If you have ever been on an ocean beach, then it will do you no good in understanding what a Chicago beach is like. If you have spent time playing or digging at the edge of a disused quarry or thrown dirt clods formed in the upturned roots of a fallen tree, then you begin to have an idea. The sand at Chicago beaches is trying to act like the mud it should be. The sand is at odds with the rhythms of the lake, with its plant life and weather.
When glaciers retreated they left the Midwest with some of the richest soil the world has ever seen: eight foot thick humus, warm and squirming with every kind of life. The Great Lakes are little more than pools of leftover melt water in the midst of a meadow of high summer grass. The shore should be mud smothered in grass and reeds. In an area of lush and verdant summer life, imported sand suffocates the shallows, leaving it barren. My own expertise and experience with the lake was tendered during adolescent summers spent at a beachfront camp run through the local park district. Our daily activities played out against this background of sterile tidiness. Organized by age into pods of a dozen or so, we spent the day rotating thru an unchanging set of Aquatic activities. My sister and I used to joke the camp was a prison run by lifeguards and focused on rehabilitation through lake rash.
The only activity that I can recall reliably ending too soon was rowing out to the sunken wreck of the Morley where we would be permitted to swim without life jackets. The George Morley was a wood hulled freighter that sank in 1892. Fresh water and the lack of parasites in Lake Michigan had left it well preserved with the wooden beams and portions of the hull still intact. It was marked with an orange buoy some 300 yards off shore. Rowing out was the only activity with a forced groupness, where the divisions our adolescence was working so strenuously to erect were largely sidestepped as we united in common effort and fear. Each day we deployed as a bizarrely delayed and inappropriately staffed rescue mission, an entire pod of ten-year-olds rowing out in an old lifeboat to swim above the wreck. It would seem that such a repetitive and foregone conclusion of an activity would become rote and boring, but the trip contained a ritualistic interaction with fear that made it vivid and new each time.
The retired lifeboat we rowed had long sloping keels that stood almost perpendicular to the horizon at the top. There were three pairs of double-manned oars on each side. The boat was the color of peaked egg whites, blinding in the sun with impenetrable dark shadows under the benches. Paint had fused the joints in the wood into one smooth surface and pushing off the bottom to dive down the underside felt like wood shutters coated a dozen times. While seated the gunnels of the boat were higher than our eyes; the horizon of the lake would surmount one side and then the other as the boat rolled in the half waves of an inland ocean.
In the boat I watched the others move with their oars; girls in their swimsuits compressed and lengthened their torsos as they rowed. Their bodies were newly significant in ways I couldn’t articulate. I was learning to label people, to lump them according to their appearance and I feared the same was being done to me. I always felt like I was poorly pretending when I tried to match the images I was using to categorize others. I remember the other kids always complaining about the activities. They wanted to sit on the shore and talk; boys and girls slowly learning to define themselves in reference to one another. I preferred to snorkel by myself or sit out in a Sunfish with no wind, the sails slack and the boat slowly drifting away from shore until I was forced to jump in and swim it back. There at least I was alone with my own image of myself.
There was a formally redundant “Swimming” station where the flirting and social structuring took place out in the water. There light touching and foul language could be used and it added a kind of danger that ruined my ability to enjoy myself. The girls that I knew were pretty (though the word didn’t mean anything yet, like labeling one blue and the other red) coalesced into ferocious and intimidating little packs. The boys who I realize only now where edging towards a hormonal cliff were more fluid and moody in their allegiances. Both groups’ behaviors seemed bizarre and opaque to me. When we arrived at Swimming, I would suddenly discover a powerfully engrossing pile of sand or sticks as the others migrated down to the water. For this too, I appreciated rowing out to the Morley where the possibilities and expectations were contained and graspable.
Away from the shore, the comforting sound of the beach – the flags and steel hardware flapping against aluminum masts, the cawing of gulls – was gone. There was a void and the wind became a sound of its own. Here it was not diminished to overturning towels and depositing sand into our sun-baked sandwich-lunches. Over the water the wind sounded like itself. Crouching down to row it passed over our heads, whistling past the gunnels. Standing to jump off the boat, my skin would prickle and tighten over my collar and hip bones, their architecture suddenly jutting from my torso, goose bumped in the cold. We would drop anchor and watch the rope pour over the side, snaking down to the bottom. Staff would perch on the edge of the boat and guard us while we removed our life-jackets and swam.
I was always afraid to use a swimming mask. I didn’t want to see the bottom too clearly. As though being unable to see would keep me safe from whatever I was dreading down there. Past the coast of imported and suffocating sand the lake floor was blanketed in an eerily swaying and reaching green. Not the bright soft green of fish tank plastic but a dark decaying forest color that seemed to leach the light from everything around it.
The lake bed near the shore revealed a flat and open expanse with the reassuring Zen-garden sand lines of the mild Michigan tide, but over the wreck the bottom was dim and thick with fear. Fish flashed in and out of the shadows appearing in a sudden spurt and then dissolving back into the wreck. They seemed wild and threatening, as though they guarded the ship or were somehow purposeful to its presence.
Great Lakes diving guides list the Morley as no more than 20 feet below the surface. That seems impossible to me. There was a day that I found a piece of drift wood at my feet as we rowed out and stuffed it in my pocket. Once in the water, I edged away from the group and dove down, holding myself under by gripping the keel of the row boat and waiting as long as possible to emerge. I erupted from the water with the soaked wood held above me. My claims to have pulled a piece off the wreck were greeted with ridicule and disbelief. None of us, myself included, imagined that it was actually possible to reach the wreck. Terror would consume the air in our lungs long before we would reach the bottom.
There is a language of fear that is lost to me now. Floating above the wreck we would talk about ghosts and death until I was sure I felt something brush my ankle or the water beneath me suddenly became colder. It became overwhelming and as I rushed to pull myself over the gunnels the others too would succumb to their fear and follow in a panicked mass. Our words came out of us and took on their own life, sinking down through the water and collecting on the wreck, piling up underneath us until we felt their gravity.