echoes of wild raggedy sun-crazed children

Mooney's Lake in the 30s

Wherever it was, it’s not there anymore. . . .Then again, maybe it is.  

Rising up out of the water were three enormous white towers. I’m sure of that. Three. They looked like very tall rectangular scaffolds made of wood with ladders leading up to platforms near their tops from which people jumped off. One of them had a diving board, but the other two were more in demand among the more daring and were unlike anything anywhere else in the city and were the reason so many people like us came from so far to swim here.

These two towers, about 25 feet high, each had a single long cable attached to its topmost edge which ran way, way down, at about a 30 degree angle, to the concrete edge of the vast swimming pool. And if you were disposed toward bravery or tomfoolery or wild animal abandon, you would get in line to climb up one of the towers to where the cable started and grab hold for dear life onto a pulley with a handle on it and leap out into space.

Sometimes the boys would close their eyes when they plummeted off the towers into the bright sunshine, and some would yell “Geronimo!” Some of the smaller boys – usually people’s little brothers – would start crying when it came their time and would inch their way back down the ladder into the pool and be very quiet and subdued the rest of the day. And some others – the older boys in their early teens – would act very blasé about the whole thing, except perhaps for occasional reassuring glances toward the girls down below who they hoped would notice.

Girls hardly ever rode the cables. But the boys made a gutsy rite of it, jumping off these lofty perches, holding onto the pulleys, sliding with a metallic whine down, down, faster than anything, faster even than you could run or ride a bicycle, straight into the water with a wild yell and a stupendous splash. Then they would usually get out of the water to strut proudly around the edge of the pool with supreme coolth, or else go do it all over again.

The only place you could do this (at least the only place that I or my friends were aware of) was Mooney’s Lake, and I was never quite sure just where it was. It was in Atlanta, somewhere on the northeastern outskirts of what comprised the civilized world in the eyes of little boys too young to drive, but none of us would have been able to find it alone or to get there at all without the help of somebody’s mother.

Early on some specially designated summer day a mother would come by my house (my parents’ house) in Ansley Park and honk the horn, and I would charge outside to jump into a back seat full of other eight- and nine-year-old boys – plus, usually, a younger brother or two – for what seemed a long, twining drive out to wherever it was that Mooney’s Lake was located.

I remember it as a clearing in the woods somewhere within the city limits of Atlanta as it existed in the pre-expressway days of the late 1940s and early ’50s. But it was like nothing else that has ever existed in the world, a dreamy and fantastic place where nothing whatsoever was the same, like the glittering and magical playland where Pinocchio and other children were lured, and turned into donkeys.

There were hills and huge trees and then, suddenly, a main pavilion on a little rise with an arcade beside it lined with pinball machines and shooting games and machines for stamping your name, or some message, on little metal disks.

Below the pavilion and arcade was the swimming pool, a large one, and just beyond that, the lake itself. People rented paddle boats to ride on the lake. Behind the pool and pavilion was a picnic area and a baseball field, and all of this ringed by big softwood trees filled with singing birds, and there were never any fights. Mooney’s Lake was one of those high points of children’s lives simultaneously and spontaneously discovered. I don’t know who among us knew about it first, but I know it was Mrs. Pate, my friend Frank’s mother, who usually hauled Frank and me and Bobby and Harry and Dev and Gene and Feedbag (or some combination of that group) out to the lake and left us for the course of the afternoon.

Most of the people who came out to Mooney’s, not counting parents, were between eight and ten years old. At least those were the ones I paid any attention to. But I suppose there was an equal number of high schoolers whom few of us knew how to relate to. Lots of them swam in the pool but most of them seemed to loll around the edges just talking to one another. I never understood how they had much fun. Dev, who had an older sister, explained that high school boys spent most of their time working on their cars, which seemed like a bleak thing to look forward to with advancing age. Indeed, lots of them always seemed to be sitting out in the parking area under the trees in their cars – cars with big wide whitewall tires – where they smoked cigarettes and talked to each other, or to girls, and seemed to find something mysteriously enjoyable in all that.

But it was the towers with their taut cables that brought us here, each of us daring the others to take the plunge in some heedless and dramatic way. The cable towers at Mooney’s Lake were the main attraction – to me, at least because they were so obviously terrifying and death-defying, so much so that for an eight year old to be so hold as ever1 to mount the ladder to one of the tower platforms was the accepted certain sign that you were henceforth no longer classed as a “little” boy.

