Photo by Lewis Hine, The Swimming Hole, Westfield, Massachusetts, 1916

We never admitted that the lake was terrifying, that it was a dark, alluring, fearful hole in the world, that it was more grim than serene. We never said the word “drown.” We never confessed to each other that we had heard all the stories, and believed every one of them. Believed that pale icy corpses lurked in the murky nether reaches of the lake, along with giant predatory pike and who knows what other savageries left over from the Eocene Epoch? We never admitted that we tiptoed into the lake not so much because it was cold, which it was, but because we were fearful of what was underfoot, what could snatch and tear and puncture and abrade us. But in we went, seemingly careless and reckless, diving into the deeper reaches and opening our eyes beneath the surface and gaping at the endless deathly green of it. Blue was the smiling surface. Blue caught the sun. Blue was the gleaming summer lake the old folks savored from the porches of their cabins as they sipped their whiskey sours and listened to the baseball game on the radio, but the real lake was a forbidding, flinty green, with the ghostly bones of dead trees reaching up for you, and the frightened skitter of tiny trout and perch, and on the far shore a stern heron like an exiled assassin, and the flyblown scat of what could only be a bear, and the pawprint of something you hoped was a bobcat—but it could be a cougar, couldn’t it?

The little kids could stay on the lip of the lake, and piddle and patter in the shallows, and dig holes and play with sticks. But the older kids had to fling themselves into the deep, for you could not be frightened. How hawkishly close we watched each other to see who would be so weak as to be honest about his fear! How wrong it was to be honest, how hard we scrabbled and tore at each other not to be last and least, how frantically we posed as who we were not at all, how avidly we performed roles we cared nothing about, and secretly hated with all our might. How terrified we were of being lonely, how very frightened of that above all else, above all danger, so that we would sprint howling into the deeper water, throw ourselves into it like pale, shivering, goose-pimpled torpedoes, and come up hooting and laughing, and say, “The water’s fine! This is awesome!” Beneath our milling arms and joyous shouts our legs churned desperately to keep us afloat, on the surface. To keep us from going any deeper.

It was only later, for most of us, maybe all of us, that we left the surface and dove down into our lakes. We dove down to confront fear and pain and despair, and dimly discern how they might be endured with something like grace. All these years later, when someone asks me when I learned to swim, I find myself wanting to say not so long ago. It took me a long time to learn to leave the surface, and I still sometimes cling to it more than I would wish. And it says something deep and real about us, and our capacity to understand each other so deeply, that words can only hint at what I mean, and that you know exactly what I mean when I seem to be talking about lakes.

Published in the August 12, 2016 issue: 

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland.

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