Skinny Dipping in the Dark
Paul, Norton, Massachusetts, August 1975
I was expecting it, and as soon as the sun dipped behind the trees, I got it.
“Why don’t you take your shirt off now?” one of the Thompson* kids asked. “It’s night.”
Busted. I was 12 years old, the fat kid, who always wore a T-shirt while swimming in our backyard pool. My excuse was I had sensitive skin and didn’t want a sunburn, but obviously, this wasn’t going to fly now.
Pretending not to hear, I quickly dove under, skimming porpoise-like along the bottom. What I needed was more time for the twilight to deepen into full-on night. It wasn’t my rolls of fat I was ashamed of—it was my (what would later be called) man boobs—which had recently appeared, like alien sprouts, on my chest.
When I resurfaced, the question was repeated, and I had no choice but to respond with a vague “oh, yeah” and remove the shirt, which I tossed in a heap at the water’s edge. Carefully keeping my chest submerged, I watched and waited as the darkness deepened. And just when I began to relax, my sister suddenly had the bright idea of turning on the lights.
The pool had two; one was a glowing orb submerged at the deep end, the other a floodlight attached to the rear of our house. Instinctively, I moved to the no-man’s land halfway between the two lights to await the onslaught. Soon enough, it was bright as day in the pool area again. I was trapped.
Noticing my fingers were beginning to prune, I assumed we’d be getting out shortly. I already had an exit strategy: scurry after the last one and lunge for my towel. But unfortunately, no one seemed eager for the pool party to end. Especially now that it was just us kids.
The cookout had wrapped up hours earlier, and the adults—my parents and Mr. and Mrs. Thompson—had retreated to the house. Through the window beneath the floodlights, I could see them sitting around the kitchen table, laughing and playing cards. Just like our family, the Thompsons had five children, and since they lined up in ages with my siblings and me almost exactly, we all became great childhood friends.
We weren’t exactly angels…at least us boys. We got into the kind of trouble kids growing up in the country often did: throwing crab apples or snowballs at moving cars; telling horrific (and mostly made-up) ghost stories to scare our younger sibs (with bonus points for making them cry); or passing around a beer lifted from our parents’ cooler while dutifully pretending to like the taste.
However, on this muggy summer night, beer wasn’t on tap…something even more memorable was. It began when one of the Thompsons asked, “Hey! You wanna go skinny dipping?”
There was a moment of stunned silence. The Thompsons were incredulous to learn my siblings and I had never done it.
“Oh, you gotta try it,” they said. “You won’t believe how it feels!”
I was doubtful, but when my siblings began expressing interest, I saw an opportunity.
“We should probably turn off the lights,” I said, gesturing toward the house. “Don’t want them catching us.…”
Agreeing this was a good call, my younger sister Laura—who’d barely toweled off—was soon sneaking back inside to surreptitiously extinguish the lights. Since the pool switch was farther away, it was flipped first.
When the light winked out, I was treading water, wondering if I’d actually have the nerve to remove my bathing suit. Frankly, I was feeling naked enough minus the T-shirt.
By chance, my eyes were drawn to the floodlight at the moment it clicked off. I was temporarily blinded. As my pupils struggled to adjust to the darkness, something terrifying appeared in my field of vision.
It was a gigantic ship—a huge wall of black steel that loomed ominously over my head. The vessel was completely dark—like a ghost ship.
For a split second, I had no idea where I was or what had happened. But then, physical sensation returned, and I gasped and literally ducked my head, as a wave of chills and gooseflesh swept over my body.
At that moment, there was a huge splash—one of the Thompsons had cannonballed into the water beside me, filling my gaping mouth and stinging my eyes.
I closed my eyes to flush away the chlorine, and when I reopened them, the eerie apparition had vanished.
“Obviously, there’s no ship in my backyard,” I told myself forcefully. “It must have been some trick of the light.” Although the explanation satisfied my mind, it did nothing to calm my still-tingling flesh.
But now, however, I had other things to worry about. The Thompsons began cajoling me to remove my bathing suit. It took a great deal of prodding, but I eventually caved in, slipping off my trunks and tossing them in a heap atop my T-shirt. And that amazing free-floating feeling of swimming in the buff diverted my attention. The water was warm. It felt perfect.
Thus, it was relatively easy to focus on the fun I was having, and put that strange, ghostly vision out of my mind.
. . .
They say kids have a natural propensity for “moving on” quickly, and that was definitely the case with me. By the time school started again, the memory of the incident had begun to fade, covered over by new experiences—layer by layer—like pages in a scrapbook.
And I’m fairly certain I would’ve completely forgotten about it, too—if it weren’t for the fact that, many years later, I ended up seeing that same “ghost ship” image again.
But this time, it was in such stunning detail, I could actually make out the rivets.
_ _ _
* Name has been changed to protect “the innocent.”