In America, the idea of a local "swimming hole" carries a whiff of nostalgia, if not mythology, about it. Further, the association always seems to be with boys – and fishing, and hooky. The swimming hole, then, in our literature and lore, has a slightly mischievous air. It's the place you go when you'd rather not be doing what you're supposed to be doing – or where you'd rather be when you don't want to be somewhere else.
As a kid growing up in the urban New Jersey of the 1960s and '70s, I didn't have access to a swimming hole in the traditional sense. None of us did. And yet we sought out serviceable surrogates. Not in the woods (there were none) or byways (none of those, either, just highways), but in the waste places that abounded in my industrialized corner of the state.
Down by Newark Bay, for example, there were meadowlands in which a kid could get lost. The reeds grew up to – and sometimes over – our heads, and we spent hours bushwhacking and generally exploring a place that was as close as we could get to wilderness (despite the proximity of the New Jersey Turnpike and the local power plant). It was hard to imagine that a place so close to home could be a world away from parents, school, and traffic.
Those meadowlands provided their share of wonders. There was a resident pheasant; toads with the plump, warty aspect of Jabba the Hutt; and the occasional willow for climbing and surveying our realm from on high.
But the most precious of the gems was a small, shallow pond set down as though it were an exclamation point in our urban swampland.
This was, in short, our swimming hole.
Not that it was in any way suitable for swimming – it was too shallow and too mucky for that. But it did serve the same purpose as a swimming hole: It was a redoubt, a fortress of solitude – a small, wild place that truly seemed to be in another galaxy.
Although we five or six boys couldn't strip down and dive in on a hot summer's day, we could take off sneakers and socks, roll up our pant legs, and wade out a bit. We could hunt for frogs, skip rocks, collect minnows, or just linger on the banks, commiserating about our sorry lot as misunderstood juveniles.
In other words, for such a small place it provided a boundless arena for our imaginations to roam.
It wasn't just a summer affair. In winter our puddle did what the most idyllic country pond did – it froze over. We didn't have ice skates, but that didn't stop us from heading out in boots to play a sort of mock hockey with broom handles and tennis balls. It was a rare treat because it was so uncitylike – and because it usually came only once a year, during the coldest months.
Then something happened: I grew up, I left home, I went to college, and I joined the Navy. But the sea was no match for that swimming hole, because an ocean is too big to get one's eyes around and claim for one's own.
I'm convinced that during some of those times, when I felt lonely or even unloved, I was simply longing for the opportunity to flee to where a boy might go to collect himself, reorganize this thoughts and feelings, wipe his nose on his sleeve, and move on.
It was several years before I came full circle. My life's path led me north, to Maine, a true water state, thanks to its glaciated past. And lo and behold, the town I settled in has a swimming hole that could easily have inspired Norman Rockwell. I'm sitting on its bank now, watching my son wade out, ever so cautiously on skinny legs into the frigid water, his arms aloft and tummy tucked in, calling, "Watch me, Dad! Watch me!"
I am watching him, but with only one eye. In my other – my mind's eye – it's not Anton who is wading out, it's me. And I can once again see the shallow Jersey meadow pond I knew, feel the brush of the reeds against my arms and legs, and savor the sweet isolation of a boy's very own secret place.
Everyone needs a swimming hole.