Thursday, September 10, 2015

NO SWIMMING ALLOWED by Peter Nolan Smith


The weather report for September 9, 2001 posted a sultry warm day for the lingering summer of 2001. My friend Alia had transported a Porsche Boxer from the UK. Her high-octane convertible was awaiting clearance at the Newark Customs. The British diplomat asked me to accompany her to the Jersey docks and I agreed on the stipulation that we drove up the two-seater along the Hudson.

“Where to?” The blonde mother of six had left the children with her ex-husband for the day. Alia was up for most anything.

“North. I know a place.” I extolled Lake Minnewaska Park. "I've been going up there since the 70s. Once I had jumped off the cliff into the lake."

"How high?"

"Sixty feet." It felt like 100.

"We won't be doing that."

"No, those days are over." I was almost fifty. "We're heading to the slanted stone beach at Lake Awosting. Standing on the edge you can see the power of the Ice Age and the water is delightful."

Twenty thousand years ago the ice shield had been two miles high.

“Fabulous, it will be my last swim before autumn.” Alia loved the sun.

The slim blonde diplomat and I taxied over to the Port of Newark. She conversed with the Tanzanian taxi driver in Swahili. The Customs officials treated the UN under-assistant with the utmost deference. Oxford was her alma mater. Her family dated back to before the invention of sliced bread. The process of retrieving her car took about seven minutes. She beamed a smile of thanks to the officials and we sat in her Porsche.

“I bought this from my mother's inheritance. Sitting in it reminds me of her.” Alia pressed a button. The top folded into the rear. She gave the engine some gas.

“Sounds fast.” I appreciated the growl of Teutonic power.

“Wait until we get on the road.” Alia shifted into first and released the clutch, shedding her mother of six status for the illusion of a woman on the run.

Alia’s car had diplomatic plates. She ran the car below 90, except for the uphill runs on the Northway.

“No police anywhere man uphill radar traps.” Alia floored the pedal.

130 on an empty road was a thrill.

The wind ripped through our hair.

Her hand twisted the volume knob.

We made good time listening to her collection of 80s hits.

Our friendship dated back to London.

Leicester Square.

1986.

A young blonde girl arrived at the Cafe de Paris in a rubber dress. Her provocative attire earned immediate entrance and I was slow to realize that this sliver of femininity represented the shards of the English Empire. Her position never mattered to me, because Alia could quote Ovid in Latin and I adored knowledge.

Exiting at New Paltz Alia switched to the radio. NPR reported how America’s delegation at the South Africa conference on racism had contested the vote on Israel’s mistreatment of the occupied territories.

“That’s not good.” Our new president was a born-again Christian. GW Bush's devotion to the Second Coming was based on a Jewish Jerusalem.

“Israel has a right to protest any accusation as does the countries opposing it.” Alia was 100% on the side of compromise to achieve peace, but my feelings ran upstream as would anyone having Irish in them.

“Theft is tref.” My thoughts on Palestine were similar to my feeling about the North Counties of Ireland, but didn’t mention Ulster.

We were on a road trip and the day was far too beautiful a day to ruin with an argument over oppression.

I directed Alice down the main road of New Paltz.

The Hudson Valley village was a pleasant college community. Newly arrived students crowded the sidewalks with smiles on their faces. None of them were going home until Thanksgiving.

A few miles out of town the sheer cliffs of the Shawangunk Ridge rose from the valley.

Alia drove slowly by the hundreds of car lined the shoulder of Route 55. Rock climbers challenged the sheer ascent routes.

"Is it far?"

"At the top of the cliffs."

We turned on the road into Lake Minnewaska Park. No one was at the ticket booth. The parking lot was empty. It was after Labor Day and school was back in session.

We threw towels over our shoulders and set out for Lake Awosting.

Few hikers were on the carriage road, which had been built for vacationers at the Lake Mohonk Resort.

Alia and I enjoyed the panoramic vistas of the Hudson Valley and after 30 minutes Lake Awosting came into sight.

The deep blue water was surrounded by evergreen pines.

No one was on the granite beach slanting into the lake.

A female park ranger on an ATV rolled up the trail.

The hefty officer in her 30s braked within a foot of us.

She eyed our bathing suits.

“Where you heading?”

“Lake Awosting.” I had been coming here since the 80s and once I had jumped off the cliff into Lake Minnewaska. It was a drop of 70 feet.

“You’re not going swimming there?” Her voice adopted a threatening tone of authority.

“Why not?” I was dumbfounded by her interrogation. This was America, the Land of the Free.

“Because it’s against the law to swim in the lakes after Labor Day.”

“My friend has been saying that Lake Awosting is the best swim in the Catskills. We thought that we might test his theory.” Alice’s accent was pure upper-class.

“There are no lifeguards.” The ranger gunned her engine, as if she had been instructed to enforce this mandate by GW Bush himself.

“I can swim three miles. What’s the problem?”

“The problem was that lawyers were waiting for some drunk fool to jump into the lake and break their neck, so they could sue the state parks for several million dollars.”

“It’s a stupid law.”

Alia touched my arm.

She possessed a diplomatic gift of knowing when to say nothing.

"Thank you, officer."

She drove down the road.

"I know you."

"What?"

"You want to go swimming?"

I shrugged a 'yes'.

"The law is the law and as a guest of your country I obey them."

"Me too."

We turned away from the forbidden pleasure of Lake Awosting’s crystal-clear water.

“I hate this America.” GTOs, fighting with your fists, and Schlitz beer were extinct.

“It’s the times. Not the country.”

“Let’s go back to New York.” The City was the last bastion of the Free.

On the trip home the radio announced that the USA bailing out of the Racism Conference in South Africa in protest of a nearly unanimous condemnation of Israel for their occupation of Palestine.

“Another thing I hate about America.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” Anti-Zionist talk was as legal in this America as swimming after Labor Day.

I needed a drink.

Alia and I stopped at a bar in New Paltz.

Three beers later I was ready to resume our return to New York.

Alia was sober. She never drank liquor and the Porsche hit 140 on the Freeway.

I sat back and enjoyed the ride, because speed was the only freedom left in America and Alia could drive fast. All I had to do was watch the wind.

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