We are nearing the end of a very hot, dry summer. Although I sympathize with farmers, the dry weather has meant that just about any scheduled hike, bike or kayak can be expected to proceed as planned. And cooling off has often meant a dip in any convenient pond or stream ignoring the discomfort of biking in a wet pair of shorts. All of this impromptu swimming has brought memories of my childhood in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, where public pools were luxuries for city kids and muddy swimming holes the delight of the rest of us.
My Brother Roland’s birthday came on June 25, and marked the first day that we were allowed to go swimming. As soon as Dad pulled the ’30 Chevy into the driveway after a hard day pumping oil on the lease, all eight of us grabbed suits and towels and crowded into the Chevy. Innocently trusting its mechanical brakes, we plummeted down the winding mountain road to Kushequa Lake. The lake was formed by a privately owned dam in Kinzua Creek to provide hydroelectric power for the valley but open to the public. Parking the car on the south side of the valley, we clambered down the steep bank and crossed a concrete sidewalk to where a wooden bridge spanned the twin spillways leading to a pavilion erected over the non-functioning hydroelectric plant. The rest of the family crossed with confidence. I tiptoed hesitantly, afraid to look down at the white water rushing over the dam and foaming onto a flight of concrete stairs before continuing its long, placid journey to the Allegheny River. From the pavilion a path descended to a tennis court and dressing rooms sheltered in a pine plantation. Here we donned our swimming suits, thick, woolen garments with tank tops. Mine was red with a fouled anchor on the chest; Dad’s was almost the same, only blue and lacking the anchor motif. For some reason I have the memory that it was riddled with moth holes, but they may just have been cigar burns, for Dad loved to show off his swimming prowess by floating on his back in the cold water, peacefully smoking a cigar.
Mother never learned to swim and shared my deathly fear of the water, but that didn’t prevent her from trying to teach me. This unfortunate combination of phobias usually ended with me screaming hysterically, until I was allowed to return to the shallows where, ankle deep in silt and knee deep in water, I happily splashed about. When I was older and learned to swim, we climbed down below the spillway and walked in back of the curtain of water coursing over the brim.
A day of swimming at Kushequa Lake always ended with a trip to the icy spring near the tennis court. Here, on the pretext of getting a pail of water for her mother’s boarding house, my grandmother carried out clandestine trysts with the man who was to become my grandfather. Watercress grows, lush and green, all along the brook that flows from that spring, and Roland’s birthday dinner was never complete without watercress sandwiches.
Trips to Kushequa Lake ended in the late‘40’s when a flash flood threatened the dam. Heroic efforts by the owners prevented a replay of the famous Johnstown flood when they dynamited the boards in one of the spillways, letting the water flow out and leaving a muddy basin in place of the lake. Today the lakebed is grown up to trees and brush, and it is hard to believe that my grandfather’s cornfield ever existed there, let alone a lake.
After the lake disappeared we shifted our swimming activities to a spot called “the Dairy Farm”, about a mile below the broken dam. Here Kinzua Creek made a sharp bend to the west, and in so doing excavated a high clay bank and an eight-foot deep hole. The swift current made swimming a bit dangerous, but the hole was no more than thirty feet across in any direction. The Dairy Farm was closer to home, and we could reach it either by foot or later, by bicycle. This meant that we could swim without parental supervision.
At the foot of Kushequa hill a steep drive ascended to the actual Dairy Farm, which now bore the more dignified name of Winterbrook, and where my Mother had lived when she was in high school. Shortly below Winterbrook we cut down through a field called the Beaver Meadows until we reached the swimming hole. Here we changed into swimming suits in the woods, breathing in the dank aroma of dark water and rank weeds.
The dairy farm was always crowded, and although I know of no drownings, it was a hazardous place to play. The combination of a ten-foot high clay bank and an eight-foot hole beneath invited diving and cannonballing. My friend broke his neck when he hit bottom in a dive, and my sister broke her foot when she cannonballed and landed on a rock.
The scariest experience I ever had at the Dairy farm happened when I was a little older and was just learning to swim. My friend and I had ridden our bikes down the long hill, in itself a hair-raising experience, since folk-kid knowledge warned that using your coaster brake on the hill could burn it out, so we took the turns without brakes at a terrifying 40 miles per hour.
As usual, the place was crowded with boys, and when we got there they were trying to teach Ronnie Okerlund to swim. They had tied him to a length of clothesline and would push him out into the current, pulling him back in when he started to sink. Ronnie tired of the game and was standing waist
deep in the water at the edge of the drop-off when I lowered myself into the water on the opposite shore and began a laborious dog paddle across the current. Just as I arrived Ronnie slipped from the edge of the drop-off. He grabbed me and pulled me under, thrashing wildly. I somehow managed to break free, but in doing so I pushed him into the current. Emerging on the sand beach I looked back to see Ronnie bobbing up and down under the amber water and slowly being swept downstream. He came up once, twice, and we all knew what would happen after that third time. Fortunately, that never happened. High on the bank overhead, my friend Jack had grabbed an inner tube, and threw it, just as Ronnie was rising for that third and final time. He bobbed up right through the ring of the inner tube, thrust his arms through, and paddled to shore, where we spent a happy half hour practicing artificial respiration on him until he got mad and begged us to stop. Swimming was a lot riskier in those days but I have to admit that it was a lot more fun!