Long, lost summer days

Photography by Shawn Brackbill.

There is a proverb about old men who plant new trees, knowing they will never sit in their shade. Attributed to everyone from Cicero to Joycelyn Elders, the idea is that a true philanthropist builds for future generations, not just their own.

For most of my life, I’ve been a beneficiary of that notion. Through no merit of my own, I grew up in a world of affluence and privilege. It was always understood, if never explicitly stated, that those who came before me had taken great care to build a nation of comfort and safety. Clinton Lake, strange as it sounds, played a big role in solidifying that idea. 

When I first got to Lawrence, way back in the last century, I remember being struck by the existence of this vast man-made reservoir. Water, the very stuff of life, had been tamed and collected for me by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The lake, and the fifteen thousand curated acres of land around it, seemed an embodiment of the feeling, perhaps now a relic of postwar American hegemony, that the generations who came before us did big, hard things for the benefit of those to come. Clinton is where I first saw a live bald eagle, for goodness sake, the literal symbol of our national pride. 

Today, in addition to birdwatching, Clinton is for flying kites, playing frisbee, fishing, camping, hiking, biking, boating and more. Once, back in the day, it was even a place for the late, lamented Wakarusa Music Festival. Before it moved to Arkansas, and eventually ended, you could drive ten minutes outside of town, see Ben Harper or Flaming Lips, indulge in an outdoor bacchanalia and still get home to sleep in your own bed. It was Lawrence in a nutshell—above-average cultural amenities delivered with uncommon convenience and ease.  

But the real joy of Clinton was sneakier and more subtle. It was that simple pleasure of feeling built for, encapsulated by a single sunny day on the water. 

The exact date escapes me. Summer was hazy then. There was little school or work and less responsibility. Long, languorous days would blend into weeks indistinguishable from weekends. 

My friend Otto had a boat, a 1986 Bayliner Capri Bowrider. Not a particularly expensive craft, but nevertheless a remarkable bit of affluence for a bunch of dumb college kids. 

The day was idyllic, but not unusually so. Just a warm afternoon on the water. It was the sort of moment that might seem unexceptional when it happens. Only decades later, in retrospect, do you grasp the irrevocable power of a sunny summer day.

We were on the lake, swimming, drinking cold beer, smoking good weed, eating food that was shipped, as most food is, from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Music played, of course. I don’t recall the soundtrack, but Jerry Garcia and Kurt Cobain were both alive, and guitars still ruled over computers.

I remember looking around with deep gratitude, suddenly thrilled by the sheer affluence of my late twentieth century North American existence. We were water skiing, for goodness sake. Not even a Roman emperor could have gone water skiing. 

At some point, we saw another boat moving on the far distant edge of the reservoir, barely visible. I jokingly thought “How dare they crowd us.” 

It sounds silly, but that moment would become symbolic for me, cementing the idea that an enormous amount of personal space is essential to the good life. It’s a belief that would return again and again to shape my choices, consciously or not. Like, for instance, when I moved to New York City in my thirties. For all the glories of a literary life in Manhattan, the chronic lack of space there gnawed at my soul. The crowds and small rooms felt like poverty.

Ultimately, I moved back to the Midwest, to the detriment of my writing career, surely, but likely the betterment of my mental and physical well-being. 

In the end, I chose a vision of success that included space, greenery, quiet and ease. I chose a built environment that felt like care, comfort and safety. I chose what felt like love. Blame it on Lawrence. Blame it on a long, lost summer day. Blame it on the lake. 

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