It was time to leave Edina behind. After an adoption and a bankruptcy, we moved to Arkansas so my new father could start a Forest Service internship. Its office was based in Booneville, a tiny town up in the lush, swampy, humid northwest corner of Arkansas. We arrived in Booneville as a legal family, a strange little family in a strange little town.
Dad went to work in the Ouachita National Forest. The rest of us spent our days in the falling-down farmhouse I’ve written about before. When we arrived, that house had no air conditioner. It was only May, but it was always hot, day and night. One hundred plus degrees, one hundred percent humidity. We went to school during the week, but on the weekend, we lay limp and gasping, dying fish on the battered linoleum of the living room floor.
My pregnant mother was disgusted. She’d hoped to inch us up the social ladder with a better address in Edina. Perhaps she thought we’d do our part and take up tennis and the like. But we were pallid indoor creatures who were no help at all. Still, this was next level torpid. She couldn’t even rouse her daughters for housework. She used all the weapons in her motherly arsenal to motivate us; rage, accusation, guilt, shame. Nothing could budge us.
One afternoon, we finally heard it on the roof. A patter, then a smatter, then a steady thrumming. Could it be? We rose to our feet, weak from inactivity, and emerged from the rotten shell of that rotten little house. We turned our chalky faces to the sky. It was raining.
Thunder rocked the earth, lightning split the sky, and our mother shouted a warning. But thunder and lightning belonged to Thor, and so did we. We were children of the North.
Well, not such children. My brother was sixteen, my sister thirteen, and I was eleven. We had lost the grace of childhood and become ungainly in our bodies. But there we were, leaping and waving, soaking and spinning, and laughing, all three of us, dancing in the southern downpour.
As a Northerner, how do you prepare for the South’s summer heat? You can’t. You can’t even describe it, through you try. Deliquescent, you might say, or oppressive. You struggle through the heavy air like one of those dreams where you’re trying to run. You don’t roast in Southern heat. You drown. It was like living in a terrarium.
But we were children, and children adjust. We more or less acclimated in the weeks before summer. In the early mornings, before the heat became unbearable, my sister and I found a pocket of time in which we could explore this strange new landscape.
We made strange Northern noises as we padded down red clay roads under overhanging trees that resonated with the songs of frogs, insects, and unfamiliar birds. We kept to the center, where we could see the telltale SSS of snakes as they crossed the road, the black scuttle of hairy tarantulas as they went about their scary business.
Within walking distance of our house, we came upon a still river, so dark and green that its depths were impossible to perceive. What was it called? We had no idea. It was just there. Was it shallow? Was it deep? Most importantly, were there snakes?
With great trepidation, we tiptoed across a concrete bridge that had no guardrails. We leaned towards each other, too frightened to shriek. It seemed to me that the viscous green water, thick as mud, would rise up over its sides and claim us, suck us down into the Arkansas waters, leaving behind no trace.
Within a few months, we were used to this different world. We made friends with neighbors who had horses and a private lake. We would modulate our voices to be heard over that symphony of flying, hopping, slithering, scuttling life. We would run across that concrete bridge without fear, without even thinking.
We wouldn’t even sweat.
No one would ever have accused us kids of being athletic, but water tends to be forgiving of that. We could splash and bob and shriek, practice our shitty crawls and pointless breaststrokes. Swimming in Arkansas gave us a break from the heat and boredom of our tiny town, and removed some of the awkwardness of our growing, graceless bodies.
As a forester, Dad had access to key information for water safety, like when a swimming hole had last been sprayed for copperheads. Once he’d decided the chance of poisonous snakebite was low, he’d pack up us three older kids in our family’s VW van and head for Jack Creek. Mom stayed home with the new air conditioner and the even newer baby brother.
Jack Creek was a pretty place. A diagonal upthrust of rock defined the swimming hole, and provided a place for the more daring to jump. Kids would scale the rocks, edge out, and plunge into what must have been the only water deep enough to safely enter.
How did they keep from breaking their necks?
Sister and I stuck to the still green waters. We would have done that without our mother’s warnings not to break our necks. I was cautious by nature, always watching for the S-shaped ripple of a swimming snake. We didn’t break our necks by jumping in, and we never got bit by snakes. Once, when we were sort of wallowing at the edge of the creekbed, a crawfish bit my sister in the butt. That was the extent of our misadventures with wildlife.
I would have lived at Jack Creek if I could. Swimming there gave us some low-key time with just our dad. He understood parts of parenting that our mother didn’t, like the fact that we needed to go outside once in a while. We would never jump off cliffs, but we needed nature, even if we stuck to the shady spots, muddy banks, and shallow waters.
I remember swimming at a lake in Arkansas. I thought it was called Green Lake, but I can’t find a lake by that name near Booneville out there on the Internet. My sister thinks it was a reservoir, but I remember seeing fish, and going out on a boat with a friend of the family’s who was fishing. Are there a lot of fish in reservoirs? I have no idea.
Anyway, if you’re reading this and you know what lake it was, leave a comment.
Because Arkansas is mild in the winter, and hot all the rest of the year, we went fairly often, but never often enough. We adored this lake. It had a sandy shore and trees nearby, offering shade if the heat became too much. There were picnic tables and a sense of social possibility. I was eleven when we moved to Arkansas and only twelve when we left, but adolescence was bearing down on my sister and me. There were boys at that lake, including those blonde and handsome Daffron/Daphren brothers.
One weekend, Mom and Dad had gone somewhere for the weekend—probably Fort Smith—leaving my sister and I in charge of our baby brother. Our older brother was away at college by this point. I was 12, which means my brother was a year old. Yes, we were all quite young to be left alone for a weekend, but my sister had been babysitting me since she was five and I was three, so we were used to it.
Anne and Tom—friends of my parents—knew we were home alone that weekend. They had possibly been enlisted to check in on us. Anne called and said Tom had the idea to take us to the lake. Would we like go to the lake with them? Oh, we wanted to go! But we couldn’t figure out how to handle a one year-old. Could we bring his playpen? Would it fit in their car? Would he be okay while we swam? Would Mom be mad?
My sister called them back and said we couldn’t go after all.
When my parents came home, we told them all about our almost-trip to the lake and our oh-so-mature decision not to go. We were pretty proud of ourselves, but I watched my mother’s face harden as we talked. Mom was stony and disapproving.
She finally said, “You know why Tom wanted to take you to the lake, don’t you?”
No, I didn’t. To have fun, maybe?
She hissed, “He wanted to see you in your swimsuits.”
The way she said it. I felt soiled and somehow responsible. That’s what happens to girls as we reach maturity milestones that trigger male interest. We blame ourselves for anything creepy.
As it turns out, that was the last opportunity we had to go to the lake. We moved to Montana soon after. There was nowhere safe to swim out at the Ranger Station. That didn’t stop me from testing the waters.
I would step into the churning, icy flow of the Gallatin River, hoping to make it to a rock before my feet froze. I was young and lonely and bored, and there was nothing else to do. Why not risk my life?
There was no swimming in that river. I missed those Arkansas waters, warm, lazy and green, my sister beside me, my dad watching to keep us safe.