Learning to swim was as essential as breathing in my family. Dad made sure of it, especially as he’d been the point of the spear in having a four acre pond dug in a spring-filled low spot on our farm when I was little more than a toddler. A concrete dam and spillway was poured, boards slipped into the vertical slots, and voila! A pond was born.
A lovely brook ran through the farm and fed the pond as its primary water source. Early on, the pond was clear and the bottom sandy. As the years passed, the bottom slowly accumulated silt and turned dark. It didn’t matter; in a family of six children, none of us could wait for the water to warm enough for the first plunge of the year, whether there was sand or silt beneath our feet.
Warm? What a joke. That pond never got warm, only the first foot of surface water ever got above seventy degrees and what our lower halves felt as we treaded and paddled about was beyond frigid. We knew every cold spot where an ambitious spring bubbled upward from the dark depths. Lingering over those bracing areas even on the hottest summer days was to risk a case of hypothermia. Likewise, the informal contest of “first one in the pond” resulted in chattering teeth and blue extremities. As I recall, the earliest any of my siblings took the plunge was in late April when the weather briefly turned unseasonably warm.
The pond became a focal point of activity not only for my family, but for friends and neighbors as well. The cooling waters and inviting calm of the willow-shaded banks beckoned both formal and informal gatherings. When the weather turned cold and there were at least two inches of good ice, we had skating parties and held hockey games. I distinctly remember one year when the ice froze so clear it was like skating on glass. Coleman lanterns lit the night as we glided across the solid, glassy surface. Afterward, we warmed with mugs of hot cocoa my mother made from scratch.
My January birthday was often celebrated with skating and sledding parties. Elementary school friends eagerly donned heavy outterwear for a long afternoon of fun. The banks of the pond were sloped such that a toboggan run down the hill and onto the ice provided hours of entertainment as did scoring the ice with skates. Our moist breaths and runny noses permeated hand knit scarfs that molded to our faces in frozen masks. Mittens became soaked and fingers red with cold, but everyone had a great time.
There was a day when fun nearly turned to tragedy. One of the neighbor's teenaged daughters accidentally drifted out over her head. Unable to swim, she panicked and went under. I don’t know who pulled her to safety and was not there when the incident happened, but I sure heard about it after the fact. Stern lectures about water safety followed. I could tell it upset my father. If the topic came up, his mouth would set in a tight line and his eyes wandered downward and distant. As one of the town’s two physicians at the time and the county coroner, I can only imagine how devastated he would have been had she not been rescued.
And that was why he made sure we were good swimmers. A badge of honor was informally granted when I was able to swim across the pond at age six. Each of us similarly was schooled until we all could safely negotiate the bank to bank passage. We also earned cred for diving off the high board of a raft my father constructed. It wasn’t all that high, but to a seven-year-old, the first time I dropped from the high board was like jumping off the edge of the Grand Canyon. Once I realized I could do it and live to tell the story, the feat became routine. Cannon balls were often launched off that platform as a means of irritating anyone close enough to be deluged in the resulting geyser.
During Ron’s and my wedding reception which was held at our farm, a few inebriated guests decided to skinny dip as the night of celebration wore on. Clothes were stolen and the resulting kerfuffle sent the lingering guests into guffaws of laughter. The memory still brings a smile to my face.
My dad loved that pond. He found solace in it after a long hard day of seeing patients when he enjoyed a quiet swim to unwind. On one particular day, my sister and I had earlier taken our horses through the pond. As horses will do, they loosed their bowels smack in the middle of the water. Dad went for a swim that evening and you can imagine the rest. Boy, was he steamed! At the time, we didn’t consider the possibility those floating turds would get us a heated chewing out. After all, we frequently swam the horses through the pond. It was gross no doubt. And a little funny.
Dad had the pond stocked with trout which I caught with a cane pole and worms dug from the rich soil behind our utility shed. It sparked my life-long love of angling. Between fishing, swimming and skating, the pond gave us ample opportunity for outdoor activity, something Dad firmly believed was essential to good health.
As time passed and our lives changed, the pond continued to be a source of enjoyment. Grandchildren were born and with those grandchildren also came my father’s renewed pleasure in watching them explore the water. Frogs, turtles, fish and leeches thrived in the environment providing endless entertainment as well as shrieks of revulsion when a leech latched onto little legs. A small container of salt was kept nearby to rid the offending invertebrate from the victim.
My father died in 2001. His second wife sold the farm not long after. The new owner cut down the willows and the picturesque setting disappeared. If my father had been alive to see it, I’m sure it would have broken his heart. I know it broke mine. The accompanying picture is of a painting I did in soft pastels years ago before the willows were eliminated.
Few things in life if any are unchanged by time and circumstance and thus it is with both the farm and the pond, but I cling to the memories of the water that not only reflected the surrounding land and sky above, it also reflected the faces of all who enjoyed it.