Living on the West End: ‘Skinny-dipping’ arrives at The Mill Village

Bill Shepard

Editor’s note: This is a reprint of a previously published Bill Shepard column.

By Bill Shepard

The month of June is here! The long and cold winter is over and the time for June-bugs and skinny-dipping has arrived. An old man and his pen are back in a time long ago! He remembers and he writes.
The water in Swift Creek is beginning to warm and the boys in the village are anxious to test it! Skinny-dipping has arrived!
Readers who have followed me in this column are already acquainted with the “wash-hole.” It has been among my favorite subjects to write about for a long time. Just how many generations visited this spot, on Swift Creek, and found pleasure by bathing in its cool waters in the summertime is unknown, and there is no way to find out! The secret belongs to the little stream.
This old writer remembers his first visits to the wash-hole, and they date back to the late 1920s. As a little boy, one of the three Shepard boys, I recall the many times when one would ask, “Mama, can we go to the wash-hole?”
Always the word “we” was used, for Mama would never allow one of us to go without the others. Depending on whether permission was granted or not, always belonged to Mama. Her answer was final. If the answer was yes, there was usually a preface!
First, you must hoe the weeds from the garden, sweep the yard, pull weeds for the pigs in the pen, run an errand to the store or a number of other things that Mama could think of that needed to be done. When our baby sister was born, she added another preface to her list of things to do. I can hear her words now – “Yes, you can go, but first, you have to rock your sister to sleep.” That was often a real challenge!
One would rock or sometimes swing Baby Sister and the others would wait. The faster one that would rock, the wider Sister’s eyes would open! When at last, all the chores were done, we would head for the swimming hole.
As June deepened toward July and the waters of the little stream warmed, the crowd at the wash-hole grew larger! By the time of mid-summer, there were often times when there was hardly swimming room available in the small basin-shaped spot that we referred to as the wash-hole.
The wash-hole really lived up to its name, for there were many times that I watched a father give his little boys a bath in the little stream. He would line them up, lather them all over with soap and then plunge them under and bring them up – clean as a whistle! Keep in mind, there was no running water and bathrooms inside the mill houses in those early times! The wash-hole beat having a bath in a No. 2 washtub. It was so much fun!
By the end of the 1930s, the rumors of war abroad were getting stronger, and teenagers in the village were getting restless. The desire to see what life was like on the outside of a cotton- mill village grew stronger, as the rumors grew louder! Most of those who splashed and played in the waters of the swimming hole were at the ripe age to serve in the military, when the war began in 1941. Some who played games of Alligator in the wash-hole found themselves in places, far from it. There is but little doubt that memories of skinny-dipping in the wash-hole surfaced in distant lands — the deserts of North Africa, the mountains of Italy and in the jungles of the Pacific.
There were generations before my time and some that followed the same paths as I; how many, remains unknown. I have been told that there came a time after bathing suits were introduced to the village, that the girls were allowed to swim in the wash-hole. That did not happen in this writer’s time.
Douglas Lee, a lifetime resident of Darlington, sent me pictures of the wash-hole, as it was when his generation discovered it and long afterward. I have viewed the pictures and reread his accompanying letter many times. I have followed along his trail to the wash-hole and shivered, as I read about the large moccasins that he wrote of seeing at the spot and thought of the many times I must have been so close to them. His father and his uncles were all part of my generation and I knew them well. “Little Marion” (his uncle) was my childhood friend.
Tom Brokaw wrote of that generation and he labeled it The Greatest! It was that generation, some who learned to swim in the shallow waters at the wash-hole, that helped to save the world from Nazism!
The place on Swift Creek, where so many spent hours at play in its waters, is now just a memory and I am swallowed up in it! Memories and faces appear before me, as I write and all seem to ask, “Remember me?” “Yes, I remember, and I write!”

Author: Rachel Howell

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