Afternoon at the Rocks

by Ted Denmark

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Lake Michigan forms the northern boundary of the great mid-western metropolis of Chicago, draped like a necklace on the rich Illinois soil at its southern-most contour. The Great lakes with their vast quantities of fresh water, to which Lake Michigan belongs, are a monumental regional resource left over from the last great Ice Age that local people seek to use, protect and preserve in as nearly pristine a condition as possible, given that so many cities, large and small, ring their perimeters. The long-radius fillet of Lake Michigan’s shore line facing to the Southwest, called the North Shore by Chicagoans, extends from the downtown area with its major cultural amenities like Grant Park, through a narrower developed area along Lake Shore Drive, a long “rock dock” of some miles, built up to stabilize the shore line at depth with large industrially-sculpted flat-top rock monoliths the size of washing machines, before finally widening out into a long magnificent green belt of parks and recreational areas, trailing nearly to the far northern city limits. One of the most delightful areas in the city lies just north of this rock shoreline, where the narrow deep water swimming and sunning areas adjoin the wider swath of land called Lincoln Park near North Avenue, with its natural sand beaches and additional cultural amenities. This was the main playground and museum route for tourists and everyone living in the “Near North” area, where I mostly grew up during my early school years in the transitional post-war decade of the Fifties. It was a wonderful place where I went to La Salle Elementary School, still standing from the 1890s, and got to know hundreds of very diverse folk as a bike-route delivery paper boy and later door-to-door “bill collector” for same in the Windy City on the lake in my jewel of a neighborhood called “Old Town.”

In those days this was seen as an area of great potential where many of the creative and successful intelligentsia lived, with a regionally recognized art fair that closed down all the streets for a long Spring weekend, attracting hundreds of artists and as many as fifty thousand people from cultured art hounds to liberal beer-drinking avant-garde party people of those Midwestern times and climes. It was a fantastic adventure for all the kids of the neighborhood, probably the highlight of the year, with so many paintings and various innovative displays of colorful talent, from the street dances and exotic dishes of the Buddhist temple across the street and just past the alley behind our apartment, where my main hangout friends always met by the white fence, coming and going on our various daily trips, in this increasingly upscale neighborhood. Much of Chicago was looking old and dilapidated and in need of “renovation” at that time, if possible, with a likely alternative of all-out demolition—starting over from scratch—as was happening in many of the “Rust Belt” cities at that time. On the other side of oddly diagonal Ogden Avenue, one of the boundaries of our “Old Town Triangle,” the wrecker’s ball had already had its way with many rows of modest wood frame single family houses and more durable brick apartment buildings, with their failing plumbing and increasingly dangerous wiring (remember the Chicago Fire!).

But the Old Town Association would have nothing of this, and these enterprising and hardworking preservationists would do whatever it took to save this beloved wedge of urban success. The irony, from the perspective of a trip back to the old turf many years later when I was able to revisit for the first time, was that their success became the source of the loss of this great old walking neighborhood: it went upscale so fast, it was first routinely invaded by many thousands of people every weekend from near and far (many somewhat sterile “new towns” of western suburbs were also being constructed at an accelerating rate at the same time, and were tapped by a new Interstate highway artery that rose out of the main demolition zone due-west of downtown), to the march of the high rise towers of Lake Shore Drive, which also chose this direction as it’s natural capture area for giant upscale residential buildings with the streets below now filled with endless strings of cars coming and going to parking garages on the lower floors. Cute little single story houses or upstairs/ downstairs duplexes with white picket fences suddenly became worth a half million (1970) dollars, and after purchase by real estate moguls, were then demolished wholesale for concrete and glass modernism. The Old Town dreamtime was finally ending or going up into a newly rebuilt skyline mode. But the stakeholders had been duly paid off for their efforts, and could now declare victory with whatever aging feeling of success they could muster and move on from their self-destructed real estate bonanza to … somewhere else. My mother moved back to Oklahoma, and I later moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for UC Berkeley after high school for the continual springtime of coastal California fog, and mostly never looked back to painful winter memories of the wild and windy Chicago lake front with slippery ice on the sidewalks and huge piles of snow alongside … that always lasted all Winter.

