Of all the places we went swimming growing up, there was one that was absolutely off-limits to me; Big Blue. “Ronnie, where are you boys going swimming today?” Mom casually inquired. “Big Blue,” was my response. With a heightened intensity in her voice Mom strongly suggested, “You are not going swimming there. It’s dangerous. Big Blue is off-limits to you.” I learned at that point that when I was planning a trip to Big Blue, it would have to go unannounced. Even though I knew exactly where I was intent on going, in all future conversations it would sound more like this: “Ronnie, where are you boys going swimming today?” Mom casually inquired. Knowing full well where I was going I answered, “We’re not real sure; maybe the pool, or possibly Center Creek.” I had convinced myself that telling half-truths wasn’t really lying; after all, there was a one percent chance that we’d end up at the pool.
Big Blue, located in the town of Oronogo, Missouri, was a 12 acre, open-pit mine that closed in 1948 and subsequently filled with water. With a depth of over 200 feet and visibility of 50 feet or more, the mine became a popular spot for divers. It was said that from the air a person could see old mining equipment still at the bottom of the deep lake. Rumors of drowning swirled around whenever the name was mentioned. Why Mom thought it was a dangerous place for a teenager to go, I’ll never figure out. The strong prohibition against being there made it all the more enticing for me to “test the waters,” so to speak. Not only was the water perfect for swimming, but it also had high bluffs overlooking the lake in various spots; ideal for jumping and diving.
As we entered the area surrounding the lake, we observed a group of older kids already there. They seemed a little rough around the edges, so we kept our distance at first. We then saw another group of kids jumping off a lower bluff, this one about fifteen to twenty feet above the water. We decided to start there. We noticed another bluff, across the cove from the shorter one, which was much more alluring; measuring about fifty to sixty feet off the water. That’s where we wanted to be, but the rough crowd was hanging around up there, so we waited until they were gone before taking our turn. The lower bluff would do for the time being. Being accomplished swimmers and divers, we spent a while on the lower bluff, executing dives and flips; showing off for the strangers gathered around.
Once the higher bluff was deserted, it became ours and we climbed to the top and began the ritual of daring each other to jump off. Staring out over the 12 acre lake, I was taken at first by its beauty, but once past that, I eventually looked over the edge of the cliff, directly down at the water. I was a bit intimidated; it was a long way down, much farther than the high dive at the public pool. I estimated earlier a height of fifty or sixty feet, and without a tape measure, who really knew, but one thing I do know; on the way down to the water there was enough time to say the “Pledge of Allegiance”; if you said it really fast. Diving was out of the question, at least until we had an inaugural jump to gauge the distance and impact. We talked of the best way to prepare ourselves for hitting the water and limiting any pain or injury. Jimmy, as in most daring situations, was the first to go, with the remainder of us to follow (we were all a little scared to jump, but would never “chicken out” in front of our peers, no matter how scared we were).
As Jimmy descended to the water we heard him shout “Geronimo” on the way down and stayed close to the edge to see the end result; impressed with his effort, but ready to laugh in case he hit the water in an awkward way. “You go next.” “No, you go next. I’m waiting.” “Waiting for what? You’re just chicken.” We made sure that he came back to the surface and acknowledged that everything was okay before we each took our turns jumping.
I was the last to jump and as I hesitated, I finally adopted the mindset to stop thinking about it and just go. On the way down, I don’t think I breathed at all, rather I instead focused on how I was going to strike the surface. Meanwhile, in order to make sure I stayed upright and entered the water feet first, I had to spin my arms rapidly, windmill fashion. With tennis shoes on my feet, I heard a loud smack! as I hit the surface. My knees buckled and hit my chin as I plunged beneath the water. I quickly emerged from the depths and looked up to the guys on top of the bluff; a smile on my face from ear to ear. I had done it once; now I was excited to go try it again. Climbing the side of the rock wall, I was in a hurry to get back to the top, so I could experience the rush again. Everyone was having a great time.