Standing with shivering glee on the platform, high above the whooping and caterwauling of those in the pool, always filled you with a certain now-or-never bravado and sense of power and the feeling of being on a stage. Down below, the other swimmers splashed around or sat on the edges or walked around the poolside. They all looked so small from that height, even the teenagers, and they always tried to appear as if they were too preoccupied with whatever they were doing to pay any attention to whoever was about to slide down the cable, but you knew they were always watching.

Photograph of Mooney's Lake amusement park, Atlanta, Georgia, between 1953 and 1955Scenes light up: porky shaped boys … puff-faced adolescents . . . sallow and scrawny shave-headed kids from God knows where . . . and here and there an archetypal nymphet with a semi-exquisite figure that featured the beginnings of breasts. From this elevated site you were almost level with the branches of the big trees and could catch the raw fragrances of the foliage which melded into the whole aromatic fiesta: chlorine from the pool and hot dogs from the pavilion and the smell of bubble gum on almost everyone’s breath. Little flattened pink gobs of bubble gum from lime immemorial dotted the bottom of the pool.

Down below, the kids kept up a running cacophony of hoots and bombastic trivialities flung back and forth, and darings of one another and scattered ecstatic shrieks and whistles, and when there was a lull you could hear the buzz and gong of pinball machines in the arcade and the birds and the sporadic gusts of breeze that filtered through the leaves.

But up on the tower it was different: quieter, more seriously excited, more of a grim-set determination on the part of each boy not to fail before his peers; each dripping water, breathing deeply, eyes wildly alight with anticipation. And then it was time. Your turn. The holy moment. You grabbed the pulley, took your life’s last lungful of air and voluntarily jumped – or got pushed if you paused too long – for a ten-second slide to certain glory (or horrible death).

If you did this once you could do anything. You were in. You could even look teenagers in the eye and not feel so small. You could feel superior to girls and could swagger around feeling like Charles Lindbergh or John Wayne for the rest of the day until somebody’s mother finally came to take you back home.

I don’t know exactly what happened. Something happened. I don’t remember how or why. I just remember not going to Mooney’s Lake one summer. We all simply began frequenting other pools and playgrounds that were never quite the same. Someone said they thought Mooney’s had closed. I didn’t know for sure. I never knew how to get there anyway.

And soon there were other things to do and think about (like work on cars and fret with freshly blossomed young ladies), and before long nobody even mentioned Mooney’s anymore. And by the time l did think of it again I learned that it was gone, a whole lake wiped of the face of the earth without a murmur; and in not too many more years from now all living memory of the place will grow hopelessly dim and distorted and ultimately irrelevant to anything. It probably already is. And that’s probably just as well because pasts redeemed remain always the wrong pasts. It’s best to leave these matters to Norns, the keepers of the shrines of memory and ancient values.

So many things are gone. So many things are passed away down the throat of time: buildings and schools and landmarks and homes you lived in and parks and big movie palaces, and new edifices are erected in their place and pretty soon you forget exactly what had been there before or whom you shared it with, and it all becomes vaporous mind-stuff of no greater substance than a dream.

But how do you look back on the long gone, lyrical scenes and sites and casts of characters or relationships that make up the myriad spiderwebbed strands woven deeply into the fabric of your total being? If you remember it at all, it must have meant something – maybe no more than a glimpse of some kind of ideal vision or way of being. Or maybe it means for now that you are supposed to remember henceforth that you can actually add a dimension of beauty to the current features and facets of your life by accepting that it’s all transient and temporary – and hence ever so much more powerful and intricately strange and infinitely fragile.

This 1949 aerial photo of the area shows the lake at the right. The Piedmont/Lindbergh intersection is at the lower left of the image
This 1949 aerial photo of the area shows the lake at the right. The Piedmont/Lindbergh intersection is at the lower left of the image. (1949 Aerial Mosaic and Photographs, Georgia State University Library)

Mooney’s Lake died and was buried at some point around 1953 or ’54, at about the time the northeastern leg of I-85 was built. It once lay somewhere in the area of what is now a swatch of woodsy terrain bounded by Lindbergh Drive and I-85 and the back of Broadview Plaza. No one seems to be able to say for certain where it was located, but as best I can determine the scant remnants of Mooney’s lie covered over by undergrowth on a piece of negligible acreage I looked at tonight. There’s a large circle of senior trees surrounding a fairly sizable flattened expanse of kudzu where the lake itself must surely have been – all of it perfectly still and lifeless against the nighttime sky, merging into the great cold silence of outer space. It remains a place where nothing whatsoever is the same.