But there was a time I shall never forget, one beautiful summer day, when I decided to go to the lake for a swim. I was about twelve years old and could easily go on my own to the North Avenue sand beach, which was usually overrun with families of little kids screaming, playing and slinging sand, or to “The Rocks,” which was mostly given over to adult sun worshippers catching up on their sleep or reading a book, deep water swimmers and chess players. There would naturally also be some attractive young women in bathing suits lounging on their stomachs with bra straps undone to avoid the tell-tale white horizontal stripe across their backs. These lovely ladies would come down from their Lake Shore high rise apartments and walk through the short underpass to take advantage of this prime-time amenity that might possibly help justify their sky-high rental costs on their modest-sized but attractive apartments. The chess players were typically European expats or early generation immigrants with memories of homeland culture that could be warmed up here in the shaded sun with some of their cultural soul survivors from the homeland. It was a pleasant, almost elegant, place, particularly with the slightly murky deep-blue waters of Lake Michigan, breaking into small whitecaps in a perpetual dance of shifting, sloshing surges that would occasionally break over the top edge of the rocks, even on a peaceful sunny day.

I thought of this scene, and I thought about all the screaming kids fencing with sand shovels and having to shower that same nice beige sand off at the public beach house afterwards to get comfortable for the walk home. It was not an easy decision because I liked both places quite a lot, and knew we were very lucky to have such a choice. But today the decision would be postponed because I would be going with my best friend, Austin Plum, a kid about my age who lived in the rear house behind my apartment building with his mother and older frightening stepfather, who mistreated him terribly, but who was (little joke of a mixed metaphor) a “peach of a kid,” nonetheless. He was a strong swimmer and always went to the Rocks. A little later in his career of growing up, he would win over one of the prize pretty girls in the neighborhood, who would dote over him to help dispel the pain of so unhappy a homelife. I had my own favorite pretty girls to look after, but felt his lucky good fortune and was glad for him.

So we walked across the sumptuous grassy knolls of Lincoln Park, kept nicely mowed in the “City that Works,” as Mayor Richard J. Daley would famously repeat in his Al Capone look-alike political monologues during his years of perpetual electioneering. There were hard-ball games with seriously talented Puerto Rican players from the West Side; moms with little kids frightened to be feeding the wildly quacking ducks on the pond shore where we ice-skated in Winter; old-timers on park benches reading or just staring into space; large ethnic families on picnic blankets with mounds of potato salad … and all the usual kids running and climbing on the numerous statues with park employees trying to keep them from trampling the flower beds. There was the famous Lincoln Park Zoo with its large animals, particularly the great gorilla, Bushman, but that is a whole other separate story … That day, I had my towel, which was a little too small to be a proper beach towel, my sunglasses, tight swim trunks and probably a paperback book of some kind, when we finally arrived on the overpass to admire the stream of cars streaking along below us on Lake Shore Drive, and glancing south towards the high rises of downtown, with glass expanses sparkling in the bright midday sun. I felt happy to be there again, and somewhat uneasy about whether I would go in for a swim with my pal Austin in the cold choppy waters right away or whether I would just sit and sweat it out in the hot sun for a while—this ice-melt water in early summer would have only been about ten degrees above freezing …

Austin was a handsome and sweet kid with lots of talents and a great smile, always so oddly enthusiastic in spite of his troubled life with his depressingly overweight dowdy mother and really mean old stepfather. It was classic Dickensian fare, and no one could ever figure out how he managed it, but we were the best of back yard buddies and had many years of great times together playing marbles, building forts and going on adventures in every direction … the works. I never knew what happened to him in later years, though he kept his prize girlfriend during high school when he went to the “tough” local area high school just beyond our Old Town turf, and I went to the college-prep, high-achiever, high-tech (even then) high school across town, before I eventually moved to Northern California to become an even happier Chicago climate refugee.

