I spent much of my free time as an adult around water and beaches, but I was 11 or 12 before I swam in a real swimming pool for the first time.
That’s when Chamberlain opened a swimming pool. Somehow, my folks let me leave the farm work for a couple of days to stay with a friend in town. He was tanned and fit. I was farmer tanned. We splashed around for a couple of afternoons, lay on towels on the concrete near the pool and generally loafed. I returned to farm work with an amazing sunburn.
I seldom went to the local pool after that, never learned to dive, never learned to swim the right way. The pool was nice, but as we grew older, when we swam, it was in the river. We were too cool for the pool, I guess.
Once, as a young adult in Pierre, I hit the local pool for a charity thing. Some sponsor organized swimming races among members of the local media. Pretty sure I finished dead last, but I stayed afloat. That was the start and the end of my competitive swimming.
My dad told stories of swimming in a real pool on American Island. That was a recreation place across the river from Chamberlain in the years before the Missouri River dams. Dad said they had a great pool. He said that on a hot summer day the pool drew more people than an offer of free ice water. I never doubted it was so.
My only images of American Island are from old black-and-white photographs. I think we may have had a family picnic or two in the park there when I was a young boy.
The only picnic I remember was on the river bluffs on the east side of the Missouri. I remember because I nearly stepped on an angry rattlesnake as it lay in the sun on a dirt trail. It’s a shame there wasn’t a high-jump bar around. I would have set a schoolboy record.
I had no reason to expect to see a snake there. My dad, who had a deathly fear of rattlesnakes, told me there were no such creatures east of the river. They didn’t swim, he said. As with most of the things he told me, I believed that, right up to the moment I encountered the angry serpent on the picnic trail. At that point I had to wonder if my dad was wrong. If not, then that snake I encountered hitched a ride across the water on the back of some trusting animal.
As I grew older, of course, I heard of other rattlesnake encountered on the wrong side of the Missouri River. And at least once while boating on Lake Oahe north of Pierre I spotted a rattlesnake swimming along, a long way from either shore. I gave the creature plenty of room.
Good thing, too. When I told the story at work the following Monday, another guy topped it with a tale of a guy who came across a rattler on the water and had to fight like the dickens with an oar to keep it from slithering over back of the boat near the outboard motor. For the longest time after I heard that story, whenever I waterskied, I inspected my surroundings carefully before I dropped the tow rope and sank up to my neck in the water.
As far as I know, I never skied near a snake. As a grade-school kid, I once had a garter snake crawl up my back while I floated on an old railroad tie in the stock dam north of the home place. That time, I could leap off the tie and touch bottom, which I did, frantically. Up on Lake Oahe, the bottom is usually a long, long way below a guy.
I don’t know exactly how deep Oahe is. Once when I was pulling a ski on, my wedding ring slipped off. I made three unsuccessful swipes at it and then watched it for about 20 feet before it sank out of sight.
Had I been in a pool, I would still have that ring.