My daughter has reminded me, every day for the past week, that we must go back to school shopping. As the excitement of the new year begins to sprout in her mind, I close my eyes hard and reach for a deep summer memory, one that will sustain me throughout the school year and remind me of all of the reasons that we work so hard. The ritual is not difficult as summer, for a teacher (and a student), is sacred. The list of memories is not short but one stands out. It comes to me like a puppy upon entering a room. Whittaker Creek.
Whittaker Creek was our favorite summer respite during the years I lived with Dad and Mel in Eugene. In 1976, it was a hidden gem, tucked away on an old mountain road as one made their way from the summer heat of Eugene to the cool air of the coast. No marker announced the entrance, the unpublished route was locked in the brains of locals. Overgrown blackberry bushes lined the dirt road, some arching nearly over the entire span of the gravel, and added to the sense that certainly, one must have taken a wrong turn. The small path veered off the main road for nearly a mile before even a hint of Eden. Quick photons reflected off of the surface of the water like little mirrors hidden in the bushes. A flash here, a slightly longer interval there and then the scene would unfold.
A strong scent of Oregon green and sunshine rushed through the open windows of the muscle car and Bowie reinforced an understanding that life without a soundtrack is lacking. For a moment I considered that I was the “Rebel” he was singing about, but knew instinctively that it was Mel. Silver and turquoise rings lined her fingers that dangled over the steering wheel and a large matching bracelet decorated her forearm. In her dark sunglasses she reclined in the seat, extended her left arm straight ahead and held the stick shift with her right, just in case she decided to take a corner with a bit of flair. Long red hair flipped and swirled with the little gusts of the mountain breeze and carried the scent of Love’s Earthy Musk to all of us in the back seat. Summer was here.
The small dirt road opened up to a larger parking area that nestled close to a swimming hole. At the edge, water rushed over large boulders and the molecules momentarily lost hold of their tight hydrogen bonds and sprayed into the air. The sun hit the mist of water and it split into its spectral lines, which resulted in hazy rainbow that hovered over the boulders. At the bottom of the boulders lay a deep green pool of clear water. The swimming hole was large, about half the size of a basketball court. The area was surrounded by large trees that threw shade in patches across the pool and let in streams of the hot summer sun elsewhere. Mel parked and the four kids poured out of the car.
Immediately I became drunk with visual stimuli. I was soaked in every imaginable hue of green and the visible light that bounced back to my eyes came with huge amplitude as if the colors were set on high volume. In the shallow areas the rocks were clearly visible, and the water appeared nearly yellow green where the sun bounced off the pebbles and small rocks. As the water deepened, so did its complexion, moving from a light yellow green to a deep green malachite, yet its clarity remained high. This is the payback for which Oregonians are willing to suffer through nine months of rain. Emerald beauty beyond comprehension.
A large rope hung from one of the trees nearly twenty feet above the middle of the swimming hole and a small pathway led from the water’s edge to a rock ledge above. Jerry was quick to dive into the deep green and race to the rope. Mel, Jason, Jere and I made our way down the short path to the creek side, carefully laid out our blankets on the sandy beach and quickly dismissed all excess clothing. Again, we had earned this sun, this stream of vitamin D, and we were certain to take full advantage of it. Mel pulled out the large bottle of Johnson’s Baby Oil, and after liberally dousing all of her bared skin, handed the bottle to me. The idea of someone using sunblock to minimize the effects of this limited commodity was ludicrous, even as a 9 year old, I knew that. The goal for today was to attain a light pink hue, similar to one of my favorite lipstick shades, brown sugar. Like searing a steak, the pink would absorb a deep tan for the rest of the summer. I lay back on the blanket and cooked.
Jason and Jere plopped down in the shallow sandy area of the creek and I heard Jerry yell as he swung over the water. A huge nuclear plumb of water ascended to the skies when he hit the surface and I saw the orange red crawfish bolt for shelter under the closest rock. Silly little crustaceans, before the sun set, we would find the lot and bring them home in a bucket for a nice crawfish bake complete with corn on the cob, cornbread and coleslaw. The day was just beginning.