My childhood wasn’t very long. From a young age, I played the peacekeeper. I anxiously performed, cajoling, joking, even the occasional soft shoe, keeping everyone happy, and out of the sleeping pills. My mother asleep, my stepfather in the fields, my sister gone, I spent time alone. I read books, stacks of them. I drew pictures, creating a world peopled with my pets. They all had voices, though I did not, and I talked to them and for them, until I was frightened I had become them. For a time, I lost my own voice, speaking only as a character known as “Belva-deah.”I was scared, sad, and felt alone. I have examined my chronologic childhood for signs of an emotional one. They are few, but they exist. Summertime is when I remember it most, at Sycamore Springs. It was there that my childhood existed, and was real.
Every day of the summer at 12:45 I’d ride my bike down to the library. As I hit a cobblestoned bump, I’d lift off the silver and blue glitter banana seat; a stunt rider standing on my pedals. Skidding to a halt, in front of the square granite building, I put my bike in the rack, leaving it unlocked, unchained. Who would steal a bike in our small town? Joining the throng of sweaty, rowdy kids on the dying brown grass, I’d wait for the bus. Mostly on time, it pulled up to the curb daily at one p.m., an off-duty yellow school bus, pressed into community service. Crowding on, we’d fight for the best seats—back, window, behind the driver—and settle gingerly onto the scorching hot leather, butts down, thighs held off the surface, fanning underneath until our skin could stand the heat. Mouths as wide open as the windows, we waited for the driver to yell at us to sit down and be quiet. The noise lessened a fraction of a decibel. The heat of standing still finally getting to him, the driver would get going.
We headed through the area we called “uptown,”—a few blocks of stores, the courthouse, and whitewashed bowling alley, and by the manicured white houses of Main Street, finally reaching the highway. Turning left at the chamber of commerce sign with its cartoon owl, (“Be WISE, Shop S——-!”) we were on Highway 75, passing under the only traffic signal in town. It uselessly flashed yellow, urging highwaybound motorists to slow down and notice us. We continued north almost into the next state, turning off onto a dirt road, dust swirling into the bus, kids screaming out the window at farmers on tractors, “Hey, Gramps, get over!” Many of the kids were strangers to one another, though their behavior wasn’t—hairpulling, headslapping, “Indian burns,” jokes whose punchlines ended literally. I pulled out a book, probably the Bobbsey Twins or Nancy Drew, and attempted invisibility.
Finally, we passed under stately trees, past a dilapidated hotel and down a winding lane to our respite. Escaping from heat, boredom, siblings, three local and useless TV channels, room cleaning, lawn mowing, weed pulling, thistle cutting, vegetable canning, laundry hanging, and the bus that brought us, we rushed through the gate and into the blue water of Sycamore Springs.
Back then, there was no hesitant wading in from zero depth, or easing yourself off the side into the shallows. It was all or nothing—a mad dash and a cannonball into the deep, a cold wet trip down the aqua plastic slide, a plunge from the 10 foot high dive down, down, to touch the bottom, find purchase with your feet, and propel yourself back to the surface, gasping for air. Spring fed, the pool was cold for the first 6 weeks of the season. (A sheen of ice, nearly invisible, sat on the surface to crack through on your first “bob” during morning swim lessons.)
If I was lucky enough to meet up with a friend from school, we spent all afternoon reading imaginary books and acting surprised when, mid-sentence, we accidentally fell off the diving board; drinking tea underwater; shouting “Marco! Polo!, and trying to perfect two underwater maneuvers—the handstand and the “butt-kick.” The butt-kick involved joining hands and soles of feet underwater and a rotational pull which brought your butts together with a “smack!” and finally, flipped you on over into somersaults. Done correctly, it was a thing of beauty, a synchronized move worthy of Esther Williams. Done incorrectly, heads were kicked, faces scratched, and arms wrenched. My friend Debbie and I were the butt-kick champs and could perform the feat for hours.
