This morning I encountered a smell that took me back to the time when I lived at the lake every day of the summer. Not what anyone would call a good smell, it was the stink of slime and muck and algae growth, the kind that grew on the sides and bottom of the covered platform anchored in the water a hundred yards from the beach. We called this platform “the raft” but it was held in place by chains presumably attached to concrete-filled barrels. I don’t know if there were actual barrels down there because I never swam that deep. I tried once, but the water was freezing and it felt like my head was going to explode. I swore I touched bottom but I’m not sure if I touched solid ground or if my need to live just told me I did so I could come back up.
Jumping or diving from the high dive on top of the raft–now that I think about it–was an insanely daring thing to do, because there was no exaggeration in the ‘high’ part of the description. When you were up on top and looking down, the water below was a serious gut-check from where you stood. Many a kid climbed right back down again rather than risk a bad flop from that height. An even rarer act of courage among those of us at the lake was to swim under the raft from one end to the other. While this sounds simple, it was not, because under the platform was chicken wire that wrapped completely around the square of the raft’s bottom. You had to swim deep enough to avoid getting your hair or swimsuit caught on the wire, because if it did, well, slasher movies have been made that seem tame in comparison to the horror, panic and the frantic struggle that would ensue.
To this day, making the swim under that raft is one of the scariest memories I have. I knew people drowned in the lake, had heard the stories and knew the dangers. Under the raft the water was cold and dark, black like the entrance to a cave where something bad was either trapped or waiting to trap you. I used to imagine the lake being hungry, like some angry being that required a sacrifice and would not be satisfied until it had taken the life and absorbed the essence of yet one more swimmer.
It is a strange two-sided remembrance, however, because while the thought of being snagged beneath the raft terrified me, stretching out face down on its surface in hot sunshine was bliss. The feel of wind on wet skin, hearing the waves lap against the sides and slowly inhaling, exhaling, going within to just be.
It’s odd how smells imprint themselves on us and bring images and sensations from days long ago. One dank whiff and I saw the wind in the poplars, the ducks foraging along the banks, the fishermen eschewing the beach and heading down the dirt road for the far shore, cups of worms and the horrid stink bait in their coolers. I remember wading in up to my waist and seeing fish swimming around my legs. No matter the species I always called them Perch since that was mostly what I knew.
The summer I worked at the lake as a lifeguard some of the magic dimmed. That year there were carpets of moss floating, attaching spiny strands to the limbs and hair of swimmers, causing me more than one nightmare about someone drowning. There were sand fleas. Duck poop. People left mounds of ugly cigarette butts that had to be picked up before I could rake the beach. Daily I blew my whistle at kids playing with the buoys that separated shallow from deep because I had to wade out and restring them again. There were nosebleeds, broken chaise loungers, missing rings, earrings, lost club cards and many other things that no longer matter. My formal introduction to responsibility and the world of working adults brought an end to those sensory rich summers lived at the lake.
One would think I might have included some of this in one of my novels, perhaps even the one with the word “Lake” in the title? But no, it seems I’ve been holding these memories close to me, waiting for the right day, the right time, the right smell, to come along and remind me that those daring swims and blissful waves still lap inside me.