Kansas could be horribly hot in the summer. In the 30’s and 40’s, most folks in the small towns had electricity, but there was no air conditioning. Even electric fans were a novelty. One of the better things was to stay inside, or outside under a tree. From the summer of 1939 for the next two years, we lived in Derby, a little town 10 miles southeast of Wichita. Unlike western Kansas where the wind blows most of the time, the wind rarely blows around Wichita enough to cool. When it is 100 degrees outside, the wind blows hot, not cool. Most kids don’t worry about the heat, but it is still nice to cool-off once in a while.
Taking a dip, as in a swimming pool, was not much of an option. Polio was a scourge well into the 1950’s, and the suspicion at the time was that swimming pools, and hot weather had a lot to do with it. As for polio, it was mostly the kids that got it. You could have a mild case, where you had muscle paralysis for a short period of time. Then others might become paralyzed in part of an arm or leg, or both, or all extremities. Sometimes the muscle function came back, and sometimes it was permanent, but it didn’t take long to find out. One of the scariest varieties was called bulbar polio, which affected the diaphragm, and the ability to breath. If you didn’t die before you got to the hospital, they put you in an iron lung, which did the breathing for you. When the residual was permanent, your future was to live in an iron lung the rest of your life, a frightening limitation on your activities. Polio put a damper on swimming in public pools at the time. Polio also put a damper on socializing with other kids, whose brothers or sisters had the disease. We avoided them because our lives depended on it. Thousands of kids died every summer from poliomyelitis.
Because little was known about the disease, one official response was a quarantine. If you got something like Polio, you also got a quarantine sign posted on the front door or window of your house. This was a clear warning to those who might enter the house, and cast a pox upon those living inside. The quarantine signs probably saved hundreds or thousands of lives, and millions of disabilities, but quarantine signs have fallen into disrepute, even for life threatening diseases. Fortunately, Polio was subsequently eradicated, so the kids don’t have to worry about summertime, running around with friends, or swimming in public pools.
After a year in Derby I was eight years old, and had learned where one might cool off. Then one hot summer afternoon my big brother, A.T. came up with a cool option.
“Just across the creek to the east is Longs’ farm pond,” he said. “The Longs said we could come over and fish or swim in their pond whenever we wanted. Let’s go swimming. What do you think?”
“I don’t think I have a swimming suit” I replied.
“So much the better” he said. “I think the Longs may be out of town, so we don’t need swimming suits today. If anybody comes by, we can just stay in the water, and nobody will know the difference”.
“Sounds like a good plan” I added, “Lets go”.
With that, we walked east along the section road, down the hill to the creek, across the bridge, and up the other side to Long’s farm. There were no vehicles anywhere in sight. We walked up the drive, crawled through the fence, and walked across the pasture to the edge of the pond, where we surveyed the situation. Everything looked fine. Since this was my first experience with skinny-dipping, I waited for my big brother to lead the way. He took off all his clothes and walked calmly down into the water.
Following his lead, I took off my clothes, laid them in a neat pile in the grass a few feet from the edge of the water, and waded in. I was self-conscious for the first time, and being fully exposed, was worried about things like fish, snakes and turtles.
“What kind of critters are there in this pond?” I asked when I was knee-deep in the water.
“Nothing is going to bother you” A.T. said.
About that time, a car came along the section road, and I ducked well down into the water, fish and all, without hesitating.
We splashed around in the water for a while before I noticed the surroundings. There was one tree in the pasture about 30 feet east of the pond, a barn to the south outside the fence, and nothing else which could be seen down to the creek we had crossed. As we continued to splash, I noticed some movement along the creek bank. The splashing and commotion had aroused the cows in the pasture by the creek, and they started wandering up the hill toward the pond. Then it occurred to me that we were swimming in their pond.
“Are those cows going to get in here with us?” I asked. “I was worried about snakes and fish and turtles, but I didn’t think about swimming with cows. Are they going to get in here, too?”
“Naw, I don’t think so.” A.T. said. “They are just curious, but I doubt if they will get in the water.”
