Nightswimming

Monday afternoon at Shady Oak Beach in Minnetonka, a lad of about 8 scaled the high dive ladder. When he got to the top he had second and third thoughts, It’s a long way down, the same that go through any first-time adventurer’s head when faced with a test of courage that, if all goes wrong, could end up in a painful belly-flop in front of all your friends and a growing audience on the beach.

What am I doing up here? said the kid’s body language as he hesitantly took the last step up onto the platform. A long line of teens and preteens waited patiently behind him. Kids can smell fear in other kids, but they’re also wired to encourage fellow tribe members to experience the thrill of flying, so as the 8-year-old stumbled to and fro, gingerly holding onto the guard rails, a chant rose up: “Do it, do it, do it.”

According to one report, Minneapolis and the Amazon jungle were the two hottest places on the planet July 18, with more to come later in the week. In Minnetonka, the hot kids were getting cranky. The chant took on more gusto. The 8-year-old sat down. Groans. He looked around, considered the ladder and perhaps thought about the most popular young male role model of the summer, a brave young wizard who knows something about life, death, risk and rebirth.

C’mon, dude.  

Jump.

He stood up, wobbly knees covered by long trunks and made his way to the end of the board. With no fanfare but the entire beach watching, he lurched and fell feet-first to a splashdown as memorable as any of NASA’s. When he came to the surface, the kid led with his fist thrusting through the water in what one observer deemed “A total ‘Rocky’ moment”) and the beach and dock erupted in cheers and applause.

A couple hours later, a middle-aged man ignored the “Guard Only” sign on the lifeguard stand at Lake Harriet’s main beach, climbed the ladder and sat down to watch the long sundown. The newly installed diving dock was the picture of summer, crammed with flesh and rocking with laughter and shreiks. The man grew up swimming etcetera in and around Harriet and survived the Lake No Floaties Or Fun years, which of course predated the Lake Humphrey (White And Uptight And Dead) years, so it did his heart good to see dogs, balls, people and no lifeguards ‘til the weekend sharing the water.

The man admits to having been a little melancholy about youth and summers past, wistful for those times before adult wisdom and worries when you’d go hard all day without a care in the world. As the sun went down, an almost Coney Island-worthy color scheme peppered the beach and an old friend joined the man on the lifeguard stand. The woman talked about the importance of kids and adults being given permission to go skinny-dipping, so as to feel the wildness of nature on the body, unencumbered by clothes. The man made a note.

C’mon, dude.

Jump.

The man moved on to South Beach, where he again climbed the lifeguard stand, watched a bunch of rowdy teens throw friends into the water and caught a screensaver sunset. ‘Round midnight, he returned to the beach, took off his clothes, tucked them in a tree, and waded slowly into the still black water. He held out his hands baptism-style and eased into the mystical canopy of stars on the lake, whose glistening sheen suggested a freshly dusted black vinyl record.

The still of the night and cool water bathed the man’s sunburned skin. He became a turtle, a fish, a dragonfly. He partied with Ollie The Octopus, the Little Elf Door Guy and the Lake Creature. He became part of the milfoil, part of the wild brush and weeds sprouting up all around him, part of the great frothing carp spawn of the morning sunrise, part of the lake itself. At times he may have been the only human being in the lake-slash-universe and his naked ass was awed and humbled.

The man let his head bob on the water and felt the kindred spirits of the Ojibwe, the original water people and first lovers of this lake. The night before, as he tossed and turned in the heat, the man had prayed for a moment of understanding, a sign of clarity about why he is here and hell if he didn’t find it in the middle of the night in the lake of his youth and hell if he isn’t going back for more every hot night this summer and for the rest of his life.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.