After two or more hours of cool liquid pleasure, it was time for a snack, which meant looking for my basket. It contained my clothes and money, thrown in hastily, and was checked into the office when I arrived. It was up to you to remember your number—there were no matching safety pins to wear on your suit. (“Number 23. 2–3. 23,” I would mentally repeat to myself as I walked away.) The attendants spent many hours a day holding up basket after basket. “No, that’s not it. It has a red belt in it.” And so on.
Eventually, the basket would be claimed, even if the attendant had to haul the kid over the counter to look for it himself. Money finally in hand, it was time to eat. The teenager at the window slid the screen up like a junk food peep show, but the players were only a tantalizing blur to me, having left my glasses in the wire basket. I could smell them—the hot tamales, chik-o-stiks, tater tots, papery ice cream cones, the sickly sweet sno-cone syrups. A bored high school boy or girl stood staring while I squinted, shifting from hot foot to hot foot, occasionally shoved from behind (–“hurry UP!”). Decision eventually made, I’d cram my mouth with whatever junk I had purchased, linking it forever in my limbic system with the taste and smell of chlorine, the season of summer, and the color blue. I tried to time my snack break for the hourly pool check. “Everyone out of the pool—POOL CHECK.” The pool check served several purposes. Any fights currently in progress were broken up, at least temporarily. The lifeguards got in to swim, cool off, and flirt. Their behavior during pool checks was an early and titillating encounter with sexuality. The pool moms looked on in disgust, some hustling their kids off to the bathroom (“I don’t care if you don’t have to go—you’re going to try.”) We held our breath as we hopped from foot to foot no the scorching pavement hoping that a dead body would be found and pulled from the watery depths. No one ever died there, that I know of, but we all hoped for it. It was rumored that two people had been paralyzed diving off the high board. These unfortunates were discussed in reverent tones in the line for the high dive. Pool checks lasted 10 minutes, an eternity on a hot summer day.
By the end of the day, we were brown, exhausted, and nearly sunblind. Lying in the warm water of the shallows, we rubbed baby oil and iodine into our skin, and squinted at each other, no longer talking, just marinating. We swatted biting flies and sweat bees away from our necks, while we watched older boys do acrobatic leaps over and over from the high dive. Every so often, a fat adult would get up on the high board, and all the kids would watch. After the big splash, there was a lot of cruel banter from the kids in line. “Man, it’s a good thing he didn’t break the board. Tidal wave!”
At some point, we would notice several people sitting on bleachers outside the fence. The bleachers implied that this was a spectator sport, and there were usually two types of people sitting on them, watching. Chubby moms, too embarrassed to wear a swimsuit, sat uncomfortably, wearing long shorts and baggy blouses, sipping iced tea and checking their watches every couple minutes, and applying more bug spray. The second type was old guys who were usually dressed in slacks and white button-down shirts. They had gray hair, and looked kind of greasy. We thought maybe they were staying at the campground. They stared at us a lot, and sometimes they talked to themselves. It seemed like a long drive out in the country to just to sit and watch. I didn’t understand how anyone could be close enough to the water to smell the chlorine, but not get in.
At the end of the day, we would all make a final stop at the concession stand, and buy something for the bus trip home. I usually got Boston Baked Beans, and pushed them absently into my mouth one by one while I read my book. The pages of my childhood books have little reddish-brown smudges on them, where my still damp fingers melted the candy coating and imprinted it on the corner. The bus was quiet. Sunburned waterlogged children drowsed in the seats. Even the sugar we consumed couldn’t combat our post-swimming stupor. We stumbled from the bus, coated with a fine layer of road dust, stuck to our still damp, slightly sweaty, chlorinated skin. Glazed with the remains of the ride, we wandered around until our parents picked us up or we slowly pedaled our bikes up the street to our homes, completely sated by the sweet heavy fruits of summer.