There were four cows, all milk cows coming up the hill toward the pond. They were walking single-file along a path where the grass was worn away. The lead cow followed the path all the way to the edge of the pond next to my small pile of clothes. At that point, she stopped, and just watched us with her big brown eyes. Suddenly, I was self-conscious again, knowing that we were both naked as jaybirds, but safely emerged in the pond. The cows continued to watch us as we resumed our splashing, while the lead cow kept her eyes glued intently on us. I called her Elsie.
Suddenly, Elsie looked down at the pile of clothing. I had placed my shoes on the grass first, then my short pants, under-shorts, t-shirt, and socks. It was all I had. I wondered if I should get out of the water, and move my clothes away from the cow, but I would have to expose myself if I did, and she was watching my every move. I had never before had any dealings with a full-grown female cow, but I was glad it was not the bull. I had heard some serious stories about bulls. I decided to remain submerged safely down in the water. Elsie might stumble over my clothes or get them dirty, but I preferred to remain unexposed.
Continuing to splash, we lost interest in the cows, glancing at them only on occasion. Then I noticed Elsie was chewing on something.
“What is Elsie chewing on?” I asked A.T.
“Cows chew on their cud.” he said. “They have several stomachs, and can belch up stuff to chew on almost any time they want to.”
“When I belch stuff up” I said, “it always tastes horrible. I would probably just spit it out if it came up”. At that point, I was as curious about the cows as they were about us, splashing in their pond.
Then I noticed Elsie reaching down toward my pile of clothes. She picked up one of my socks in her mouth, and started chewing on it.
“Elsie is not chewing on her cud” I said, “she is chewing on my socks. She is getting her slobber all over my clothes” I exclaimed. “I am going to have to wear slobbery clothes back home,” I added.
“You should be happy that cows are not meat eaters,” A.T. replied.
I moved toward Elsie so I could get a better look, remaining well down in the water.
“My socks are both gone,” I said. “Elsie has eaten both of my socks.”
Elsie must have weighed 1000 pounds or better, while I was a 50 pound eight-year-old, stark naked. I could not see myself chasing a half-ton of cow across the pasture stark naked.
“What can I do?” I asked A.T. “I don’t want to chase Elsie away from my clothes naked.”
“Look at it this way” he said. “Elsie is stark naked, too. You can both romp across the pasture stark naked.”
“But how do I know she will run?” I asked. “What if she just stands there by my clothes?” I added.
“You can push her real hard” he said, “and she will probably move.”
“But she is watching me with her big brown eyes. How do I know she won’t eat me, too?”
“Cows are not meat eaters,” he repeated.
“You say they are not meat eaters, but Elsie can’t tell the difference between food and my socks” I said. “She might just take a bite out of me, because she’s not very bright.”
“Maybe you just better stay in the water,” A.T. said.
So we stayed in the water and watched.
In the next few minutes, Elsie ate my under-shorts, then my t-shirt. We just stayed safely submerged in the water, naked as jaybirds. By then she was well lathered with slobber, which she deposited on my short pants and leather shoes. After eating my socks, under-shorts, and t-shirt, she must have been full. She belched several times, then walked slowly away.
“I guess she is full,” I said. “She slobbered all over my short pants and shoes, but I won’t have to walk home naked.”
“Have you noticed any nibbles on your legs?” A.T. asked.
“No I haven’t,” I replied.
“You should know that fish and turtles and snakes, unlike Elsie, are all meat eaters. If you haven’t noticed anything yet, then I guess you are probably safe,” he said. “They have been nibbling on me ever since I got into the water. They may be in the deeper water, and haven’t found you yet.”
I lost my modesty immediately, and splashed out of the pond to what was left of my clothes. They were soggy-wet with Elsie slobber, but they were all I had. I slid into the soggy pants and shoes, and said “Lets get out of here.”
As an eight-year-old that day, I learned a great deal more than just skinny-dipping. I trace my personal modesty to female cows with big brown eyes. Cows are not limited to chewing their cud, but may chew on anything within reach, and will slobber on everything else. Swimming in farm ponds may include being nibbled-on by meat eaters. Big brother’s who can’t tell the difference between a cow’s cud and a pair of socks will tell their little brothers just about anything.