Few things transport us to an earlier place or time as instantaneously as a smell. Memory is locked in scent. Just the other day while walking my dog, I was suddenly seven years old and miles and miles away. We’d just turned a corner, catching the fresh fish smell of a lake, a whiff of charcoal burning, a new coating of asphalt on the pavement, and the faint smell of Coppertone. Old River.
I swear to you the transformation would have been complete had I sniffed chlorine in my damp hair and heard the distant ring of horseshoes striking their target.
I spent a decade of summers at Old River. It was the company park for NCR in Dayton, Ohio, back when companies cared for their employees and their families. On cool summer evenings, they would string a giant screen between the massive trees, spool a film on a projector, and show movies from a decade before I was born. There were acres of picnic grounds shaded by ancient oaks and maples. You could paddle a canoe with your grandpa on the “river” that encircled the park. Retired men spent hours in their white button-down shirts and pork pie hats perfecting the ringer at horseshoes. There was shuffleboard and hot dogs and ice cream sandwiches. As we crossed the bridge reminiscent of a Japanese garden, giant orange carp would somersault for popcorn, entertaining you for the price of your buttery morsels.
The bridge took you to Old River’s crown jewel — the pool. Two perfect half moons of shimmering blue with an Eiffel-like tower of lights in the middle. The shallow end was my home. A wide crescent that was chest-high at six and waist high at eleven, that went to five feet on the straight side, was home to my nemesis: the high slide. The low slide was fun, but I wanted the speed of the high slide. I remember freezing at the top in fear of the height that made me clutch the rail and not let go. No child could slide down while I clung petrified at the top. Daddy finally parted the children on the ladder and plopped me in his lap, and slid down with me. The thrill finally overtook the terror that summer.
The other perfect blue crescent was off-limits until the summer after third grade when I could swim underwater on my own — the deep side. Five feet at its shallowest and thirteen feet at its deepest, the deep side had not one but three diving boards. The lowest board on the right was inches above the water. I spent much time here, perfecting the dive. The medium board on the left was a little longer and a couple of feet above the water. Many belly smackers on this one kept me from ever trying to dive off the high board. The last summer we spent there I conquered my fear of heights again to walk out on that high, long board, each step the board wobbling and bending as I reached its end. Daddy would not rescue me. I flexed my knees tentatively a few times and the board responded, bouncing me. I’d seen the big kids go to the end, pose, then jump lightly on the end, the board sending them high into the air to do a spin or tuck before gliding into the water. I took a breath. A tiny bounce, then I jumped high into the air and plunged feet first into the hard water, sinking down as bubbles rose around me, the sudden crush of deep water thudding in my ear. I rose to the surface, gasping in air, exhilarated. Triumphant!
My dog nudged me gently with the cool of her wet nose. I was not a child. I stood there, transported by the ringing of birdsong deep in the trees and the enticing smell of someone’s grill and sunscreen on the early summer breeze.