Arts & Culture » Culture

The skinny on dipping


Swimmin’ bare nekkid has a history, a people’s history. Kids swinging from Tarzan ropes into secluded ponds and forbidden rivers — fruit pickers cooling after a long day in the sun — high school hooky-players with nothing better to do — a furtive couple slipping into the state park for a late-night tryst: These have been us — or we played our own variations on the theme.

I remember humid childhood summers in New Jersey and swimming in the filthy river that wound its way around town — we had a rope too, tied to the thick overhang of a huge elm, with an end knot for a better grip or sometimes an old tire swing. Boys at the brink of manhood, some still hairless and others just starting to sprout, we hollered as we flew out over the water, then let go and dropped into the current stained by rubber factories, woolen mills and sewage. It’s a wonder nobody came down with polio or hepatitis or some sci-fi disease that turned your wang into an alien. But all we got was cooler and crazier. Bare-assed and full of chutzpah, we swam morning, noon and night — till somebody called the cops or our fingers got wrinkly. We never brought towels — our moms would’ve freaked if they found out what we were doing — so we just stood around naked drying off in the whisper of a breeze off the river. Sometimes a barge floated by and we’d wave to the crew or give them the finger. It was the beginning of daring, of not caring, of turning into little big shots who’d break the rules whenever we liked.

Decades later, on a farm in upstate New York, the water was a whole lot cleaner and the company mixed, as a bunch of us took a break from baling hay and jumped in the pool that a creek fed in a hollow. It was shady there and, with 140 acres of fields and woods around us, nobody was worrying about the neighbors. Jeans, boots and T-shirts flew off, and skinny-dipping was this simple, direct affirmation of hipness and freedom. So we made sure to check out each others’ snatches and johnsons as we laughed and passed around a joint. It was one of those hard-working, good-vibes summers that gave hippies a good name. And as I floated in the dark green water, blowing rivulets ahead of me with my breath, life never seemed better.

So what is it about nude beaches on the French Riviera or midnight violations of propriety in a neighbor’s pool? What about vital juices mingling with the hot bubbles of a Jacuzzi, two or three bathers at a time? Or Stony Creek after hours — Lake Michigan in the moonlight — even Belle Isle before dawn?

It just comes down to the feel of it — the uninterrupted contact of water and skin, the way sweat and hair and inhibitions make way for H2O— that provokes so much breaking of the Midwestern laws around here. Human animals seem to have been doing it for quite a while. I’d say we’re on to something.

George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at


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