Wandering Through Here:
Picked up Pieces, Late Night Thoughts, and Incipient Work--in-Progress

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

The last summer on the pond was the worst. The humidity seeped from the sky like a sour mist; overhead the sun blazed in a white sky, and out on the water a small armada of powerboats and jet skis maneuvered day and night. The heat was on; some days it felt more like Miami than New England, a miasma of bad air, frayed nerves, and boorish behavior that enveloped the little beach on the pond thirty-five miles west of Boston where I once considered myself lucky to live.

When I first moved to the pond, days and nights were pleasant, especially in summer. In the early years, almost every night after work, my wife and I would swim in the cool waters, and, on nights when she felt particularly ambitious, my wife would swim across the pond to a large rock near the opposite shore and I would paddle quietly beside her.

Autumn was my favorite season. The summer people were gone, and the pond was deserted except for those few of us who lived there year-round. In the mornings, after my run, I would take a cup of coffee to the dock and watch the mist rise from the water. Some mornings I would walk down to the dock as the sun poked above the hills to the east and surprise a great blue heron, and every autumn an osprey came through on its fall migration and would stay for weeks as Indian summer stretched into November.

November and December were dark and gray, even dismal. Ice locked the pond by the New Year; the turtles and muskrats and waterfowl vanished. The ice fishermen came then, but they were few and confined their sport mostly to weekends. They also provided handy information on the thickness of ice for the skaters. In the early winter there, the ice skating could be grand.

By spring, the ice would turn gray and sag with surface water before finally breaking up. Outside our windows, we would watch for the ducks and geese and the blooming of the forsythia, and, sometime in May, I would take the canoe out for a trial run. Shortly thereafter, it would be time for the first swim, and then summer would come again.

Sometime in the middle of the 1980s, all that began to change.

There were four year-round homes on our road and four summer houses. Our street maintained a small dock and raft for use of its residents. There was an understanding that nobody in any of the homes would hog our small beach or dock. The communal beach and dock functioned well. But it gradually stopped working.

First came the powerboats. One new owner of the year-round homes tethered a powerboat to the dock. It leaked oil and gasoline into the swimming area. When we came out for a swim, we needed to wade beyond the rainbow sheen of gasoline before putting our faces in the water. Our two year old couldn’t do that. Next, another neighbor decided that since Jones had a powerboat anchored at the dock, he’d do the same. Only his was even bigger and noisier than boat number one. Then there were two. A third wouldn’t make any difference. Powerboat owner number one gave his brother, a resident of a nearby town, permission to tie up his powerboat at the dock. The tiny beach adjoining the dock had once been a safe haven for canoe launching. Now there wasn’t room. Swimming was difficult: the oil and gas fouled the water, and we had to be constantly on alert for a powerboat entering or leaving the dock.

It is against the law to run a powerboat near a swimming area, but constant reminders produced little change. Powerboat owners, I concluded, think the burden of safety is on the rest of us and that we should either watch out or get out.

When the jet skis arrived, they made the powerboat owners seem like paragons of moderation. Powerboats, it can be argued, have some uses; jet skis have none except to allow their owners to show off by doing wheelies across the water. They are the most useless, offensive, and potentially dangerous motorized vehicles on the water. Jet skis attract the young, and at that time there were no regulations governing their use. They require little skill, minimum dexterity, and they make lots of noise. Young males love them.

One evening when we were swimming near the dock with our two year old, a jet ski lurched out of control and spun crazily toward us. We jumped back, pulling our son away as the machine slid to a stop several feet away. We remonstrated with the operator, who looked at us as if we had three heads each and green hair. Whoever heard of telling someone you can’t operate your jet ski in a swimming area near young children?

“Get a life,” he snarled at us as he roared off.

“Why is it,” my wife commented, “that you never see nice grandmothers on those machines?”

Once the unwritten rules that had governed our beach and small section of pond were breached by the powerboat owners and the jet ski crew, little bursts of anarchy became the norm. The pond became a regional hangout. Jets skis and powerboats roared up and down, turning the water to foam and shattering the quiet evenings. My wife no longer swam across the pond; even with a canoe beside her it was too dangerous. Motorized mania had taken over. Slowly, we stopped caring about our little beach. Now that is was fouled with oil and gas, we used it less, and as we, and a neighbor who also owned a canoe, used it less, we lost more control. The powerboating neighbors held parties; their friends, and friends of friends, now dominated the area. The beach became littered; the roadside forsythia glistened with beer cans.

One summer it came to a head for several of the families on the street—loud voices trading insults on a sunny morning, recriminations, calls to the police, petty vandalism. But we were spared all that. We had given up. We put the house on the market and moved to the hills, far from any body of water. It’s better this way, we told each other; the pond was too crowded, the swimming was no good, and any other lake might be the same.

Which was all very true; but on days when the wind is from the northwest and the first hint of autumn is in the air, I find myself at evening listening for the sound of big birds flying across the tangerine sky, and I miss the pond and remember it for the quiet times.

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