During my childhood summers in Chester County, Pennsylvania I did many things: played baseball, rode my bike, caught fireflies, waited for the twilight jingle of the ice cream truck — but swimming in clear fresh water was not one of them. My town was too far south for the ice age glaciers to have reached it, so there was no retreat and melting, no carving of the hundreds of deep ponds and lakes that so refresh the New England landscape.
Oh, we had one man made quarry on the other side of town, known for it cold water, and it served as a private swim club. There was also the Lenape River a few miles away, and while I knew kids who fished it, I did not know any who swam there. For us, summer meant running under hoses, a day at Lenape Park with its public swimming pool packed end to end, or being lucky enough to have a friend with one of those really big plastic pools you filled from the same hose you ran under before the big day when the pool was set up.
One of the town’s biggest industrialists, and hence one of the wealthiest men, lived on my street. His house there was modest, in keeping with all the modest houses in the neighborhood, but then he built a lavish summer home complete with a dredged pond. I do not remember exactly where he built it, but I remember it was a big deal when my dad and I were invited to come to the newly filled in pond. I remember standing on that pond’s bank, no sure exactly what to do — I had never jumped into water before where fish and who knows what else lived.
I tell you this because here in New England we take our lakes and ponds and swimming holes for granted, as if they were so many stone walls, or white steeple churches, parts of the landscape we barely see only because we see them every day.
Just a mile or so from my house is a sweet, long pond made sweeter by knowing it was the family land of a well known local writer who gave the pond to the town’s residents. A college student sits in a chair at the entrance checking to see if you have the free town pass, and if you want to kayak the pond you can get one right there for the bargain price of $5 an hour. I’ve taken a swim there before 7:30 in the morning on work days, and I nearly always see someone else doing the same thing. I’ve returned in the evening to wash away the heat and stress of the day, and far out in the water I will see someone stroking his way towards shore.
All ages come here, the teens flirting and pushing each other off the dock, until the lifeguard, jealous no doubt, shouts for them to stop. The pond has become a tribal connection to everyone who lives here, we share the cool (but now warming delightfully) water, as much as the air and the view.
When outsiders think of New England, I am sure the sea springs to mind first. But for every ocean beach there are hundred fold more lakes and ponds. The sea helped shape New England’s fortunes and defined our heritage, but when I think of summer I see first a wooden raft set a hundred feet from shore, throngs of children jumping off then climbing back on — all of them unaware of the wondrous gift of the glaciers all those thousands of years ago.
Yankee editor Mel Allen is the author of A Coach’s Letter to His Son.