When I was eleven, I was invited to a birthday party for one of the farm kids who lived just south of the little farm town of Rowan, Iowa. It was tradition. In our little town, with only ten kids in our fifth grade class, everybody had a birthday party once in our elementary years where all the kids in our class were invited. I had mine at age eight, in second grade. Rusty Dettbarn was about the last one to throw this traditional classmate bash. He was a bit different than the rest of us. He was a wood rat. His family farmhouse was down in the woodsy hollow along one of the creeks that fed into the Iowa River. He didn’t come into town often, and really only hung out with the gang for 4-H softball games, meetings, and Fun Night. He preferred to ride his motor scooter, hunt with his pellet gun, or go trapping along the Iowa River. Mickey Smith was his closest friend, another wood rat who lived in the country and rarely associated with town kids like me and my best friend David Murphy. Well, he got around to this party finally, but it turned out it was going to be done his way.
When my mother dropped me off with my gift all wrapped and wearing good school clothes that I was under orders not to get dirty, I noticed right away that something was uncomfortably wrong. The girls were all in the yard by the picnic table with the party decorations. They talked to each other like conspirators, looked at me, looking me up and down, and giggled. My ears began to burn, and I had no idea why. I did notice that no other boy, including the birthday boy, was in sight. I took my gift in the house to the gift table. Rusty’s mother was there with a big grin on her face.
“Rusty and the boys are down at the creek swimming,” she said helpfully. “You are supposed to go on down there.”
“But I didn’t bring a swim suit. I didn’t know…”
“Oh, but you don’t need one. Go along. You’ll see.”
Boy, did I see. It was the way Rusty and his pals always swam. Buck naked. I got down to the creek and they were happily splashing away, about six of them, naked as the day that they were born. I stood on the muddy bank in my good school clothes and just stared. Two of my friends, David and Bobby Zeffer were there. Neither of them had yet worked up the courage to join the swimming. I was relieved not to be the only one.
“Jeez, Mike,” said David, “Are you gonna swim too?”
“Err… I think I might be catching a cold.” It was a warm June afternoon with bright sun shining. “Are you gonna swim?”
“It looks like fun,” said David, eyes like a basset hound.
“Yeah,” said Bobby. “I think I’m gonna try it.”
I could see what was about to happen. My two partners in shyness were going to give in. I would be the last one still dressed and standing on the bank like a stiff. What was I gonna do? I would have to get naked too.
“It can’t be too cold, can it?” asked Bobby, pulling off his shirt.
“What about leeches?” asked David. “Are there leeches?”
Mickey Smith overheard. “Aw, you just put salt on them and they drop right off! I got one yesterday on my butt, but I ain’t seen any today.” He was floating on a tire inner tube, relaxing in the sun and looking like the Sultan of the Swim. David shuddered.
Bobby was down to his undershorts before I started to haltingly pull my shirt out from being tucked into my pants. David had his shirt off.
“Come on,” urged Rusty. “You guys aren’t chicken are you? I triple dare you to jump right in!”
Triple dares were a dare too much for Bobby. Jaybird naked he leaped into a deep bend in the creek. He popped up like a fishing bobber. “Eeuw, that’s c…c…cold!”
David had his shoes and socks off when I was lucky enough to look up to the top of the hill. The girls were lined up, six heads looking over the top of the hill at us. All were smiling. Alicia, the girl whose good opinion of me mattered most in all the world was there among them. I tapped David’s shoulder and pointed. He grinned broadly as he scrambled back into his shirt. “It’s too cold today, isn’t it!” he said, relieved.
Later that year when school started up again and we were the big sixth graders on campus, one of the girls came up to me and said, “Alicia was really disappointed this summer when she didn’t get to see you swim.”
“Aw, gee! That’s too bad,” I said, grinning and blushing simultaneously.