But if you know – or strongly believe – that it once actually thrived there, then maybe you, too, can sense the secret liquid gusts among the trees and fluid sounds below the rolling blanket of kudzu. And you hear, muffled in echo, the wild raggedy shrieks of sun-crazed children, each imbued with the brassy vitality of young animals and the fiercest juices of life. They wear the faces of tree dwellers on the loose, all rootless, homeless, all lost in the ecstasy of the moment, chigger-bitten and resplendent in the bright air, with voices soft as birds and visions in their heads of ever lasting unrelinquishable possibilities.

If you don’t remember a thing like Mooney’s Lake it might as well never have happened, might as well never have been – except for the fact that something surely must have registered deep inside your own organism or encoded itself on your ganglia in some indecipherable way. And something in your innermost cells will always be filed away, waiting to be plucked forth and called back. At night perhaps. Or perhaps by seeing other children at play and recalling at once how it all felt and what all you feared at the time.

Something will always be an awed eight-year-old boy awash in wonderment, inwardly hoping to seem at least as brave and audacious as the rest, responding to their incantatory yells by leaping without a noticeable twinge of hesitation from an enormous tower, holding dearly to the pulley handle, lifting feet in perfect exhilaration while careening down in a fast clean surge with the sunlight of late afternoon flashing through the gaps in the tall trees: sliding to the metallic whine of pulley against cable–a supersonic whine, a wild high cosmic laugh–swooping downward, not screaming, but braced deep in the shank of the soul against the onrush of air, like a lone single thing out in the middle of the whole awareness; water droplets flying, hair flying, unfixed from earth altogether; sliding, sliding, sliding to a final monumental SPLASH … and the-high-pitched cheers of all the other children everywhere in the world.

 

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EPILOGUE: “Where Was Mooney’s Lake” was originally published in the July/August 1976 edition of Brown’s Guide to Georgia, a now legendary and fondly remembered magazine that originally appeared in late 1972 and remained in publication for the next ten years, covering exciting locales to visit, trails to hike, rivers to canoe and all manner of mostly outdoor adventures to partake of throughout the state. Everyone swore by it. Today it exists online as a national publication devoted to the same outdoorsy pursuits which you can access at Brownsguides.com. Check it out.

Deuward S. Mooney developed Mooney’s Lake as a summertime recreation center in 1920, at a time when Piedmont Road was a partially-paved two-lane street. It was a popular spot that thrived until it went out of business in 1958 when a fire damaged the pavilion, after which the lake was drained and filled in.

In the 40 years since this story of mine was published there’ve naturally been a few changes to the landscape that might help the many die-hards who persist in trying to locate the holy site of their fondest childhood memories. For one thing, Broadview Plaza, mentioned in the story, is now Lindbergh Plaza. Behind Lindbergh, at the dead end of Morosgo Drive, is a building that used to be a Home Depot, now a furniture store called The Dump. Lying between the back of this building and the highly complex interchange where I-85, Sidney Marcus Boulevard and GA 400 ( the latter two which didn’t exist in 1976) come together lies a small, shrunken swatch of wild kudzu that represents all that remains in this world of what was once the ever-magical Mooney’s Lake.

-William Hedgepeth

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Images (in order of appearance on this page): Mooney's Lake in the 30s from Buddy Humphries’ Facebook photos; Mooney's Lake amusement park between 1953 and 1955 from Vanishing Georgia, Georgia Archives, Morrow, Georgia and held by Georgia Archives, 5800 Jonesboro Road, Morrow, GA 30260 via Galileo,  USG.edu the Institute of Museum and Library Services of the University System of Georgia; 1949 aerial photo from 1949 Aerial Mosaic and Photographs, Georgia State University Library (public domain) via the AJC.
William Hedgepeth

William Hedgepeth

William Hedgepeth is a former senior editor and Southeastern bureau chief for LOOK magazine and a former editor at LIFE, Saturday Review, and other national and international publications. A longtime political campaign consultant, he has written for television and films in Hollywood and has authored several books, one of which, "The Hog Book," has just been reissued by the UGA Press. He is married to journalist Carol Carter, also a contributor to "Like the Dew," and lives in the forests of North Georgia with a loyal army of animals.