A response to Aaron Burch's "American Lake," originally published on XRAY.
Did you grow up near water?
What did you think of when I asked that—lake, river, ocean, pool, other?
Do you like to swim?
Do you remember learning how?
Did your grandmother live not on a lake, but near?
No but my Grandfather lived in Long Island, near the bay. My grandmother lived in Wisconsin. She was far away. She was the good one.
Do you have fond memories of going to your grandmother’s house, getting one of the large towels she kept for you in the bathroom, one of the inner tubes she kept in her garage?
The towels in my grandfather’s house were tiny and threadbare. It never occurred to me until later in life that I could have brought my own but that also would have seemed somehow against the rules and the rules in that house were very important. I was scared of my grandfather. My grandmother was wonderful – kind and calm and funny. Today they would have called her zen. I have her blue eyes. The best compliment I’ve ever received is when people have told me that I have some of her characteristics, her calm, her humor. They divorced soon after my mother married -- very unusual at the time -- and he responded by becoming involved with the wife of his best friend, people from the same church where he played the organ and led the choir and, I imagine, was quite beloved over a certain period of time, a short time, a time filled with piety and song and, I don’t know, church? He changed churches a lot. Not once in my life did I call that new wife, the friend’s old wife, “grandma.” We called her Aunt Ethel. She was fine but she was not my Grandma. I never got into it, church, to be honest, probably not exactly because of all this, but it didn’t help when that entire side of the family made their way to Hampton Bays NY for his 85th birthday and he woke up first thing Sunday morning and slipped away to whatever new church he was attending, whatever new church family he was worshipping with, leaving the entire extended actual family to slowly figure out over coffee and bad donuts that we had been abandoned yet again, left alone to make our strange goodbyes and awkward retreats back to Central Pennsylvania and Manhattan and Ohio and Florida.
Do you remember being little and using actual inner tubes on the water, not an inflatable pool float or tube like you might buy from Target or WalMart or Fred Meyer or Meijer or wherever, but an actual rubber doughnut made and perhaps even previously used as the inner part of a car or truck tire?
Yes. I remember being little and using those with friends. I remember not knowing how one would come into owning such a thing. I remember thinking that my parents did not seem to know either, even though we had lived in Central Pennsylvania for my entire life, all of six or eight or ten years. How would you get an actual car or truck tube, anyway? My parents grew up in Queens and Hartford, respectively, they moved to Selinsgrove PA for a tenure track job back when they made those to last (spoiler: I lived in that town most of my life). How would a college professor even approach such a project? I remember that I was friends with people who knew how to answer this question. Or, people whose parents had answered that question in various ways, so we bobbed down Penn’s Creek with those valves pushing up against our sides, the smell of hot rubber and creek and manure from the nearby fields.
Did you ever get in trouble for using her automatic garage door like a toy—hitting the button so it would retract up and then grabbing the metal lip at the bottom and letting it carry you up in the air, when you were still young and little enough for that to work?
Have you ever looked at your own garage door and wondered how one could have ever had enough power to lift you floating up into the air while also at least a little bit wanting to try to again?
Now I have.
Do you remember that short walk from your grandmother’s house to the public access trail to the lake?
It was a two block walk from my grandfather’s house to the bay. I remember my uncle wading in with a clam rake and having breakfast right there in the water, his pant legs rolled up to his knees. Cracking clams and eating them on the spot. In my mind he is my age now, 53, but he was probably thirty. They were all so young. They were all grown-ups. I remember the large anchor in my grandfather’s yard, the sign next to it that said “Anchored in Him.”
Remember the one house along the way that had rabbits and chickens and goats?
I remember hermit crabs, massive and green, shaped helmets from a war movie. I remember thinking how alien it all was. We were used to creeks, gullies, the low rolling fields and mountains of Central Pennsylvania. And here we were on this beach. And not even a beach like Ocean City Maryland but a private beach, a neighborhood beach, a beach where most of the people at any given moment might be staying at the ramshackle family house up the street with the big anchor outside and the hand made sign. A beach that was surely Not for Me but also somehow Exclusively for Me, where my mother had been a girl, had piloted boats and fished and had adventures of her own. An impossible thought for a six, eight, ten year old -- the idea of his mother on point on a boat piloted by her brother, a dog named skipper who would be mentioned at every family meal for decades sitting at the bow, the two of them literally skimming along the shoreline on the hunt for who knew what?
Remember how the trail was pretty well hidden, snaking its way between two houses, two private properties, but it was supposed to be for everyone?
