#009 Swimming a Mile

In and around the lake

Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there

One mile over we’ll be there and we’ll see you

Ten true summers we’ll be there and laughing too

Twenty four before my love you’ll see I’ll be there with you

John Andrson & Steve Howe

One of the highlights of my 10th summer was Boy Scout camp. I’m racking my brain to remember which camp it was. I’ve googled and looked at satellite images and I’m pretty sure based on proximity to home that it was Camp Mahonegon. I have this image of getting on a bus with a duffle bag or backpack and waving at tearful parents as we pulled away, but I’m thinking maybe that was a something I saw in a made-for-tv movie. 

I don’t remember which of my friends were with me at camp that summer, or who my tent mate was. But I remember the tent, the cot, our section of the camp, our scoutmaster, how our troop combined with another troop complete with a bugler from another part of the state, coming up with a name of our patrol (which I’ve forgotten). I remember waking up at dawn in the cool, damp mountain air to the sound of reveille and the smell of bacon and pancakes and hot syrup far off in the distance. That almost-heavenly aroma grew thicker and stronger as we walked in formation down the dirt road, through the trees, down the hill to the dining hall by the lake. 

That’s where the camp director, looking all official and ridiculous in his adult Boy Scout uniform complete with kerchief, like some overgrown AC/DC wannabe, made the announcement about the mile swim. On the penultimate day of camp, in the lake beyond the diving dock, boy versus buoy, there was to be the annual challenge of personal aquatic endurance. 

I felt confident I could swim a mile. It didn’t seem that far. The camp director said most scouts who attempted it would complete it in less than an hour. I had to do it! I knew how to swim!

Romney had a community pool. Miraculously, that little mountaintop town of 1,753 people, only 9,800 residents in the whole county, had a sweet little pool. It was small. Nothing Olympic-size about it. We didn’t swim laps. We just splashed and played and held our breathe and dove down to retrieve pennies off the bottom. The summer between first and second grade, I took lessons. I got my Tadpole certification. 

But wait, there’s more! Set in stone, in and beside that little cement pond for several summers of the early 70’s was my love for two things, a love that remains to this day.

First, frozen pizza. The aroma of frozen pizza cooking to a golden-burnt perfection in that industrial toaster oven so had me standing in line just after the whistle blew for adult swim. I loved how the pepperoni slices curled up around the edges, the thin crust was crunchy and the cheese glistened like a little oil slick, served by random teenage girls who cared more about their own looks than they did about me and my fascination with them and my pizza. This was pre-Red Baron and prepubescent world. 

Swimming makes me hungry. Swimming makes me really hungry! Even as an adult when at various times I’ve made a feeble effort to incorporate lap swimming into my exercise, the steps taken to alleviate my additional hunger afterward outweighed the benefits of the cardiovascular effort. 

The day came for the mile swim on the Saturday before camp concluded the next day. Well after breakfast had digested, about 10:30 or so, we headed to the cold lake as the sun was just beginning to warm things up. I looked around and I was the only scout of my tenderfooted young age that was making the attempt. All the other swimmers were older, taller, built like Adonis’s, full of testosterone and confidence. 

I had thoughts of backing out, but thought “drowning before dishonor.” The whistle blew, we waded into that same murky mountain lake water I’d splashed in all week. It felt so cold. Usually we swam in the afternoon. We ventured out behind the diving platform and started laps around the buoys. 

I started at the back of the pack and was soon lapped by scout after scout. Time vanished as one stroke followed another. I wished I’d eaten a bigger breakfast. I felt I had made a big mistake. Eventually I found a rhythm. One by one that pack of swimmers thinned out as scouts completed the mile. Then, I was the only one left. From time to time I’d look up at the lifeguard in the rowboat keeping an eye me. I’d like to think he smiled at me with encouragement, but he probably just wanted lunch. 

Then, after an eternity, I heard him say “one more lap.” I was done, I was spent, My groove had turned into a grind. I’d wanted to quit for a while. But I could squeeze out one last round of the markers. 

When I came to shore, only a few people were waiting. There was no hero’s welcome for my last place finish. Everyone was at the lodge nearby having lunch. I was too tired to care. The camp director told me my time was 1:29:30. I had beaten the hour and a half mark!