“The Rocks” were just that, acres of large monoliths placed and fitted together with mortar in a tightly walkable rockscape almost reminiscent of some ancient ruin, to hold back the water that was fairly deep, deep enough that I could barely dive deep enough to see the murky bottom, even at the edge, but they said the bottom was just … more smaller rocks, anyway. And even if the rocks on top were also unforgivingly harder to lie on than a pallet on a hardwood floor, the water was deliciously … cold when the time came to jump in. Austin jumped in first thing, as always, when we arrived, but I waited to warm up first. He was in a great mood as usual and swam back and forth from ladder to ladder as I would also do in a little while. He was making jokes and shouting, “Come on in, the water’s great, you big chicken …” I looked around. There weren’t many swimmers or even sunbathers out, a few self-conscious women in reasonably modest swimsuits for the sun time, the occasional bored life guard probably using the perk of the long loneliness of just sitting and watching to scan for those same possibly admiring women and girls, and the mellow chess players under the concrete pavilion emitting the occasional whiff of cigar or pipe smoke. We were among the few youngsters there, and most of the solitary or paired adults would probably have liked to limit the traffic to “adults only” so they could get on with their more serious contemplations in silence or low volume transistor radios (which were the first generation of wireless “walk toys” that had just appeared for sale as upscale trophies at around the century dollar price point).

Austin finally climbed up the ladder in a burst of excited good cheer after his swim and toweled off quickly. “Wow, the water’s great. Aren’t you going in?” I looked around again—for what I’m not sure—but I knew I would be going in soon too, but I always found the cold surging water a little … disturbing at first, even though it was always amazingly refreshing when you got out and felt the welcome warm sun on your backside, drying out a wet swim suit (with no sand in the inner web). I knew that if I waited too long, I might chicken out, which my pal had seen me do before, and go over to the sand beach later for a quick dip before the couple-mile walk back home. I had been told previously by my mother that I had fallen (or been pushed) into swimming pools on several occasions when I was a toddler and had to be quickly fished out, which had given everyone a scare. The mostly harmless but cloying chlorinated water of a swimming pool was nothing compared to this great expanse of ancient meltwater going to the horizon for nearly 180 degrees, which must have triggered some of these subconscious memories from my earliest days, but I had no conscious recollection of them.

If it weren’t too choppy, the solution was to have a first look to see if there were any swimmers below the ladder and then take a good running dive into the unknown to be soon immersed … in the shockingly cold water and go into a moment of panic mode and flail back up to the top in desperately chilled excitement and relief that I would soon be swimming back to the ladder in anticipation of how exhilarated and “cool” I would soon be and … relax back into the patch of smoother, flatter, but still unforgiving hard rock (being cool was everything in those 50’s humid dog days of summer, just as Rock ‘n Roll was about to explode onto the prime-time scene). It all happened just as I had imagined and remembered from times before, and after I slumped down and toweled, we sat and talked about the thousand things that boys talk and brag about, who know they are privileged to be able to come to such a great uncrowded place … and swim for free any time they want.

After we caught up on the local scuttle-butt and told the jokes we remembered and knew would be fun to re-tell, the trickster smile that I knew very well came over Austin, which I had seen many times as he attempted to cajole his younger brother to do something the little kid, so heavily favored by his father (Austin’s stepfather), did not want to do. If little Lawrence, or “Larry Jr.”, were to tell his father that Austin had done anything even a little bit questionable, Austin would get a beating, almost on the spot. Austin Plum knew I probably wouldn’t want to go back into the water, but he knew he did, so it was only a matter of convincing me that I also wanted to … Either one of us would have had at least one extra tennis ball with us in those days since we might want to go to the school yard almost any time and get in a few innings of “fast pitching,” our favorite easy two-guy pickup game in which a pitcher throws a tennis ball at a batter in front of a rectangular strike zone painted on the brick wall of our school fortress with its heavily-screened, lower-story windows. One could throw a mean curve ball using this light tennis ball and make a batter look very silly, and I had learned how to be a “switch pitcher” as well as a “switch hitter” after years of practice. But if the batter really connected with the tennis ball, it could fly for many hundreds of feet high in the air and disappear forever over the top of the four-story apartment buildings at the edge of the playground. So you nearly always needed an extra one …

