Chuck Thurston: Living the pond life
As we gobbled down our lunch, my mother used to warn my brothers and me that “You’ll get cramps and drown if you go swimming right after you eat!”
Good advice, perhaps, but likely wasted on us. Our peanut butter sandwiches had probably distributed themselves throughout our hyper-active systems in the 15 or 20 minutes it took us to get ready for a summer afternoon swim.
Getting ready didn’t involve any more than putting on cut-off jean swim trunks and hiking up to the small pond on a hill above our farm house.
The pond was bull dozed out below a spring that had evidently been known to travelers well before us. More on that later.
Whatever its history, it fed our swimming hole, although our efforts barely qualified as swimming.
The pond was not very large – perhaps 10 yards across at its widest – and not very deep.
Two or three strokes could propel a swimmer from one side to the other.
It was not even absolutely necessary to expend your energy this way, since you could wade across if you wished.
When our dad had it excavated, he kept the water level at around 4 feet.
We even built a raft of sorts to paddle across it — a short voyage by any measure, but we never seemed to make it.
Our raft was an old door. We had added boards as gunwales around it and caulked the seams with clay.
Although we paddled mightily, it would slowly sink beneath us just a few strokes from shore.
We had devised all manner of water sports and entertainments.
“Swimming lessons” were an early favorite, and our household pets were the pupils.
The educational process simply involved throwing them in. Could dogs swim? Of course. Pretty well, too, although some breeds— shepherds, for instance — had to be coerced. Beagles, on the other hand, often jumped in of their own volition and frolicked with us.
It was not unusual to be doggy paddling around and have a smiling hound pull alongside.
Cats were another matter. They could swim OK, but one lesson generally sufficed. After that, they ran away – soaked and bedraggled – and were tough to catch for further experiments.
Fortunately, most farms had plenty of “barn cats” to keep the rodent population down, so there were usually a few who were ignorant — and therefore unwary — of this tutoring. These were fair game for further testing.
The pond got a lot company when not put to our use. We frequently saw the tracks of deer, foxes, raccoons and assorted small game on the pond banks.
The usual compliment of frogs, toads, salamanders, minnows, water snakes, mosquitoes, dragon flies, gnats and other assorted wildlife filled out this ménage.
The pond had a mud bottom and 5 or 10 minutes of activity turned it into a murky mess — absolutely useless for bathing.
I don’t recall that it ever totally cleared up during the years of our usage.
An occasional cow also visited the pond. These animals often, in the hottest days of the summer, waded in and stood there, and…need I say more?
We now and then had to shoo one away to gain access to our pool. After an afternoon of play, our mother made us hose each other down with a garden hose before we were fit to shuck our trunks and come inside to get dressed.
Fun continued long after summer was done and the leaves had fallen.
Although the spring continued to trickle up from its source, the pond froze over solid during the cold Pennsylvania winters.
We all had clamp-on ice skates, and played a primitive sort of ice hockey.
We had no idea of the rules of this game. “A stick was used to push a puck into a goal” pretty much defined our knowledge of the sport.
Our first equipment consisted of sticks and smooth, flat stones, but at some point, our Christmas wishes for hockey sticks and a genuine rubber puck were granted, and we played in real style.
The pond went through many lives. Reeds and water plants invaded it from time to time and created a swamp useless for paddling around.
It silted up and had to be dredged out a couple of times. During long summer droughts, it dried up into a large puddle.
The pond is still there. My brother has fenced off all but a small part of the shallow end to give cows some drinking access.
A large stand of oak, 2-3 feet in diameter now surround the site. I once took a botany class that described the evolution of a climax forest and this seems to be the case here. In the midst of this vegetation, the spring seeps up from its depths to feed the pond.
We have found genuine arrowheads in its vicinity.
Had hunters – with their spears and bows stopped there to refresh themselves? Had they dug out the heavy blue clay for their pottery?
One senses that there will be other lives awaiting this small rising aquifer. Someone may log off the grove of oaks to harvest the timber. The oaks might return.
The pond may revert to swamp, or be dug out for another pond in the future. Someone can return the land to pasture and livestock will once again wade in it. It may be fenced off or opened up. Children can splash in it once more.
For the ancient spring has never quit.
It was an oasis for the weary hunter and the thirsty deer.
Later it was the water source for the colonist and his stock.
Later still, it filled the swimming hole of whooping farm boys.
It is there today, burbling out of the ground just as it must have in the days of the fierce Andastes – long before our history of the New World began.
The ghosts of centuries are surely hovering over its murmuring trickle.
Chuck Thurston lives in Kannapolis. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. A book of his collected columns, “Senior Scribbles Unearthed,” is available on Amazon.