Monday, February 4, 2019

Tagged and Bagged

Our father William Woodrow "Duke" Simpson tells everyone who will listen that when his boys were just pups, he encased them in a burlap bag and tossed them into the Bluff Swimming Hole. He apparently figured that any kid worth his salt would escape the gunny sack. If they made it back to shore, he had taught them two invaluable lessons: how to survive and how to swim! If they didn't, well he was young enough to make a few more.

When we question our mother Roseline Marie "Rose" Simpson ("The Rose Among Thorns") about being bagged and tagged, she will neither verify nor deny the account. She simply shakes her head at our father and "tsks." After having sixty years to contemplate the meaning behind the metaphor, I believe dear old Dad was simply trying to tell us that he recognized the responsibility that went along with having children and took seriously his obligation to adequately prepare us for the big, mean world. At this point, I realize that both our parents did, and still do, everything in their power to teach us to overcome hardship and live a compassionate and caring life.

Reflecting back on our childhood in this high desert oasis brings back fond memories of super-heated days on the rocks and cool refreshing evenings with family and friends at the Bluff Pond. In an attempt to provide for his young family, Dad helped build and worked a filling station in the early 1950s. The building, which still stands at the base of Cow Canyon, was of solid, substantial native sandstone. He often traded arts and crafts for gas and oil with the Navajo and Ute people, and then sold the goods to the slow trickle of tourists that found themselves high-centered in this cultural backwater.

After struggling to survive and feed his growing brood in the petroleum business, Dad found better luck driving a truck for McFarland Hullinger. He hauled uranium ore from Fry Canyon off of the crazy, dangerous switchbacks of the Moki Dugway to a mill in Mexican Hat. Mom is of Portuguese decent from San Leandro, California. Dad stole her away from the bright lights of the big city and brought her to Bluff, Utah, where there are only starlight skies over a tiny town. At the time, this was about as far from civilization as one could get. Dad says Mom cried for two years straight before settling in. Five kids in six years may have played a significant role in grounding her to this red rock valley.

Dad would arrive home after a treacherous day's work on the road only to face a house full of rambunctious renegades and a frazzled, frustrated Portagee lady. There were no fast food joints, movie theaters, arcades, or even a city park to ease our stress. There was, however, the old swimming hole. Dad knew that he could mitigate the heat, dissipate the tension, and calm raw nerves by taking us to the pond. Often, there were several family groups of all local cultures frolicking in the healing waters in the shadow of the bluffs.

Although it has long since turned to marshland, the old swimming hole was located on the east side of Cottonwood wash, facing south, as it opens into the town of Bluff at the back of cemetery hill. The pond sat in a catch basin within an indent of the towering slick rock cliffs. There is a huge locomotive-like rock facing away to the southeast. The talus slope of jumbled, rocky debris at the foot of the cliffs fell right up to the water's edge. The pond was fed by an artesian well that could not be easily found upon the cold, clammy, heavily mudded bottom. There was a check dam holding back the tide on the western border. From the top of the cliffs to a nearby electrical substation, directly over the water, ran several strands of high-tension power lines carrying 69,000 volts of raw electricity. The pond was surely heaven on earth on a hot summer day.

What some might perceive to be an oversized mud puddle was precious to us. That old, dirty swimming hole was as much a part of our family as it was of Bluff. More of that red-stained, silty, arsenic-laced water passed through our sinuses and intestines than I believed was healthy, but we survived. Our memories of the pond are of a happy, carefree time. I recall Dad resting on a truck inner tube, grasping the belt loops of our cut-off Levis' as two of us tugged him around the pond in high style. Mom and the girls rested on the hard-packed beach, tossing stones and making cat calls. There were days we felt so hot we released steam as we settled into those cool, refreshing waters. Times were good and bonds grew strong. The old swimming hole will always remind me of family, laughter, joy, and love. Oh yeah, throw in an object lesson or two for good measure. Dad would appreciate that we actually figured it out.

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