We jumped a few more times and then challenged one another to dive. Diving presented a different challenge than jumping, and entering the water the wrong way could cause some major pain and damage. We finally agreed that holding your two fists together as tight as you could, with arms extended forward, elbows locked and against the side of your head, was the best way to hit the water and limit any potential injuries.
When it came my turn to dive, I concentrated more on not over rotating than upon the entrance (I wanted to make sure I didn’t land on my back; teasing being one drawback, but pain and death being a definite possibility). Because of my lack of focus on entering the water, upon impact my arms bent sharply at the elbow and my fists came back and struck me in the face. The top of my head felt the sharp sting of the water and I stayed under the surface, trying to recuperate and gather my bearings before emerging triumphant. It was more gratifying to go through with the challenge in front of my peers than doing the actual jump itself.
After a few more jumps we all ended up at the foot of the cliff, sitting on the large rocks at the water’s edge. Suddenly, Jimmy dove under the surface and disappeared. We all looked at each other, waiting for him to surface. He was gone a while before we began to be worried. Finally, after a few minutes had elapsed, Jimmy popped up to the surface and swam back to the group. “Hey guys, there’s a cave under the bluff.” We all got excited at the prospect, but wanted to hear more. “How did you find it?” I asked. Apparently, he had been here on a previous occasion and was shown the cave and how to get there. Jimmy told us, “All you have to do is dive down about four of five feet and then swim back another ten feet or so. There’s a huge rock ledge you have to clear and once on the other side, you surface into a large cavern. It’s really cool under there. Come on!” As Jimmy submerged, we all looked at each other and began to follow him. Following Jimmy wasn’t always the best idea, but in this setting it wouldn’t look good to hesitate. As I think back on this event, being much more cautious today than I used to be, I ask myself this question, “What if you became disoriented under the water and swam in the wrong direction and never found the opening under the ledge?” Of course, at the time, that question never entered my mind.
One by one we swam under the ledge and emerged into a large opening under the rocks that we referred to as the cave. Inside the cave was a ledge that we could sit on in order to catch our breaths. It wasn’t long in the cave before we realized that the oxygen in the opening was scarce, and the longer we stayed, the more of a chore it became to breathe. Breathing seemed to be pretty important, so we decided to swim out the same way we entered. The fresh air on the outside was a relief after breathing the musty air in the cave. The challenges had been daunting up to this point, but they weren’t quite finished.
As we sat on the rocks under the towering bluff, Andy came up with one final challenge. “Let’s swim across the lake and back.” At this point, nothing but silence. Andy challenged us again, “Come on guys. We can do it. It’s not that far.” I’m not sure, but my guess is that the distance across the lake was at least a quarter-mile, maybe a half mile. We were all pretty good swimmers, but the 200 foot depth was a sure factor in whether to take up the challenge or not. There was always the possibility of getting leg cramps and drowning, but who thinks about those kinds of things?
There was only one taker to Andy’s challenge; me. Off we went, swimming side by side, all the way across the massive 12 acre lake. Why? When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory famously answered, “Because it’s there.” Little did we know at the time, but George Mallory died on Mount Everest, frozen to death and not found until many years later. Anyway, Andy and I paused for a while on the opposite end of the lake, enjoying the fact that it was only the two of us with enough guts to take on the challenge. Across the lake, our friends were marveling at our ignorance and recklessness. We made it back to the other side, amidst moments of doubt along the way, completely worn out and short of breath, but triumphant and satisfied. The other guys feigned indifference, but we knew.
Upon arriving home, Mom met me at the back door and asked, “How was your swimming and where did you go?” Not wanting to answer directly I said, “We had a great time. It’s always fun swimming out at Center Creek.” I then quickly retreated to my room and put on the Beatles “Abbey Road” and when “Octopus’s Garden” came on, I thought it apropos. “I’d like to be, under the sea, in an octopus’s garden with you.”
This story is an excerpt from Always a Little Heathen, released and available on Amazon in October 2014.