A return trip to the land of leeches, tea-stained skin, and learning to swim
Seems like an odd time of year to think about swimming. Especially swimming holes, those places you relied on in years past when friends didn’t have swimming pools (and you didn’t either) and summer days were long, hot, and sticky. I don’t think I knew anyone back then with central air. Maybe not even stores, at least not the little ones we had in town.
Memories of summers long ago
But a few weeks ago, we headed back to the stomping grounds of my childhood for a hike, and it brought back memories of summer. In the early 60s, my family relied on a few places to cool off during the summer.
- Martin’s Pond (my Auntie Kay and Uncle Everett lived right across the street)
- Public Pool in Stoneham (my grandfather and Auntie Joan didn’t live too far from there)
- Harold Parker State Forest
Yes, there was the ocean, and lots of it if you lived in New England. But with my father working 6 days a week, and money being tight it wasn’t something my mother wanted to undertake on her own. Especially given that we only had one car.
The odds of us packing everyone up to go to a beach where you had to pay to park, and traffic in either direction being a major hassle, and 4 kids running every which way, was just a crazier day than normal in my mother’s book, Why invite disaster? So when local was what we had, we usually swam at Martin’s Pond or Harold Parker State Forest. And last week’s walk got me thinking about those days.
1960’s Air Conditioning
Right, so we didn’t have air conditioning in our house. Who did? And, I’m going to guess that the 3 room house (with 2 attic rooms) we lived in didn’t have electricity to handle an actual air conditioner. We had a big box fan we put in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. I have memories of that fan blowing dusty warm air through the house while my mother made grilled cheese sandwiches in the kitchen, and we watched Ted Mack’s amateur hour on TV in the living room.
Whippoorwill’s singing us to sleep
We’d head up to the attic at the end of a long summer’s day when the sun was still producing a glow outside. We’d have the windows open wide, but an attic is an attic, and all the heat of the day had collected up there. We’d sit by the window, listening to the whippoorwill in the trees outside and maybe a neighbor yelling in a house across the field, until the sun faded entirely and the crickets were in full swing. Then we’d seek out the cool side of the pillow and swat at a random mosquito as we fell into a sweaty coma-style sleep.
We eventually did get a second fan for the window so if there was a breeze outside it would blow the cool evening air through our boxcar style bedrooms. My parents’ started out sleeping in the attic with us. They had the first room you entered, with all four of us in the adjoining room. When my brothers took it over, they decorated the door with a vast assortment of automotive product stickers, and stickers from Wacky Packages. These came with bubble gum that we were obviously addicted to based on the quantity of stickers collected.
The room my sister and I shared was just through a slant cornered hollow door that closed with a magnet. My father got pretty creative with his woodwork up there, so we had drawers and little closets built into the eaves of our rooms. We’d climb in there to set up a “clubhouse” when we were small enough to sit in the eaves. But in the heat of summer, it was hot enough to melt candles! Believe me, it happened.
The Family That Sleeps Together
So how did we sleep up there? We didn’t! Every year, around June, we’d move our entire family out to sleep on the front porch! It was screened in and ran the length of the front of our house. It probably ran about 6 – 7 feet deep, with plenty of room for a large double bed on one end with a narrow pathway to get in along the side. My brothers had a bed under the dutch windows that opened onto the porch, and at the opposite end from my parents, my father built a bunk bed which my sister and I slept in.
We’d carry mattresses out there, open all the windows, and enjoy the breeze that blew in from the field in front of the house. And we’d sleep out there, all six of us, until the end of August when it was time to move everything back into the house. Then we’d say goodbye to the groundhog that lived under that room (we watched him come out every morning to wander into the field), until next summer. We were a tight family in summer. But isn’t this a post about swimming? Yes!
Swimming Holes – Martin’s Pond
There is nothing like the cool of a New England pond in summer. It’s usually not bathwater warm until it’s also drying up and filled with weeds, and that doesn’t happen till mid-August. So most of the time, if we were heading over to the beach at Martin’s Pond, we’d be sure of one thing, cool water.
The beach was a sandy one, and there were lifeguards there. But in the 60s, that pond was also going through some changes. It was filled with weeds that could grasp your legs, and give you the creeps as they slithered past the back of your knees. The water itself was the color of strong tea, and at a certain point in summer, if you went in, you’d come out with remnants of that brown color coating your legs and arms. I’m sure now they close the pond when that algae is present, but back then you just rinsed it off and kept on swimming! I learned to swim at that beach. At 12 or 13 years old, in the beginner swim class which was made up mostly of 6- and 7-year olds. But I finished the program and got my red cross card. I was determined and obviously had no pride as I stood there in my bikini with little kids learning to hold my breath and blow bubbles.
