Swimming in the Hudson -- 06/24/11

James Lileks has been writing The Bleat for years (posting Mondays through Fridays). I've been reading it since his daughter was a baby and she has just graduated from her k-5 elementary school and will be starting 6th grade in middle school in the fall.... so, eleven years or so of enjoying his writing. His discourse in this morning's entry included links to some presentations Redbook magazine made in the 1950s to show to ad agencies and potential advertisers explaining why Redbook was a good way to reach an audience of "young adults" -- by which they meant married couples in their twenties (and early thirties) who were purchasing homes in the suburbs, raising children, and shopping in the new suburban shopping centers.

[Side note: Lileks doesn't go into this, but I was struck by how long and slow the presentation was -- twenty minutes or so -- whereas today it would probably be compressed into perhaps five or six minutes to carry the same information and make the same points.]

Lileks has fun looking at some of the critical comments posted in the discussion of this video on YouTube. He quotes one comment that said "This film should be watched: Not for a look at the good old days,but to study the beginnings of our modern culture's endless expansion and consumption at the expense of our environment." Lileks' reaction to that was "Go swim in the Hudson in 1957. Take a nice drink."

Yes, I know, he was making the point to some (I assume) young person who has no clue about how much the environment has been cleaned up over the years (at great effort and expense) and who only knows the pop meme that we live in the worst of all times and we're all gonna die.

However, my attention at that point popped right out of Lileks' blog... because, you see, I really did swim in the Hudson River in 1957. And for a decade before and several years after as well...

In fact, I started splashing around in the Hudson sometime in the late 1940s, say around 1947 or 1948.

There was a public beach but when I was really little it had no facilities at all. This was all before my time, but I think it might have been a public beach at one point and everything had fallen apart due to lack of maintenance. Anyway, I do recall going there when I was really young and there were no facilities. And then the City of Kingston cleaned it up (and, I believe, obtained some adjoining waterfront/beach property that had belonged to either the local brick manufacturer or the local cement plant to extend the size of the beach) and put up a building with change rooms and toilet facilities, built a refreshment stand, paved a parking lot, etc.

Of course none of that cleaned up the Hudson River. People did know about oil slicks on the water -- the amount of which varied: some days the water seemed almost clean and other days you couldn't wait to get home and wash the oil slick off your skin. Of course none of us knew about the various chemical pollutants in the water

Wikipedia (in its article on the Hudson River) notes that "General Electric manufacturing facilities at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward discharged between 209,0001,300,000 lb (95590 metric tons) of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) into the river from 1947 to 1977. The PCBs caused extensive contamination of fish in the river...." They also note " accidental sewage discharges, urban runoff, heavy metals, furans, dioxin, pesticides, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)."

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The beach at the top of the Google satellite view is the beach where we used to swim, along with the oil and the PCBs and the mutated fish and the rest of the chemicals.

And as we got older -- say 12 or so -- we would swim off the old abandoned Hudson River Day Line docks. See that very thin strip of land pointing up from the bottom of the picture? That strip of land is man-made, built to run railroad tracks out to where they could have water deep enough for the Day Line boats to come in to dock and transfer passengers to the Ulster and Delaware Railroad so they could then travel to resorts in the Catskill Mountains. (The boats used to come in the Rondout Creek and dock in the village of Rondout and that is where the passenger station was originally located, but then the boats got bigger and bigger and it was difficult to get them safely into the narrow creek.) Ah, but I digress -- okay, maybe I'll do a history bit another day -- the point is that in the 1950s these docks were long-abandoned.

Naturally, this isolated spot with very deep water was exactly the kind of place that teenage males would pick to swim. No adults around. No adult to tell you "Don't do that -- it's too dangerous!" Nobody to frown at swearing and off-color jokes. Nobody to tell you not to smoke (and we all smoked back then). Nobody to call the cops if you happened to have some nice cold beer to drink on a hot summer day and you are only 14 or 15. No need to hide behind bushes when you wanted to change from your bathing suit before you left for home. Heck, if you hadn't planned on swimming but it turned out to be a hot day, well, since there were no adults around, there was no need to wear anything. (Actually, I'm old enough that back when I was 10 or 11 or so, swimming at the YMCA was done without bathing suits.)

The part that used to scare me was when somebody would suggest swimming to the oil company pier. (See how that narrow finger of land points north toward some land with a bunch of small white circles -- those are oil storage tanks.) They used to have a pier that stuck out into the river where oil barges and ships could stop to off-load their cargo and fill those tanks. It was maybe about 500 feet -- a mere tenth of a mile -- upstream -- in very deep water. And a couple of times each summer one of the guys would get the idea that we should swim up to there. Now none of us -- including me -- were real swimmers in the sense of competitive swimming or swimming multiple laps in a pool or anything like that. We generally never swam more than 50 or 100 feet at a time. Swimming out to the floating platform at the public beach at high tide involved maybe fifty feet of swimming, so there and back was 100 feet. So this was much farther than our usual swimming -- and it was heading up river -- and there was absolutely nobody to help if one (or more) of us got into trouble on those challenge swims. But, of course, you just couldn't turn down the challenge. So we would swim it and get more and more tired and gasping as we went... until you would be convinced that this might be the time you wouldn't make it... and then you would keep on going and finally you would reach the oil company pier. And climb up onto the deck of the pier and walk to shore and try to slip past before some angry oil company employee came out yelling and cursing and telling us to get the hell off of their property. And then we would have to walk around on land (a long way when you are barefoot) to the bridge that led to that sliver of land where the old docks were -- where our towels and clothes and shoes had been left behind.

Yeah, so I swam in the Hudson River many times in 1957 -- many times over the years from 1947 (or 48) until the early 1960s. Since 1965 I think I was only in the Hudson one time -- sometime in the early seventies my brother and I were there with his daughter Melissa and my son Adam and I think "swimming" meant merely splashing in the shallow water and then building sand castles.

(By the way, the Hudson River is much cleaner today than it was in 1957.)

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