His clever imagination connected with the tennis ball bulging in his little knapsack, and in a moment of brilliance, he suddenly said, “I’ve got it, let’s throw the ball out in the water and then swim out and see who can find it first …” I thought to myself, “Wow, it would be so great if there were a floating dock anchored offshore, so we could swim out and … have some place to climb out if we couldn’t swim back without needing to rest first.” I knew the cold water was more than a little dangerous, which I felt every time I dove in and swam back to the ladder. My problem was that I wasn’t really a very strong swimmer, and these cold choppy waters were more of a challenge than a pleasant warm pond or even a cold chlorinated swimming pool, neither of which, however, was as … attractive or exhilarating as this expanse of cold, fresh ice water on a hot day. So I said, somewhat marveling at his creative idea, “Okay, but don’t throw it too far …” He gave a big smile and knew he had won a triple threat: he had found a good excuse to get back in the water for a little more than just another meandering swim; he was wily enough to have convinced me to do the same; and he had possibly invented a new game on the spot that might even be as exciting as our school playground favorite.

So, he pitched the ball out low and hard straight away in the direction where the water meets the sky. I watched and tried to follow the trajectory, but there was no telling how far it went. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed this unusual ploy. There was hardly anyone among the sun worshippers, readers or walkers to have noticed anything so ephemeral as that moment’s fling of a gray tennis ball … or the ever bored-looking life guard occasionally scanning the expanse in front of him, still feeling lucky enough to have gotten a summer job in the “city that works” to help fund and maintain his lifestyle during the school year. Austin jumped in with abandon, and I followed shortly afterwards as I could see him roll his head for a deep breath and reach out for a swim that could last a little longer than usual. The full immersion in the ice water provided the same cold wake-up shock as I came to the surface and began to try to gauge which way I needed to go. As usual, I had an instant of panic at how deep the bottom might be here, but even though I had been told it was like being on the second story of a building, I knew it didn’t really matter how deep it was because it quickly dropped off into depths of hundreds of feet …

I knew I should have just swum back to the ladder as I began to notice I was a little more tired than I felt on my first swim of the day because I was already getting out of range of what I could safely manage, but what surprised me was that the water, just a short distance out from the rocks, was so much colder than right next to shore. But just as I realized that this unexpected discovery was more than I had bargained for and that I would need to turn back, I also realized that I couldn’t tell which direction was the right way back … which way the big shore line rocks were … because in a cold moment of fear, I could barely lift my head enough to see anything. Then suddenly … I had a really great view of the wide expanse of water, which looked bluer, more truly beautiful and astoundingly peaceful than anything I had ever remembered seeing (!). It seemed as if time had stopped or gone into slow motion, and the sunlight … was also very pure and golden as I was seemingly witnessing every individual sun beam. I was aware of the presence of the Sun above me, the source of the golden light, but wasn’t inclined to look up because the blue water below was just so … hypnotically serene and amazingly … beautiful. Had there been a problem with the water being cold and threatening? I wasn’t sure but had a vague recollection that it might have been, but now it didn’t matter … it was such a trifle. The air seemed to be thinning as the horizon began to recede further and I was able to have an even more exhilarating view from that higher elevation. But wait (!), why do I feel like a helium balloon slowly but steadily drifting upwards into the sky? I could tell that I was already fairly high but didn’t know why. Was it strangely surreal or just … oddly natural?

I didn’t get an answer but had a subtle feeling that this sudden flotation might be reaching an inflection point. I had a few loose logical thoughts like, “Should I expect to see any birds in the sky up here?” And a few fantasy imaginings like, “If I’m like a helium balloon, I wonder if anyone can see me and what color I might appear to be …” It was a strange mixture of curiosity and ecstasy of a joyful questioning kind that seemed sporting and even though unusual, not unexpected at the time, but also one of confidence, even though I also didn’t seem to want to notice that there wasn’t anything underneath me to support this position up in the “middle of the air.” And yet I was beginning to be notice … a slowing rate of ascent—it was as odd as suddenly floating up into the sky. I thought of asking again, but before I could think of how to put the question, I began to understand that this would be almost as far as I could go, and I was still going slower and slower and then …

In the most shocking way, my eyes suddenly popped open, and I could see I was lying on my stomach, face down on the rocks, and I could hear someone saying, “Yeah, he’s okay … he just went out a little too far into the cold water, and I had to jump in and pull him out …” Then, it all came back to me, and I understood what had happened during my break from “real time.” Wow, what a strange afternoon! And so embarrassing to have to be pulled out of the drink after being so foolish, but what a time up in the sky! Oddly, I remembered almost everything of the flying and drifting sky time and almost nothing of the time spent nearly drowning (!). This seemed strangely … awesome—the serenity of the deep blue remained with me like a peaceful blanket and the beauty of the golden light in the sky like a memory of … what would it be (?) … something like Heaven. I was not a religious kid, even though the lives of numerous religious kids were familiar enough to me in this Chicago mix of ethnic Catholic Poles, Italians and Irish.

But I was now no longer a stranger to ecstasy.

I stayed there for some time, sitting by myself on the rocks, thinking about what had happened with its rich visual imagery, feeling grateful that I had survived my bad judgment call, and indeed, I have never forgotten these most striking events up to the present day when I am finally getting around to setting this story down from the lingering memories some fifty years later … for others to consider as we all in our generation and time begin to contemplate our own mortality and what might await us … after the transition. This kind of “near death” experience that people are a little less shy to report and share in our times of less religious regimentation and greater spiritual knowledge, has actually been fairly widely reported, such stories seemingly differing in various details but often having a similar feeling tone …

There I was by myself again now, looking out at the horizon where the water meets the sky, marveling at these “impossible” experiences and thinking that I would soon … have to get up and walk home. Austin was nowhere to be seen, and several life guards were back on their high chairs. Had I broken the spell of afternoon boredom? The guard who pulled me out disappeared so quickly … I didn’t even have a chance to thank him for his timely and courageous effort, wasn’t even actually clear-headed enough to have a distinct impression … and now he was gone, and I didn’t even feel like walking over to ask … and have him tell me anything more … wasn’t even sure if it would be the right guy or that he would even remember … At least I didn’t remember him overplaying his heroic part with dramatic warnings and scolding attitudes like a shaken parent. It was probably just a routine jump into the ice-water to pull out another dumb kid … for him. Or did all of this even really happen before I had my embarrassing and improbable re-awakening …? The people who may have noticed this little kerfuffle had probably long since lost interest and were also getting ready to go home after the hottest part of the day had passed.

I was still naturally dazed and confused as I mechanically put my clothes on over my nearly dry swim suit, picked up my towel and book and began to think about what I might say about … one of the most unusual afternoons I would ever experience. Part of me was still high up in the air, with the wonder of it all, but particularly of what may have lain beyond what I saw and felt, whether I had been accompanied by unseen figures in the perfect silence who hosted me but knew my time had not yet come, and so could not yet rightly appear and acknowledge themselves to accompany me on for a longer journey. But the feeling of being like a human helium balloon, having risen high in the sky and then very slowly stopped, has always persisted, just before the moment of realization that this would be as far as I could go, and now, so gently and softly, like my sweet old grandmother would have done, making me understand that I would … actually need to be … going back to terra firma. And then suddenly waking up again—with very little discomfort—back in the real time moment and needing to go forward with the next round of highly contrasting ordinary activities, which in my case was getting up and very mindfully, walking back home … for at least five more decades to come.

Today, in California during the great era of metaphysical explorations in the second half of the 20th Century, now so much more obviously settled for some time into its more diverse categories but also thinning out … this kind of “near death experience,” such as I had, is almost commonly reported. I have noted that some of the familiar imagery often cited in reports I have read, such as seeing “light at the end of a tunnel,” hearing wisely spoken words of comfort, or being greeted by deceased relatives, was missing for me. If I had been a religious boy, the feeling of rising up into the sky might have been interpreted as “ascending into Heaven,” and perhaps in the collective mythic human world of anecdotes reported during prehistoric millenia, before the clamp of a more rigorously enforced theological system of fearful “true belief” settled onto the world during the European Dark Ages, such reported experiences, even then, may have been one of the origins of the sky metaphor for a Heaven world of departed souls.

For me the most obviously memorable aspect of my near death on this fateful day at the Rocks, which has persisted as an imprint, was the surprisingly exquisite “otherworldly” beauty of the experience, which must have greatly contrasted with my last fading memories as I lost consciousness in the frigid water and couldn’t even remember the panic of not being able to swim any further. But the water, which a moment ago would have been terrifying, as I began to rise into the sky, was completely and reassuringly peaceful without a touch of murkiness, and such an amazingly beautiful shade of azure blue (!), like a great pulsating crystal or jewel. And the sunlight, as I also noticed as I rose in the sky, was golden, scintillating and very bright, almost as if I could see individual “beams” in my state of expanded awareness. Oddly, I never looked up to see the Sun or what was overhead and never looked down to see the rescue scene that must have been going on with some commotion. I didn’t have the impression of looking anywhere in the usual way, and not even noticing that I no longer had eyes or even a body (even though in my fairly common flying dreams I always looked down to notice my hands, which I often used to navigate during lucid dreaming). I had a strong impression, at first as if to the side, of the peaceful water, and eventually, as I became more elevated, of it going to the horizon. There were soft feelings of surprise at first, surprise to be suspended above the water, surprise not to be panicked or cold, and surprise at the clarity and great beauty of the scene to behold as I was starting to float and be lifted upwards …

I think I must have also been slightly disappointed when my upward motion began to slow and then seemed to hold steady for a moment of puzzled anticipation … before I again disappeared and woke up back on the Rocks. It had all been completely unexpected from the moment of ignorance, misguided decision and competitive risk to swim out too far into colder water than I had ever experienced. Had I ever heard warnings about this much colder water just off shore? I might have, but it was probably downplayed by older hardy Chicago swimmers more intent on extolling their well-trained resistance and bravado than to the dangers … Of course, that’s why the life guards were on the beat there, and we should be grateful for their presence and to the authorities who put the line item in the budget to allow us to be watched over, particularly for children. Sadly, thousands of kids drown each year who don’t know any better than to jump into water, whatever its temperature and however it may be roiling and flowing, and expect it will just be fun and games, but water is a powerful and heavy force of nature needing great respect on the part of fragile humans whose warm-blooded life is like a delicate flame that can be quenched in just a few moments of bad judgment.

I was one of the fortunate ones who not only escaped from this powerful and premature embrace of Neptune’s cold watery deep, but also received a breakthrough bonus … of crossing over for a short time to the other side to find out that death, while all too tragically real for the person who goes past the point of no return and loses everything in the gambler’s game of life, is yet seemingly not the finality of conscious existence. Whoever and whatever we are, apart from finding ourselves with existential consciousness as a person living in a matrix of cellular biology formed through growth of the miraculous human vehicle when our time comes to claim ownership of what was first our parent’s loving care and concern, as enacted back through myriad generations of unknown prehistory, there comes an occasional glimpse like the one I had, capable of being retained in memory for further reflection and edification through an unimpeachable transcendent experience we would be privileged to witness at any age: the world as a place of almost unimaginably serene beauty; the seemingly “ordinary” light of our days glistening as an almost living and loving force, possibly indicating the nature of our deeper origins; and the death that we might naturally, or for induced reasons, fear most … is an illusion that disappears in the blink of an eye when reality impinges. This was my first conscious experience of this exquisite realm of “otherworldly” spiritual awareness, which no amount of aging experience has ever displaced one millimeter, but may have been the portal through which greater awareness would and has slowly and steadily seeped and occasionally streamed in, as it did for me, without requiring a lifetime of uncertainty to “just have faith in things unseen” or something similar, though I would hope that might suffice for anyone doubting this Existence hidden in plain sight, until their own breakthrough might occur … in the most unexpected moment or unlikely way … ready or not.

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