I made my way over to join everyone else to enjoy what was left of the cold burgers and fries. What I really wanted was frozen pizza. 

At the court of honor that evening as all the merit badges were handed out, it was announced I was the youngest scout to ever finish the mile swim. I had proven something to myself that Saturday in July of 1973. I learned that when I really, really wanted something I could accomplish it. 

But life’s not always that easy. I’d eventually learn that there is such a thing as failure. Teenage girls serving pizza wouldn’t return affections, friends would be false and betray you, jobs wouldn’t work out in spite of best intentions. You could suffer like hell in the desire and effort to swim against the current. If we’relucky, we will live to tell the tale. And if we’re really lucky, life will have handed over other gifts, with hindsight perhaps even more valuable that what we were seeking. 

My eventual move to Indiana put an end to swimming and scouts. The country high school that I would attend a few years later offered neither a pool or calculus. I quit Scouts after just a few meetings, not clicking with a new crowd. 

Puberty was a comin’. And what does any of this have to do with Glen Frickin’ Campbell, anyway?

Next week, I’ll dive into that second love I spoke about while hanging beside the Romney Community Pool.

In the meantime, ✌🏽❤️🖌

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#008 Oh, Deer

Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day

The sun is up, the sky is blue

It’s beautiful and so are you

Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?

John Lennon & Paul McCartney

I lied. I promised you this would be the last post about Romney. As I go down my own personal rabbit hole, taking a few of you with me, I discover more. As a writer, to be true to mine own self, I must do what I must do. 

To quote that great American, Winston Churchill, “it will be long, it will be hard, it will be bloody.” I’m not talking about World War II. I’m talking today’s post. Coincidentally, I worked briefly for a band called World War III, but please stay to the end anyway. See, I slipped something in here about my music career. We’ll get to World War III in a couple decades from now. Figuratively, not literally.

My 10th year was eventful. After this post, I’m pretty sure one more and we can exit, stage left, Romney. A lot happened that year that with my certain strain of hindsight I now see as important.

Obviously, I celebrated my birthday, and as a right of passage I received from my dad the following gift:

A Western Auto break-action 20 gauge shotgun! I had to earn that manly firearm. I took and passed the WV Dept. of Natural Resources Hunter Safety Course. A couple of my Boy Scout buddies were there in the evenings, after school, with me. The little DNR building is still there. I spotted it the last time I passed through Romney just over a year ago. 

That fall, when squirrel season began, I really felt like a young man, walking through the woods carrying that gun, fully aware that I would only point it at something I was willing to destroy. As an exercise, Dad had me load a shell of small shot, perfect for squirrel, at a little sapling about as big around as my forearm was at that age. Kaboom!!! The baby tree was torn up badly, as was some of my hearing. No one wore protection back then. When our ears came back, Dad said now imagine as hard as that tree was, what damage would have been done to something as soft as a human? The impression, to last a lifetime, was made. 

Next, Dad took a six by six inch piece of wood about an inch thick that he’d been carrying and placed it by a tree. We walked about 10 yards away and Dad handed me a shell with a deer slug in it instead of shot. I took aim and pulled the bang switch again. The force from the slug damn near drove me backwards. There was a hole about the size of a nickel in the piece of wood! I’m not sure who was happier, Dad or me. The kid with one good eye, who couldn’t hit a baseball, the slowest one on the basketball court, the last one picked for kickball, could shoot straight!

We walked towards home, quietly listening for chirps in the trees, careful to not step on any sticks lest they snap and bely our presence. I’d reloaded with the squirrel shot. Towards the end of the journey, about 10 minutes from home, I thought I heard something, high in a tree. I looked up and something grey was moving, though not much, hard to see. Maybe it was the wind, but the chirp could be heard again. I was certain I could see it. I looked at Dad, seeking permission though at this point, as a certified WV Safe Hunter, none was needed. I took aim, squeezed yet again and damaged my hearing one more time. 

(I’ve been told by a doctor my tinnitus is probably from being around gunfire as a youth, and most likely not from loud music. Yes, and… is probably the truth.)

