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Still buoyed by my lesson on the river

When I was a young child, I took something home from the river. I have it, still. I use it to this day, although I too frequently forget I own it.

We spent many summer evenings at Nelson's Bar - a sandy-beached cove tucked alongside California's Feather River. Mom made spicy meat sandwiches on chewy sourdough rolls, to take along. She'd heat them, wrapped in foil.

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When Dad pulled into the driveway, Mom would pull the sandwiches from the oven and toss them into a newspaper-lined bag. When we children caught the scent of chilies, ham, and cheese wafting through the house, we'd shriek, "Nelson's Bar!" We'd yank on our bathing suits and scurry to the car.

We never saw anyone else at Nelson's Bar. It was our own private swimming hole, with a wooden picnic table built, it seemed, just for Millers. Green serpentine boulders taller than Dad enclosed our small beach, turning it into a room.

The sky was an impossibly eye-piercing blue ceiling. As we ate, yellow jackets buzzed hungrily, hoping for a nibble of hot sandwich or a sip of cool lemonade. The river rushed past, calling us to hurry and eat. Then, at last, it was time to play.

I didn't actually swim in the river. I'd (reluctantly) begun taking swimming lessons at the city pool. After interminable practice, I'd finally mastered floating on my stomach. But when Mom, watching from the pool's edge, exclaimed over my newfound talent, I confessed: "It isn't me."

"What?" Mom's eyebrows rose.

"I'm not floating. It's a big air bubble in my swim cap holding me up. That's all."

Mom bit her lip. "Are you sure, Terry? Because I think you'd float even if you didn't wear your cap.

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No, no, I told her. I hated to disappoint her, but I had to tell her what I knew was the truth. It was definitely that magic swimming cap keeping me buoyant. I couldn't float on my own.

Nelson's Bar was completely different from the city pool, of course. At the river, emerald, mossy-scented satin water stroked my legs, making me gasp at the coldness. Fish the size of my fingers swam up to nibble at my skin, tickling me. Dragonflies whizzed by. I waded. I explored. I made amazing discoveries. I found brilliant sparkles of fool's gold in the gray sand. I marveled at the tiny black frog eggs in their floaty brown film. I sometimes caught tadpoles to bring home for the thrill of watching them morph into frogs.

One Nelson's Bar evening, in the midst of our splashing around, Mom said, "Terry, show your dad how you can float!"

"Here?" I looked down at the flowing river, uncertain. "But it's not the pool."

Dad said, "I'm right here. Nothing can happen. Water's water."

"Well, OK, I guess." I took a huge breath and eased down, face first. I floated. Through the water lapping at my ears, I heard Dad: "That's my girl! Wow!"

Up again, I wiped water from my eyes and beamed proudly at Dad's praise. Then Mom said, "Terry, what did you just do?"

"Uhhh ... floated?"

"And...?"

"I don't know."

"Without...?"

I continued to blink cluelessly at her.

"Without your swim cap!"

"Oh, no!" I clapped my hand to my wet head, dizzied by the impossibility of my feat. No, this couldn't be. I definitely could not float without my swimming cap. I truly couldn't - but I had.

Mom said, softly, "See what you can do, when you forget that you can't?"

It's my best Nelson's Bar souvenir, outlasting every rock and frog and bird nest I hauled home.

Nelson's Bar is gone now. Long gone. It lies far beneath a man-made lake. Or so I've heard. My head believes it. But my heart knows better. Nelson's Bar still exists - shimmering golden and emerald and blue. Perfect and indestructible, as a childhood's summer memory should be.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor