind is that sometimes when we were going to their house, I would look at the turn off for Sunshine Lakes and follow it down to into the pines and wish we were going there instead of visiting relatives. 

            My father's parents were John and Pauline Scheidel Gibson.  He was a stern children-don'-matter-much type of a fellow, and I was afraid of him most of the time; I can only recall "playing" once with him, out in his yard where he had a hammock and my sisters and I pretended it was a boat and the garden around us was the ocean.  My grandmother was a quiet woman who gave us marshmallow cookies for snacks.  She had beautiful auburn hair, always tied up in a bun; she was born in Austria and moved to America in her childhood, near Neshaminy.  Their house was about 2 blocks from Route 73, at the end of T.  Nothing was to the right of the T, and it turned out that through that undeveloped land was a road that went into the pines that surrounded Sunshine lakes.  But in my childhood, my thoughts of their house was self-contained--there was the driveway that had gravel and grass (novel for a city person like me from Philadelphia), and a backyard that was all grass and rock gardens.  In my house in Iowa, I have a pine tree at the east corner of the property, and I think of it as  Grandmom's pine tree because it connects my memories to their house.

            The year before my father moved to Florida, when I was 10 years old, my father’s parents moved to Oklahoma to live near another son, Albert (my father had 3 brothers).  One day I went with my dad to help them pack up the house, and he asked if I wanted to go down to Sunshine Lakes and have a look around.  From the road right off their street we walked into the pine forest that separated the housing development from the dirt road that held the ticket booth.  This is when I realized just how close the lake was to their house.  He talked about as a kid how he often sneaked into the lake, but I didn’t realize it until later that he had not lived there as a kid, but that his parents only moved there after he was grown up, I think.  He also had used this route as the basis for many bedtime stories about his friend Larry and how they went on adventures, that included adventures in the woods and even a trip to the moon on a home-built rocket.  As I walked with him, I could see this road and the pine forest and lake as a setting for adventures like Mark Twain and Huck Finn had on the Mississippi, only my father and his friend Larry took their place.

            Unfortunately my memory isn’t clear as to whether we made it to the lake on that last walk.  I don’t think so.  I think we saw no trespassing signs.  I think we made it to the road with the ticket booth, and I can easily imagine seeing an abandoned and decaying ticket booth and gate, like a carcass of a long dead animal.  It is possible there was a chain fence (falling down) preventing us from going toward the lake.  Or it may have already been filled in for real estate development.  But I fondly remember the walk with him and used that trip to refresh my 10-year-old memory of fun day trips with the family when I was younger.  Even by that age I had begun to forget some of those adventures; the nostalgia tied to them already made them feel too good to be true.  I see a parallel here between the carousel at Hunting Park and my memories of Sunshine Lake.  For both places I had the opportunity to visit, when I was still a child but after the family had stopped going to the places, to reminisce on those earlier delightful childhood memories.  The nostalgia is present even then, as places that were special and fun, and which I would never experience again.

            Of course, the trips to Sunshine Lakes were not always happy family trips.  I was often cranky and complaining that my sisters wouldn’t play with me.  I got tired and didn’t want to come in out of the lake.  I didn’t want to wait the hour after lunch to go back into the water.  I got sunburned and didn’t want to cover up.  I had to share the inner tube—and—well at 5 years old or so you can imagine how gracious I was at sharing.  For my parents, maybe my sisters, too, the trips were struggles to get through the day with me whining along.  But the tolerance they expended was enough to make me now long for Sunshine Lakes and places like it.  My memories for the lake contain feelings of gratitude to my sisters and parents for supplying such wonderful adventures even if I was a tag along, whiny kid who wanted to play and do things my way and no one else’s.  I see my dad and sisters out in the lake in their inner tubes and my desire to join them feels so encouraging, if for no other reason but to swim out to unseat them or at least splash them.  The feeling of belonging to them, with sunshine glistening off the dark water, green pine trees in the horizon, other kids and families not crowding our space, is a feeling of contentment and fun.