One of the major appeals of swimming holes over public pools: no rules.
ILLUSTRATION: KEITH BENDIS
Orrin just buzzed down the road on his motorcycle, a large tractor inner tube slung around his shoulder. The picking kids are on lunch break and are having a free-for-all in the farm pond, refreshing sport following four ninety-degree hours in the bean fields. Last guy in's a rotten egg.
Summer was a succession of swimming holes when I was a kid. The earliest was a wide place in the creek fringed with willow and wild iris, where bottle flies circled and bull frogs abounded. Depth ranged normally from six inches to three feet, and the bottom was gumbo. There was a granite boulder from which we launched our "belly whoppers" or performed the classic "ham 'n' eggs" (hold your nose and jump, in sitting position.)
The only time the creek was deep enough for serious swimmin' was immediately following a gully washer, and quick as the storm subsided we snatched our sun-bleached suits from the line and dashed for the pasture.
There was a secret clearing in the thorn apples where we changed our clothes. "Bathhouse" was not part of the vocabulary, nor was "toilet." When you felt the urge you merely scampered off deeper into the thorn apples.
I learned to swim in that mudhole at "high tide,' and the moment when my feet first floated free from the bottom stands out as a milestone in childhood. Even today the sight of a pasture creek at flood stage stirs barefoot yearnings within.
Neighboring our farm was a spacious park cemetery, with large lagoons fed by our creek where it had been dammed at the property line. As soon as we could swim, outgrowing the pasture mud, we appropriated the rear lagoon as our swimming hole. The bottom was just as gooey, but when you could swim, the bottom was irrelevant. We centered our swimming around a couple of big rocks that lay just beneath the water's surface. (Plymouth Rock and Devil's Island, we called them.)
Mr. Yaeger, the cemetery proprietor, spiffed up in tie and French-cuffed shirt, came around in his big blue Buick and evicted us from time to time, but with dogged regularity we crept back, and eventually he left us alone.
"Mr. McGregor"—as we called him—finally accepted what many another concerned property owner has learned about swimming holes, that anarchy is the beauty of the place. (We have three irrigation ponds and a deep hole in the river where kids come to swim. Paul chases out the strangers among them, but they're persistent as dandelions.)
Kids delight in a place where no rules are posted: "Take showers…wear bathing caps…no running…no pushing…no splashing…no shouting"— no fun. There's nobody there with a whistle declaring a periodic intermission. You can wear what you want—cutoff jeans seem to be the vogue in our pond—or go "bare naked" if your sense of propriety allows.
The fastidious are repelled by the place, and that usually includes mothers. "Bathers" prefer sandy bottoms or the Mediterranean blue of a chlorinated pool to the tadpoles and cattails of a farm pond. So they don't hang around under the diving board getting in your way. Swimming holes, as a rule, attract swimmers, and they go quite a way toward building swimming skills. It's a matter of survival.
A swimming hole is so totally unsafe that your mom doesn't dare foist your little brother on you, saying, "Look after him." She'll see to it that he learns to swim first. The place cannot be reached by telephone, so, though you may catch Hail Columbia when you get home, you can soak for hours undisturbed. It is not uncommon, of course, for your sister to ride over on her bike and holler out to where you're floating on your inner tube, "You're gonna get it when you get home!"
Another beauty of a swimming hole is that you don't have to spend your Saturday mornings cleaning it. No dragging out the hose and the wand, changing filters, pouring in chemicals. There are no vending machines, so there is almost no litter—an occasional soap wrapper, sometimes a ragged towel or an abandoned inner tube.
It's not the most sanitary place one could swim, I suppose, though I never knew country kids to carry home ear infections as kids do from city pools. Nor is it the safest place (we have hung up a life buoy purchased at bargain rates form the Soil and Water Conservation Service). But it's close to home, and the price is right. And the fun! Doggoned if I don't think I'll go cut the legs off my blue jeans.
Reprinted from Harvest of Bittersweet by Patricia Penton Leimbach. © Patricia Penton Leimbach.