I grew up in the woods near a pond. Well, I actually lived in a house and was raised by the average parents in the 70s and 80s which means I was a latchkey kid like many other kids of my generation. When I was younger, I remember my parents working fairly normal 8 to 5 jobs, then later, in the case of my father, swing shifts, which are hard on a family. He swung between three shifts, changing each week from mornings to afternoons to nights and then back to mornings again. Once they were divorced, I was raised by my mother who worked long hours, I suspect, not only to make up the shortfalls, but also because she liked the community she found at her office.
Summers, when we were out of school, meant pure, unadulterated freedom to do whatever we wanted and I suppose it was a good thing that we lived in a small town in the middle of the country where we had relatively little that could entice us in the way of evil-doing. The close neighbors we had didn’t pry, yet kept a watchful eye out for us and were there whenever we needed them, which, growing up on our own like we did, turned out to be very little.
So I grew up in an average American small town, raising two brothers, and reigning supreme over my domain; a tiny park butting up to the woods, a manmade pond built sometime in the late 1700s or early 1800s to turn a wheel for grinding corn, and the surrounding small town that included a post office, a fire barn, and two gas stations. For the most part, we avoided the tiny business district and spent nearly all of our time playing in the great outdoors. I’m not sure if I liked the woods better, with its busy chorus of birds in the spring and its crunchy leaves underfoot in the fall, or the pond with its murky, cool water perfect for swimming all summer and skating all winter, though I am positive summer has always been my favorite season.
There was nothing quite like stepping out the door on a bright summer morning and listening to a pair of turtle doves cooing on the telephone line running up the road beside our house while the early morning sun burned off the last wisps of fog. Early sunshine had a smell of its own hinting at warm dirt and dry pavement underlying the sweeter perfumes of the blooming flowers planted by my mother and the ripening cherries that flourished on the tree outside our front door.
My youngest brother was a budding lawn maintenance entrepreneur in those days. He would start early in the day pushing or driving a mower from house to house and adding the heavy scent of freshly mowed grass to the summer blend. By noon the dragon flies and bumble bees would be stirred up inviting everyone to the water’s edge.
The cattails around the pond grew tall in the summertime, blotting out our shadows as we walked a worn path aimed at the swimming hole. Thick grasses arched up high over our heads and provide perches for red-winged blackbirds that would mock, "chit-chit-chit" or trill a series of magical music notes and fluff their jet black feathers that held that surprising swipe of red and gold on each wing. We would stop by the cloudy water where the muskrat made its home and wait quietly as the minutes ticked past us, hoping to spy its sleek little body and bright beady eyes.
On days when we were lucky, we’d catch one of the slower leopard frogs chirruping in the spiky shorter grasses and lily pads and take turns holding it close to our tanned stomachs. Catch and release was a motto we lived by in those days, whether it was one of the long slender snakes caught on the rocks behind the waterfall, a crayfish kicked up from turning rocks over in the river that fed the pond, or the slippery frogs desperately trying to escape and make it back to the cover of pond water and seaweed.
The pond smelled like the frogs. Or maybe the frogs smelled like the pond. Either way, holding one in my hands always brought the earthy mud and musky swamp scents straight to my nostrils. It’s a smell that I will forever equate with summer.