Swimming Holes – Hall Memorial Pool
When we were young, we only had one car. So, if my mother wanted to use it, she’d have to drive my father to his father’s house so they could go to work together (it was a family business in Chelsea). Then we’d have the car for the day. Sometimes that meant we’d hang out at my aunt’s house, and head over to Spot Pond in Medford and maybe get an hour or so to swim at Hall Memorial Pool. My favorite thing about the pool (since swimming was not my favorite thing!) was that the pool was right across the street from Friendly’s Ice Cream.
On our recent walk at Breakheart Reservation, we drove home past that intersection. The pool is still there, but unfortunately, Friendly’s has closed. My most vivid memories of that pool were the afternoons of extreme heat. When it felt like you could move the air with your hands because of the humidity… and suddenly in the distance, we’d hear thunder and maybe see lightning. The lifeguards would blow their whistles, we’d all get out of the pool, and walk over to get a Swiss Chocolate Almond Sundae. Most days we’d huddle under a tree, out of the rain, while my mother went to get the car and we’d all jump in the back, throwing towels across the seat to protect them from rain and wet bathing suits. But it was before seat belts and cloth seats, so we fit 4 of us back there plus my cousin Joann, plus maybe an extra cousin or two (Jeannette and Stephen) in the way back and we’d head back to my aunt’s house to sit in the kitchen and listen to the rain and thunder until my father came back from the barrel yard in Chelsea.
Swimming Holes – Harold Parker State Forest
And then there was Harold Parker’s. It is a huge state park, and I don’t remember there being any fee to access the beach. You did have to pay for the campground, but Harold Parker is in North Andover, a short drive from our house in North Reading. There are numerous ponds and beaches, and picnic areas, etc. were all there back in the 60s. And there were also leeches. It was the risk you accepted to swim someplace, anyplace, when it was hot out and you just felt like there was no other option to cool off. After some research, I have discovered that the types of water in both Martin’s Pond and those in Harold Parker, are conducive to leeches, ponds filled with organic sediment and debris.
Back then we’d jump in, float near the beach, or using an inflated inner tube, float among the reeds at the shore’s edge, and when we came out, if we were the chosen, we’d hear “Leech, leech!” and parents would start telling you what to do. Pour salt on it, touch it with a lit cigarette. From experience I can tell you, there’s no pulling one of those things off. They just stretch and morph under your fingers. But on a hot summer day, it was worth the risk.
But what about the hike???
Yikes! Let’s get away from leech talk and on to our recent hike. As I said, a few weeks back we decided to take a walk through Harold Parker State Forest. At this time of year, there’s no fee, and there is an abundance of well-marked trails. We went when there was still a bit of snow and ice on the ground, and during the last week for hunting deer, so we dressed appropriately and wandered through the forest on what looks like maybe the Woodchuck Trail.
The map we had didn’t have trail names, and we found the posted map after we finished walking. But rocks, moss, and tree stumps made for a beautiful space to just be away from the homes we’ve all been stuck in. It was quiet, cool, and overcast, but beautiful.
Hiking in Winter
Since we’ve also agreed we’ll walk through winter, and Massachusetts has established guidelines about wearing masks in all public spaces, we wear them hiking. It’s been interesting experimenting with appropriate winter wear for hiking. Sandy brought her coffee along, and in this photo, you can see Beth laughing as I comment on “the new yorker” carrying her coffee and dressed in her fancy coat as she “hikes” through the woods.
Our hike wasn’t long, about an hour. We saw one hunter carrying his gun as we walked down Middleton Road, and he was all business. No smile, no good morning, I think he was angry that we were disrupting his final day of using his gun legally! But in general, these are good, safe trails. They can get a bit rocky so you do need to wear good shoes. But I think they’d be great for snowshoeing in winter. We’ve already picked out the next trail to try once the snow is actually hanging out for the season.
It’s interesting how your mind bounces back into memory when you go someplace you haven’t been in decades. I know for me, this was a great trip back to summer days as a result of a walk in a winter forest. If you’re looking for a place to camp, swim, hike, or just wander, give Harold Parker a try! It’s quite different now than it was all those years ago. I also see that Martin’s Pond is closed to swimmers due to the algae issue they’ve had for a few years now. But Hall Memorial Pool is still open and has a wonderful toddler’s splash zone! It’s just a stone’s throw from Stone Zoo as well, so plenty of places to explore both now and in summer.
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