It is the fourth of July, and hot.
Hot as blazes, and humid, one of those days when the shirt clings to the shoulders, limp and damp, and exhaustion kicks in before you reach the bottom of your first mug of breakfast coffee. It is clear that today we will be in survival mode.
To avoid the looming threat of tattered nerves, we intend to do a lot of getting wet. Judging from the vast number of private pools around the neighborhood, getting wet appears to have overtaken baseball as America’s favorite sport. Trouble is, we don’t have a private pool.
The grandchildren arrive just before noon, tumbling joyfully out of the family-style slate-colored minivan. Big Brother, with his binoculars and camera ready for action. Little Sister, all bounces and giggles, and dispensing hugs all round. Baby Girl, her startling red hair flashing exotically. And of course, Dad and Mom.
We throw a couple of backpacks into the minivan, swimsuits, food items, drinks, and “Grandma, don’t forget the bug spray and the Gatorade!” Then we leave behind the boom of cannon, the crackle of fireworks, and go exploring for a place to get seriously wet.
The abandoned canal, perhaps? According to a New York Times article by David Kirby, “it was filled in around 1900 after a drunken city elder toppled in and drowned.” Much of the canal is filled, these days, with tangled invasives, blow-downs, and trash, and it stinks like a giant dying reptile. No, distinctly not an attractive place to cool off.
The local swimming hole? It’s a popular site in a rollicking stream, where the water gushes over a mammoth curved section of bedrock into a lovely deep pool, with jumps available on one side. Access to the area is easy, since you can park right along the road. The land is private, and most property owners would long ago have fenced the place off and plastered ugly No Trespassing signs on all available surfaces. But can you believe it! this owner is expansive in her world view and generous beyond belief, and has left it wide open to the good folk of the village.
There are a few drawbacks, however. One is that on hot days, because of the easy access, the pool is so filled with bodies that you have to close-reef your ears and slide in sideways. Swimsuits can be minimal at times, and occasionally non-existent, and, as a friend told me, “You have to have 17 tattoos and a couple of piercings to swim there.” Certainly the variety of human specimens on display some days is exquisite, and might tempt da Vinci and Rockwell to rush in and set up their easels, were those esteemed gentlemen still walking the earth and painting up a storm.
Another drawback to the swim hole is the number of canines that show up to join the fun. It is my experience is that wherever people congregate, there also come the dogs. Personally, I like dogs. I even have one in my house. But at this swimming hole, they constantly stir up mud in the shallows, and keep up a monotonous cacophony of yips and barks and growls and snarls. Downstream is the best place to clean your shoes when you step into something that you shouldn’t ought to. And when some Saint Bernard strolls out of the pool and goes into the shakes and the hair and water starts flying into the barbecue and into the next county, then you should see the almighty scramble that ensues! But, hey, it’s a place to get wet!
No, the local swim hole will not do for us today.
A friendly neighbor advises of a smaller stream nearby. “Hippies use the side door” reads a sign on his antiquated workshop. A colorful and thickly-bearded bear of a man, he explains that he is Hungarian both by nature and by origin, temperament and personality a close cousin to geography, right? If pronounced correctly, he says with a twinkle to his eye, his last name sounds like the collaboration of a sneeze and a cough. He gives me directions to the stream, which he describes as absoloot vunderful!
We follow a rugged logging road deep into a wooded valley, with an energetic stream gurgling at the bottom. Ah, how lovely! Dark. Quiet. Magnificently cool. Even with the scarcity of rainfall over the last two weeks, the stream has life and vigor and personality, winding cheerfully between the lush banks of quivering ferns, cascading down rapids, spilling merrily over toddler-sized waterfalls into lovely swirling kindergarten pools.
“Water,” says Toni Morrison, “has a perfect memory, and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”
It doesn’t take us long to find an alluring wedge of water along a smooth vertical wall of rock where the channel runs thirty inches deep. It is a modest spot, nothing to match the cloves of the nearby Catskill Mountains, where waterfalls leap headlong into great chasms, or like the Hudson River with its squadrons of sailboats and kayaks and mini-yachts dancing lively to avoid the next oil-tanker churning down from Albany. On this day, in this extreme heat, our tranquil refuge in the woods is perfect.
To increase the depth of the pool, Little Sister collects rocks and positions them to prevent the water escaping. I dig the sand out of the center of the pool and pile it along the bank, and before long, we have a respectable little pool. Industrious as bullfrogs and crawdads, we splash and indulge in the wonderful soothing wetness.
At first, nine-month-old Baby Girl has highly skeptical misgivings about the prospect of getting wet. But soon she discovers what fun it is to pour half of the Indian Ocean over Grandpa’s head, laughs to see the water stream down his face and into his beard, and watches closely to see if his smile will erupt even as the water drips off his earlobes. Soon Baby Girl’s relationship with the water has softened to the point where she squeals in delight even as we dangle her in it up to her neck.
Wiping water from my eyes, I catch a momentary glimpse of an owl swooping past, a great silent shadow. A feathered representative, perhaps, of the local parliament of Great-Horned owls? Or is it a Hoot, or a Barred? Hemingway pops to mind: I wish the boy was here. Big Brother, ten years old and already an intense, keen-eyed, veteran bird-watcher, has peeled off upstream to stalk a chirruping black-eyed warbler and a timid redstart. I will have to ask him about the owl when he returns. Having meticulously studied the Roger Tory Peterson field guide, with its habitat charts and glossy photos, he is now able to identify birds simply by hearing their voices. Today, on the hottest day of the year, he is doing what he loves best in utter tranquility, deep inside the cool woods along the stream.
The beach alongside our pool is a distinctive slab of bedrock, stern and sober, its surface sliced with narrow crevices and sharp edges, making it singularly uninviting to stretch out upon. Curious cutouts pock the surface of the bedrock, as if Cyclops or Paul Bunyon had carved out miniature bathtubs with an oversized ice-cream scoop. A previous occupant of the pool has inadvertently left behind his swim towel, now soggy and threadbare.
Cooling their heels in the pool, the ladies speak of lady things. One of them reaches for a stick floating by, which turns out to be not a stick but arrrgh!!! a whopping great watersnake, and in an instant, the whole county hears the news, and nervous types, a mile downstream, reach for their cell phones. Snakes are like that, you know. There’s something wildly disconcerting about them that makes women sing and dance with impetuous abandon, and grown men break into a galloping sweat. This particular snake, though harmless enough, is ingloriously removed from the premises, and we go back to munching our Fruit Loops. Little Sister, ever gentle and thoughtful as only a child can be, explains that the snake was here first, perhaps lives under that very rock, and was only looking for some new friends.
“Small children are so dear,” says Mother, not quite convinced.
After a couple of sublime hours of wetness, the children have had enough and it is time to head for home. We dry off, gather our gear, and set off up the logging road, comfortable, satisfied, and agreed that on this roasting fourth of July, getting wet was absoloot vunderful!