My children learned to swim in a tea-colored river with a lazy current and sandy bottom but also hidden drop-offs that changed every year and made me a nervous wreck. Once a summer, though, we’d pack a picnic lunch along with a few neighborhood kids in the car and drive to Wisconsin Dells and spend an entire day at a water park. At the admission gate we’d exchange money for plastic wrist bands, splash on sunscreen, then hot-foot it along the baking pavement to an age-appropriate ride, At first this meant the baby pool and long inner tube rides on a circular canal called the Endless River where the current was fixed and the dazzling blue water held no drop-offs. As the kids grew, they graduated to more vertiginous water slides, including one advertised as “10 stories up and 5 seconds down,” and which my son pronounced the perfect wedgie machine. In the drowsy afternoon, my wife and I would rendezvous at the Tiki Bar to drink cold beer and listen to someone make a fool of himself singing “Ring of Fire” to a karaoke machine. Oh sweet summertime!
This alternating pattern of river and water park became a fixture in our summers, a means of having it both ways—Nature and human nature. Each had its own attractions. The river had tadpoles and heron tracks and the possibility of turtles. But at the water park, the smell of fried food and the concession stands blended with the scent of chlorine and SPF-30 into a strange chemistry that just smelled like summer, and when the wave pool’s artificial surf lifted a crowd and they let out a collective whoop!-- my heart would too.
One stifling July, I was talking to a Madison writer about the heat, naturally, and since I’d just come from a water park I suggested she might enjoy one herself.
“I can’t imagine!” she replied in her languorous, movie star voice—a voice that suddenly made sliding down a plastic flume on one’s fanny no longer seem fun but a lapse in judgment.
“No really, I insisted, “You’ve got to try Congo Bongo!”
It’s pointless arguing with these people, these literalists. Tell them you spent a happy afternoon floating the Endless River, and they’ll smile sideways, wise to the fact that the Endless River isn’t a river at all but a concrete moat with a current that shuts down at closing time. Tell them about the ten-story speed slide that turned your baggy swim trunks into a thong, and they’ll tell you it’s an imitation of a waterfall, a consumer-driven fake, a simulacrum!
Well sure. It’s like revealing that the stilt-walker in the Fourth of July Parade really isn’t the World’s Tallest man. The only common denominators between rivers and water parks are water and gravity, and it hardly matters to the human body on a hot summer’s day whether these forces are natural or contrived. The whoop is the same. A river offers solitude, but a water park is a lesson in democracy. I once stood on a switchback of wooden stairs leading to the next waterslide sandwiched between an Amish family (bearded men in cut-off trousers and pale women in bloomers) and a contingent of skinheads in low-rider trunks and spider-web tattoos. We waited patiently to ascend the stairs, all of us dripping wet and grinning like madmen. Only the lifeguards at the top, most of them foreign students with nametags that read Rudolpho or Ivana or Horst, looked bored behind their sunglasses and zinc oxide as they’d nod and send another American body whooshing down the chute. They’d seen it all—endomorphs and mesomorphs, the sleek and the hairy, the boxered and the thronged—a nation in the flesh.
At the river, my kids would beg for horse-play, to be dunked or catapulted off my shoulders—behavior that would warrant a whistle and the city pool. But Rudolpho or Ivana or Horst hardly ever blew a whistle because the water park was all about horseplay, all about ingenious devices for people to plunge in the water and make a big splash.
Sadly, inevitably, the time comes when many of us blow the whistle on ourselves. The bright, sensory pleasures of childhood suddenly grow dim or appear crass and inauthentic, and we become paralyzed by self-consciousness. It’s one more version of the Expulsion from Paradise, only self-directed. This is what happened to my daughter the summer before she left for college, the same college where the famous writer taught. We were packing the car for the annual trip to the water park when she elected to stay home, dismissing the excursion with a cool irony. But her brother, younger and less of an ironist, went along and seemed to enjoy himself. For weeks afterward he wore his bright blue plastic wristband until it faded and finally fell off.
John Hildebrand is professor emeritus of English at UW-Eau Claire and the author of several books, including his most recent, The Heart of Things: A Midwestern Almanac, in which this piece originally appeared. It’s used here with permission of the author. Hildebrand will be reading new work on Sept. 10 at 5pm at The Local Store as part of the “Local Lit: Off the Page” series.