We waited for gravity and the Grim Reaper of Aerial Rodents to perform as expected, and nothing happened. I was disappointed to say the least. My first round fired in the battle of man versus wildlife was in vain!

Now keep in mind, my father could shoot. He could group pistol shots together at 10 yards in the space of a half dollar. He could take down three quail boom boom boom on one flush of a covey. I’d previously asked my dad how come he was such a good shot. His reply was ammo was expensive, especially growing up in Southeastern Kentucky on the banks of the Redbird River a couple decades previous. 

We waited silently for what seemed like an eternity. I was feeling worse by the moment. Dad didn’t seem to care. We turned to head towards home. As we walked away, our back now turned to the tree, we heard a thump. We returned to the tree and there lay the deceased squirrel. The Howard family tradition of Great White Hunters was being passed on. I picked up my prey and marveled at it’s gray fur tinged with black and red. It was hard to see where the shot had hit the beast. There was no blood.

On the way home, we stopped by a little shack-like cabin, or was it a cabin-like shack? Dad knew the old man that lived there. I suspected some of the man’s income came from information about who was making ‘shine in the vicinity. Perhaps the old man himself had a still and it was better to give up a few neighbors than himself. We’ll never know, but that day, my first kill was given to the old man who undoubtedly had it for his dinner. The lessons of giving and not wasting, were not wasted on me. Besides, Dad didn’t have to clean it, Mom didn’t have to cook it, so much work for so little reward. 

That November, at Romney Elementary, the principal declared in the morning announcements over the speaker in each classroom that the first day of deer season would be Deer Day, and anyone going deer hunting would be granted an excused absence. I couldn’t wait to go home and tell Dad, who, of course, said we’d go. 

That November morning of opening day of deer season was cold and clear. We left before Oh Dark Thirty. I had my hand warmers lit. I was bundled and booted appropriately, but I was still cold AF. Dad left me on a little tree-covered knoll beside the river with a view through a thin copse of trees in between. He went about a hundred yards upstream to wait himself. The sun was yet to rise above the horizon, but dawn was breaking. Mild advection fog rose from the river obscuring my view. Through frozen nostrils I could smell the cold, deciduous humus of my adopted home state of West Virginia, of my Appalachian heritage.

And then I heard the subtle crunch crunch of hooves on frosty leaves. Or did I? Maybe it was a hunter, perhaps not wearing the new, yet-to-be-popular, orange vest as I wore. Through the fog, I could see a shape. Was it a deer, an errant cow, or, hopefully not, a human? I wanted to bag a buck so bad I could feel it all the way down to my frozen toes. Damn, I couldn’t see the target. I withheld fire. And waited.

The sun rose, the fog thickened a bit, then dissipated as I froze. I listened for another deer and heard nothing, saw nothing. Shit. About a half hour later I heard my Dad’s unmistakeable whistle, loud and clear, from the right and a minute later he came into view and joined me. He asked if I’d heard the deer. I told him how I’d heard something but couldn’t ID the target. He affirmed that I’d made the right decision. Better to be prudent than commit manslaughter at such a tender young age. 

As it turned out, I was the only kid to participate in Deer Day. I felt special. I felt sorry for the other kids whose inattentive, deadbeat or panty-waisted fathers didn’t take them hunting. But then came the ultimate pisser.

The following May, when certificates for perfect attendance were handed out at the end of the school year, I expected one, and my name was not called. What the H? I HAD PERFECT ATTENDANCE. I raised my hand and asked “Where’s mine?” I was informed by my teacher that I had one absence. DEER DAY! MOTHER BLEEPING DEER DAY!

I went to the principal to appeal. He told me an absence was an absence, even an excused absence. I’m sure the seeds of a lifetime of self-righteous anger and indignation were well-planted by that day, but let me tell you, they sprouted with a vengeance. I had been set up by that bastard principal. Set up to fail! I stayed pissed for quite a while. Still, in this moment, I’m seething with anger, wishing I could remember his name so I could look him up on Find-A-Grave and take a leak on his headstone the next time I’m in West Virginia.

I know I still have some forgiving to do. There are a few graves I’d like to piss on. Hopefully they or their relatives did not choose cremation. 😉

In the meantime, ✌🏽❤️🖌

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