Have you ever gone skinny dipping? If you were a boy living in Vail, Iowa, during the 1950s and 1960s there was just about no way to avoid the practice of diving into a farm pond sans clothing or swim trunks.
Before the tiny town of Vail, Iowa, had a swimming pool for the town’s residents, kids cooled off by running through the hose, as it was called, seeking out anyplace that had air conditioning, like Marvin’s Market or the Vail Café, playing in the Boyer River, or some of Vail’s idiot boys (myself included) went out to Tracy’s Pond. Tracy’s Pond was owned by Tracy North, an elderly gentleman who owned and rented out many homes in Vail, often forgetting to collect rent from his tenants. Many of those houses were on their last stage of livability.
Tracy’s Pond was located less than a mile from the west end of town. The kids’ way of getting there was to 1) trespass over the Walsh acreage; 2) meander through a piece of land owned by the government that held corn in several grain bins, and finally; 3) cut a path through a couple of fields of corn or pasture, depending upon what route a kid should take. Most of us knew how to get there through corn fields. Some walked along a fencerow until they saw the inlet of the pond.
The pond took up a little over two acres on farmland that has tillable soil on the east side that was often seeded in corn; pasture on the west and north sides with ravines on the west side; and a dam with a spillway on the south side. Along the dam on the south side, but beyond it by several feet was a small forest of cottonwoods, elms, and oaks. The north side? It usually had a few Hereford calves wading in the shallow waters of the inlet. Not one of us ever saw a heifer or steer urinate or defecate in the water, but we weren’t looking, either.
A huge raft sat docked on the southwest corner of the pond. I can’t believe it ever floated. The buoyant base consisted of cottonwood tree trunks. The platform was constructed using various sizes and types of board – no two alike. The raft had no type of propulsion or steering, it must have been built on the spot where it sat and had never moved. It was monstrous; the dimensions were close to twelve feet wide and twenty-five feet long. When I first saw it, I thought I would have to learn what a cubit was.
In the 1960s, the pond was stocked with bluegill and crappie. However, like any good fishing spot, it wasn’t long before the bullhead took over as the prominent aquatic life in the mudhole. Fish hooks left behind by throw lines didn’t seem to be an issue. I can’t recall any kid having been bit by a rusty fish hook, and they were scattered about on the raft, the ground, and most likely, in the water.
The spillway was approximately twenty feet or more from its top to the outlet below. Assuming the depth of the pond was a few feet short of the outlet, it could have been over fifteen feet deep in front of the spillway. But the depth of the water off the east end of the raft was closer to six feet deep. I know because I couldn’t touch the bottom while treading water, but I could hold my breath and dive to the bottom and pick up a chunk of mud. And that brings up the mud fight that would get out of hand on more than one instance.
I got mud in my eye after a few of us had a silly mud fight. I had mud in my eye all the way home. I had to tell my mom. What else was I going to do. Some kid must have told me that I would lose my eye if I didn’t have a doctor look at it. Events like this always had mom calling the local resident doctor. She wasn’t a doctor, but Kate Malloy, a registered nurse, handled more medical hysterics in the neighborhood (or at least, our house) than any medical doctor who may have resided in town before her. Kate came over to our house and removed any remaining mud and cleansed the eye, which hurt at the time, but became normal in no time at all.
A fisherman or two would occasionally drive onto the property from a dirt road south of the pond. When one of us saw a vehicle up on the ridge we would yell to warn anyone in the water to get out, grab clothes, and head into the woods. Hindsight tells me the angler always knew who we were, but none of us wanted to have him get close enough to readily identify any of us. We could always deny it.
Vail boys learned to swim at the Denison Swimming Pool, but we honed our skills at Tracy’s Pond. It was against a mother’s law to swim in that pond, so we had to skinny dip in order to keep our underwear from turning brown. Yes, you read that right. If a fisherman should tattle to one of our mothers that he saw us out there we could always lean on the fact that “it couldn’t have been me, check my underwear. If I was out there the briefs would be brown.”
Previously posted essays on the same subject matter:
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