Archive for August 2010

Sweet Mysteries of Youth

12 August 2010
Categories: Narratives

August always makes me think of my childhood, of those fruitful late-summer days spent busy or bored, always struggling to maximize summertime fun against the constant reminders that “Back to School” time was just around the corner. Part of that memory stems from the perennial noise that emits from the trees this time of year. That insistent buzzing-whining drone.

When I was eight, playing in the backyard sandbox, my friend and I heard that sound and wondered what it was. Looking up to the trees and seeing as well the power lines strung along the nearby road, I hypothesized that it was some kind of electrical noise from the wires. My friend wondered why we only hear it in the summer, and I further conjectured that the summer heat caused the wires to leak electricity, or some such.

Hey, to an eight-year-old kid, it was plausible. There’s something special about the age of eight. It’s the age where you have a few years of elementary school under your belt, giving you the sense that you know a bunch of stuff. What you don’t know, you can find out from a friend. And if neither of you have an answer, you can always make one up.

I think my friend might have bought that explanation about buzzing noises caused by leaky wiring. It was a few years before I learned the true cause: cicadas.

Walking the streets of our subdivision (which lacked sidewalks), we would often find these thin, stiff pieces of steel, usually around 5 or 6 inches long, lying near the gutters. Where did they come from? I wondered. A friend’s brother informed me they were car parts, some part of the suspension or leaf springs or brakes or something, and they fell off of older cars.

Again, plausible. They were usually rusty, like the undersides of cars, and I could imagine some old Chevy (or not-so-old Gremlin) hitting a pothole and spewing these strips of metal from its fender wells. But fifteen years later I noticed they were still around. Couldn’t be a car part, I realized. The technology has changed too much for these things to still be as frequent as in my youth. It took very little research to find that they’re bristles from the brushes of street sweepers.

But here’s the greatest mystery—and apocryphal tale—of those long-gone summers.

One day, I and a few friends were patrolling the neighborhood on our bikes. We wandered over to the very edge of my allowed-without-informing-mom-in-advance range. Perhaps a bit further than that, even; I wasn’t 100% sure I knew my way home.

We had reached a point at the eastern edge of town where one of the main avenues crossed a road at the city limits and abruptly changed from a paved thoroughfare to a dusty gravel track that faded into chest-high weeds and grasses. Beyond a rudimentary traffic barricade was a desolate, eerie land of deadly garter snakes and rusty beer cans; of gargantuan tobacco-spitting grasshoppers and dense, impenetrable second- or third-growth woodlots.

As I stood there with my cohort, pondering this unknown realm and whether the reward from its exploration outweighed the risk of getting grounded upon my return, a kid ambled out from the tall grass. He was an older kid, but whether that meant he was 12, or 15, or more, is unclear to me now. Someone in our party knew who he was; a classmate of an older sibling or some such. He approached, stopped, and casually looked us over.

“You know,” he said, with a hint of a grin and a conspiratorial glance over his shoulder, “there’s a nudist colony back in those woods.”

This revelation was dumbfounding. It was so utterly implausible that we launched into the obligatory chorus of “no way” and “yeah right.” He insisted it was true: “I saw it myself.” Naked people frolicking in the woods, he averred, though not in those exact terms. “Go see for yourselves.” And with that idle challenge, he walked away.

Did we meet that challenge? I cannot vouch for my compadres, but I, for one, did not. I figured I was already in enough trouble for straying this far afield. To go beyond that point, in search of a fabled den of iniquity, was inconceivable. My eight-year-old moralism said that if those people were depraved enough to be naked in public, there was no telling of what they might be capable—selling an eight-year-old boy into slavery, perhaps, or (worse yet) stealing his prized purple three-speed banana-seat bicycle. I turned away, and rode home, intrigued but fearful.

Over the years, this mystery stayed in the back of my mind. I sometimes heard further, similar rumors, reinforcing the possibility that a nudist colony really was tucked away amid the trees. Yet by the time I was in high school that area had begun to be developed into a subdivision; the gravel road was replaced by a winding extension of the avenue, and I frequently drove through the area without spying any hint of a naked body or an enclave of debauchery. My gentle skepticism turned to firm doubt.

Finally, when I was in college, I learned the truth: there was indeed—even then—nudity happening out there, but not a “nudist colony” per se. Hidden in what remained of the woods was a deep, roughly rectangular, spring-fed quarry pond. To access it one would park in back of an unremarkable apartment complex, cross over a railroad embankment, and follow a series of unmarked trails that meandered through clearings and skirted low marshes. College students, mostly, used the pond to go skinny-dipping. Those in the know called it Bare-Ass Lake.

In the years since then, the area has continued to be developed, and “Hidden Lake Drive” now passes right by the no-longer-hidden Bare-Ass Lake, stringing together little cul-de-sacs of tidy condominiums. The developer had a sense of humor, however, and left us with a sanitized, punning in-joke: the nearest cul-de-sac is called “Bear Lake Drive.”