Today marks the first day of summer and Minneapolis Parks Commissioner Bob Fine can tell you where he was nearly every year on this day throughout the 1950s and '60s, and where he is likely to be many days in the coming two months.
The North Beach at Lake Harriet holds lots of memories for Fine, who grew up just a couple of blocks away. He can vividly recall hopping on his Gitane 10-speed and riding to the beach, then locking his bike to the lifeguard stand and taking his spot in the chair.
"It was sort of a dream job," said Fine. "You got to sit in the sun all day and watch the girls. It was a hard job to get and there was a lot of competition for it."
Fine's memories were jarred this week because the city installed diving docks at Lakes Harriet, Calhoun and Nokomis. It's the first time diving docks have been in place at inner-city lakes for more than 25 years. No one seems to know for sure, but Fine thinks they were removed because the city thought they were a liability. Someone could get hurt. Someone might sue. So they took out the docks and deprived a generation or two of kids the unmitigated joy of telling your buddies you made it out to the dock for the first time.
With all the buzz-killing regulations and long lists of rules at public parks and beaches, and the recent uproar over outdoor cafes, I had begun to think of Minneapolis as the city where fun had been outlawed. When I heard that the docks were coming back, I was so surprised I called Fine to see if it was a mistake, or that maybe they were going to make people wear helmets to swim to the docks.
"Nope, no helmets," said Fine. He added that non-inflatable toys would also be tolerated, such as those "nautical noodles."
"We're hoping more people come down to the lakes and hang out at the beaches," said Fine. "We're bringing the fun back."
It almost didn't happen in the City of Rules.
"I've been trying to get the docks back ever since I got on the Park Board," Fine said. "But I could never get a majority. Finally, this year, I got a majority. I told the Mayor [R.T. Rybak] and he was very excited."
Fine and Rybak were the first to jump off the new docks when they were introduced.
Back in Fine's day, the city beaches were where kids met nearly every afternoon. The Central High kids went to the Main Beach. Washburn kids went to Harriet North Beach. Kids from Southwest hit Thomas Beach and West High took over Cedar. A lot of teachers worked at the beaches as park cops or supervisors, so they knew all the kids by name, Fine said.
Fine got to know most of them, but not all of them as much as he wanted. "I remember one beautiful girl," he said wistfully. "I'd keep an eye on her because the boys followed her around everywhere. She was pretty sharp looking."
Even Fine's heroism didn't get him her attention. One year Fine saved a guy who got caught in some weeds down the shoreline. Fine gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and the young man lived. It was covered by this newspaper and the following day the man's father called.
"He said the newspaper had it all wrong, that the guy's girlfriend saved him," Fine said. "But the guy was unconscious, he didn't remember."
Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, Fine got back to the lifeguard stand after the rescue to find someone had popped the tires on his Gitane and stolen his sun glasses.
"I never did hear from the guy I saved," he said.
Fine still lives in the neighborhood, about a block from his childhood home, and he jokes that despite getting a college degree and becoming a lawyer, he didn't get very far.
But Fine's got a lot of good memories, and now he's got his docks and his fun back. It's finally summer, and he can ride his bike down to the lake and go crazy with a nautical noodle and no one can scold him.
"And I still have the Gitane," he said proudly.
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