On modern worries and the enticements of an old-fashioned swimming hole A LETTER FROM BRISTOL, MAINE


Bristol, Maine Head south on Route 130 and you pass through the center of this town, which consists of exactly one building: a gray clapboard structure that is both general store and post office.

There is no traffic light in the center of Bristol, probably because there is no need for one. This town is at the geographic center of one of many of the peninsulas that jut into the Atlantic and form Maine's rocky, wooded coastline. Even in the summer tourist season, when people fill the inns, cabins and campgrounds along the waterfront, only a handful of cars pass by every hour.

A two-hour ride south of here is the Kennebunkport estate where George Bush has been launching his Cigarette boat and holding court with the national press corps.

A 10-minute drive down this road there is a wooden shack on the waterfront where boats filled with lobsters come in to dock each afternoon. Roadside signs advertise lobsters for sale for $2.50 per pound.

A mile beyond that is a tidal pool where Rachel Carson came to study saltwater marine life, and a few miles beyond that is the site of a fort built by the British in the 1690s.

I came to know this winding two-lane highway well because I drove it a half-dozen times on a week's stay in Maine. I remember my first trip down it best because it was then I recall my 10-year-old daughter in the back seat saying, "Wow, look at that."

What caught her attention was a swimming hole off to the left that looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration -- complete with freckle-faced kids diving into murky water from the end of a washed-out bridge.

The creek that formed this swimming hole flowed under a one-lane wooden bridge, meandered by a three-story house and formed a pool at the edge of the highway bridge being used as a diving platform. The concrete bridge was torn up halfway across the stream, and under it the water had been dammed up, creating a small waterfall on one side and a pond about 20 feet across on the other.

On my first pass, I slowed down the car to look over the scene, and I thought to myself, "I've driven into the past. Places like this don't exist anymore."

I drove by it, saying nothing, but listening closely to the little voice in the back of my head.

"I have read and written too many stories about kids drowning in rivers, lakes and reservoirs where they didn't belong. Besides, we may have licked polio and typhoid, but we live in an age of unknown poisons, PCBs, dioxins and carcinogens that can kill you slowly. Nope, I'm not swimming in that water. No way. And I don't want my daughter to go near it."

The next day as we passed it, my wife had to go into the general store across the road from the swimming hole. I parked alongside the water and drummed my fingers on the steering wheel as I watched some kids jump off the bridge, push each other off it and try to outdo each other with somersaults and backflips into the water.

"Daddy, can we swim there?" my daughter asked from the back seat.

I could feel my resolve beginning to fade, with each splash from the water nearby. The voice was back, but it was singing a different tune.

"She's only 10 years old. What would Huckleberry Finn do? Would he worry about dioxins in a country stream? This is Maine, A after all. Vacationland. OK, then don't go in, play it safe. But if you don't go in, and don't let her go in, you will always wonder what it would have been like, always wonder about another missed opportunity."

We left there and went back to the cottage. But the heat and sunshine conspired to drive my daughter and me back to the water.

Of course, we went in the water.

Big deal, you say. Well, you're right; it wasn't for me. But it was for her. As I watched her swim around, in a group of a half-dozen kids her own age, she seemed the happiest I had seen her in a long time.

With the sun filtering through the evergreens onto the water, I could see that she was enjoying the water for the same reasons I did, but with a kid's enthusiasm that was unchecked by the age, worry and sense of toil that come with adulthood.

It was wonderful the way no ocean could be. Here, there were no rules, no buoys to keep you out of the deep end, no lifeguard to kick you out, no one to shake a finger at you, call you home for supper or warn you about the danger of stomach cramps.

It was then the slogan in Maine's advertising campaign came to mind. It stayed with me for quite some time after that.

"Maine, the way life should be."

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