I remember wondering if somebody was going to ask me for some kind of pass, how there could be an actual beach, even if it was just a bay beach, no waves, just sitting here in somebody’s neighborhood.
Remember parents telling you that every lake has to be accessible to the public?
I remember going to the ocean and having to have passes, that it was enough like Ocean City Maryland to be comfortable and enough unlike it to be strange and exciting and scary.
Do you think that’s true?
I guess it was The Actual Hamptons, or close enough to it?
Did you still take it for granted that most everything your parents told you must be true, and so you didn’t question it, either the legality of such a claim nor the fact that the lake had a park with a beach and a roped off swim area and lifeguards and boat access a mile or two down the road, and so wouldn’t that count as the lake being accessible to the public?
The ocean was better than the bay. That was a hard fact. I think I remember it requiring some kind of badge, some kind of parking or entry fee. I think I remember this as some source of tension among my parents. Of course, now I realize that part of the ocean’s allure for my parents, especially, I have to assume at least for my father, was that my grandfather never went there.
Do you remember the dock at this small beach—not the big one at the park, but the one that felt both public and private, almost like your own little personal beach on the lake?
I remember an inlet, something we used to do with crab nets and flashlights. Does that sound like fishing? It doesn’t sound like fishing to me anymore.
Remember swimming under it?
No fucking way.
How you could swim under but then come up and wade there, your head above water but under the deck, this little hidden foot or two that seemed like another world?
That sounds lovely. No.
Did you ever do this?
Our stories are starting to diverge but I’m with you.
Did you also, later in life, have a phase where you loved getting and hanging out on roofs?
Our stories have once again converged.
What do you think it is about certain stages of your life and being under or on top of things—pillow forts, caves, sitting on car hoods or tops, the roof of your house, your local church, school, whatever building had some combination of nearby fence or tree or other accessory that made it possible to get on top of?
We thought we were the Replacements, each one of us assuming he was Paul Westerberg, quiet fucked up genius one.
Have you ever been skinny dipping?
I feel like I thought I would do more skinny dipping than I’ve done in my time. A real dichotomy between the amount I've done in my adult life and the amount I might have expected when I was say….20. Okay.
Do you remember your first time?
I remember a pool, some people, the idea that we shouldn’t be there, the idea there was a person who might catch us soon but that it wouldn’t actually matter. Solid summary of being 20.
Was the idea yours or theirs?
I am a follower. Mostly. Then.
When you think of nightswimming, how much do you remember?
The country club pool. We were not supposed to be there. Some girls we liked. None of us knowing what to do. The feeling of diving deep and coming up to the soft night, the miracle of doing a thing you have seen people do in movies, of doing it right there in Central Pennsylvania, the nervous feeling that maybe anything could happen, diving back to the bottom to avoid anything happening.
Was it clear skies?
Was the moon out?
In my mind it is the size of the final UFO in Close Encounters.
Have you revisited that lake as an adult?
When my grandfather died we went back for the funeral, my sister, my mother, my uncle and me. We went through his things, tried to get the house “ready,” whatever that meant. A musician and a control freak, he had planned the music for his funeral. He had planned several funerals, or one funeral over several evolving periods as songs, people, notions, and churches came in and out of his life. There was a folder for each funeral program. Sometimes the music was his, sometimes it wasn’t. Featured players came and went. If we had known how to get in touch with Ira Glass we would have pitched it as a This American Life episode. I wonder if anybody held onto those plans, but I am pretty sure nobody held on to much of my grandfather. I have a few pots, some tools made when they made things to stay.
Parked at the end of the cul de sac, next to a “Public Property, No Access” sign right where the trailhead used to be?
I don’t know what became of the Anchored in Him sign. That was some realtor’s problem to work out. I imagine she moved it, or paid somebody to do it, in the thick of night, like the Baltimore Colts or Penn State hustling the Joe Paterno statue into storage. The house was in Hampton Bays. Not, I believe, what we think of as “The Hamptons” but still, the name is right there in the first word of the town. I doubt whoever paid for that land, for that block away from hermit crab beach access, wanted to be Anchored in Him.
Did you sit in your car, listening to a playlist of songs from your youth and ask yourself questions about whether you should abide by the sign or not?
When I was growing up there were so many things that were Not For Me. I’m older than you. We were pretty rural. In the 70s and the 80s we didn’t have any information. No record stores, book stores, nothing but big brothers and big sisters to rely on for information about what was cool, what was happening, who was doing what out there in t he world beyond Central PA.
What did you do next?
Today was the same as most of the rest of the days. I really like that essay you wrote.