Summer meant baseball. Summer meant long, idle days, heat and dust, nights spent outdoors. But most of all, summer meant water. A day was not complete without a dunking, or at least a drenching, by whatever means were at hand. Water felt like freedom. It never crossed our minds that one day there might not be enough of it to go around.
When rainstorms came up, we congregated in someone's garage momentarily, then altered our play to include the rain. Gutter streams were captured in buckets, then the girls washed each other's hair with rainwater, the way their mothers had told them they did when they were teenagers. After the storm passed, mud pies were set to bake on the cinder block wall at the foot of the back yard.
Hundreds of hours were spent stalking like zombies through the pin-point spray of the rotating sprinkler. Eventually one of the rowdier kids picked up the metal-tentacled monster, daring the rest of us to walk through as he stalked us, aiming for the eyes. Sometimes we detached the sprinkler from the rubber hose, and used the clear, thick stream to wash every sun-baked surface. The sidewalk. The front steps. The molten metal lawn chairs. We stuffed the hose down our bathing suits and laughed when the water leaked out between our legs. We played pretend carwash, scrubbing down our bikes, the wagon, then rode them wet.
Some afternoons, we loaded as many children as would fit into the station wagon and drove to Beech Bend Park to swim. The road passed through a long tunnel of ancient trees, lulling us almost to sleep before we emerged onto the wide asphalt parking lot and raced across to keep our feet from burning. Inside the chain link fence, we joined the sea of bobbing bodies and stayed in the heavily chlorinated water until the whites of our eyes were the same color as the pink underlid. The year we moved from our hometown to a much larger city, the single consolation was Seven Mile Creek, a wide stream that ran right along the edge of our brand new suburban subdivision. Here we discovered the thrill of moss-slick rocks, salamanders, the sudden rise and rush of the water when it rained, the slow trickle when it didn't.
When junior high rolled around, water was the great equalizer and the primordial ooze of sexual awakening. At the VFW pool, the girls competed fiercely with the boys, adding a twist to each difficult dive, executing perfect jackknives off the low board, swimming away with swift strokes while the boys pounded the surface with clumsy cannonballs. Games of chicken were intense rituals of touch, culminating in a tender silent tumble underwater, a moment suspended, a glimpse of white cheek, flowing hair, arms waving like mermaids. Water made us graceful.
Our friend Harry Miller scared us by diving to the bottom of the deep end, claiming he could sip air through the drain grate, and staying under for minutes at a time. When he finally came up, ashen and weak, we begged him not to do it again, secretly marveling and besodden with intrigue. We floated on plastic rafts, pretending to sleep, waiting for one of the boys to surge up like a shark and turn us over, tumbling into the refreshing drink, emerging slick and outraged.
Yesterday, I was driving down the street toward Safeway, windows rolled down, my arm hanging out to capture the feel of the sun on a Colorado summer afternoon. A pack of boys skated on the sidewalk up ahead. They rolled in one direction, stopped, then rolled back again. They peeled off their shirts. A rotating sprinkler sent out shafts of water that crossed the sidewalk and splattered the street. The four boys were soaked, their baggy shorts drooping down farther with each cross of the spray, their skinny chests pale and bluish, goosebumps popping out across their backs.
The relentless Colorado sun beat down. I knew that sprinkler shouldnt be going in the middle of the day and should have been more carefully placed. I know that water is scarce and should be used wisely. But I envied those boys.
Here was summer and there was water precious water, enough to wash away the fires that burned in their nightmares. Enough to erase self-consciousness and provoke shrieks of unleashed delight. Enough to make us remember why we love it and why we must urgently protect it.