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  • October 8th, 2017

SASSE’S HOLE

By Joel M. Vance

It shimmers in memory, a half acre of clear water inelegantly named Sasse’s Hole. It was where we swam in the halcion days of teenagerhood. Hormones mixed with sunshine in a heady brew that only comes once in a lifetime, and all too soon vanishes amid the confusing infirmities of maturity.
Climate scientists doubtless believe they can prove that global warming began decades if not centuries ago, but for me it has happened in my lifetime. I was born in 1934, in the depths of the driest and hottest decade, possibly in the nation’s history. It was not only the Great Depression, but also a time of intense heat and massive dust storms that not only stirred up the dirt of the Midwest but also spawned me. And again, in the early and mid-1950s came another time of intense heat— all of these formative years with no air conditioning and virtually no way to find the relief from the smothering heat.
There was no incentive to be concerned about global warming at a time when immediate warming was a fact. National Geographic magazine may have provided titillating photos of bare breasted African natives, but no such photography existed for natives of mid-Missouri, and we had to live with what we had, amid demurely bra-clad female classmates.
That’s why Sasse’s Hole always will be for me a cool spot in the hell of memory. It was a blue hole, a rare phenomenon where crystalline water appears, apparently from nowhere to create a pond or lake where none existed before. They also call it a blowout as if it were somehow dynamited from nonexistence to existence by some cosmic explosives maven.
Whether or not Sasse’s Hole was a true blue hole or not is almost a matter of semantics. It could’ve been a cenote, another type of aquatic phenomenon, common in some parts of the world. Blue holes apparently are mostly associated with salt water while cenotes are more common in freshwater areas. Either way a normally circular body of water appears, caused by some geologic trick that I don’t understand and don’t really want to. More important is that Sasse’s Hole existed on hot days when teenagers suffused with summertime ennui needed cooling off—teenagers almost always need cooling off.
Sasse’s Hole was a bastard child of the Dalton Cutoff, itself a bastard child of the Missouri River. Once the capricious Missouri ran just south of Dalton, where I lived and then in 1875, the river that baffled and frightened Pere Marquette during his explorations into the heart of North America, decided, as it was wont to do periodically, to go in new directions.
So, in 1875, the Missouri decided to cut a new channel in the middle of the night (contemporary accounts describe a terrifying roar). When the river finally settled down it had left behind a sizable Lake which became the Cutoff. Later the Cutoff, mostly a muddy body of water, like its parent, the Missouri River, would become our playground winter and summer.
In the summertime it was a fishing hole, in the fall it became one of the best duck hunting spots in North America, and in winter time some of us played ice hockey on its frozen surface. I have a 1 inch scar on my chin from having taken a header onto the ice during a heated hockey game which required several stitches to repair. We didn’t have regulation pucks so used beer cans, which might have had something to do with the reason I went sprawling.
We drove to Salisbury about 16 miles away and found a doctor with some surgical thread who stitched up my chin and bandaged it so I looked like Amenhotep or some other pharoah from an Egyptian pyramid tomb. I was quite the object of admiration and revulsion at school for several days until the stitches healed enough that I could peel off the bandage.
I think the explanation for Sasse’s Hole is that it was the result of a conduit between the Dalton Cutoff, which decided to burrow like a mole, under a fairly narrow screen of dry land and trees, perhaps into a subterranean sinkhole, and then surface as a blue hole, perhaps reinforced by possibly sizable springs–the water always was cool no matter how hot the summer temperatures got.
Visualize a basin perhaps a half acre in size with the deep end at the east tailing off to the west. The banks all are clean sand with the northern half almost a beach. The sand is heaped on the east and dune-like. Someone, perhaps Chris Sasse, built and floated a platform a few yards out in the middle of the deep end, to which you could swim, haul yourself out and soak in the sun. Today no landowner in his right mind would risk financial ruin from a lawsuit alleging criminal indifference by letting kids swim without supervision on his land. But those were far different times, not that the kids were more responsible or less prone to get in trouble than they are today.
Sasse’s Hole was a godsend (or, perhaps, a Sassesend) to kids stuck in the hinterland with no access to a public swimming area. The nearest public swimming pool was in Marshall, 50 miles away and across the Missouri River via a bridge at Glasgow. We went there exactly one time in my teenage years, and the water was crowded with other kids, saturated with chlorine, and altogether unsatisfactory, compared to the unsullied water at Sasse’s Hole.
The East sandbank offered a refuge behind which the tender of sensibility could change clothes without embarrassment . Norman Rockwell and other artists of Americana were fond of paintings depicting the old swimming hole with bare butt kids cavorting, but unfortunately for us would be lascivious types there was no skinny-dipping at Sasse’s Hole, especially and regrettably not co-ed. I came close to it only because the only swimming suit I had was inherited from my father, possibly because we were too poor even to afford a Sears and Roebuck special, or because I was so war orphan skinny that anything on my meager shanks was likely to wind up around my ankles.
Only rarely was there a mixed crowd, boys and girls. Usually it was a group of guys swimming, mostly talking about girls. Only once I remember a group of boys and girls gathered and I swam out to the platform with a cute girl who had come with a friend and apparently had borrowed a bathing suit from her larger friend because it up hung on her much like my baggy trunks sagged on me. There were gaps in her one-piece suit that offered tantalizing glimpses of the flesh within and I was smitten with lust for this stranger. I searched for conversational gambits which would indicate to her that I was a potential lover of such amatory ability as to be enshrined in the annals of romance— a Don Juan of the Dalton bottoms.
I asked her name which I immediately forgot and searched for inflammatory phrases, none of which came to mind. She seemed preoccupied, possibly wondering what she was doing with this hapless nerd, while we hung suspended in the water in our baggy swimming gear like a couple of mosquito larvae. Presently she mumbled, “well, I gotta go,” and dog paddled back to shore where she rejoined her friend and they vanished amid the fog of memory.
Possibly the best thing about Sasse’s Hole was that you had to know it was there in the first place, and then how to get there, which was not easy unless you were local. That kept out foreigners perhaps from Chariton County’s metropolitan areas such as Keytesville, Brunswick, or Salisbury. Those of us in the know kept the location of the Hole close to our scrawny chests.
If it were 1952, you couldn’t pry the location of Sasse’s Hole out of me with thumbscrews, but that paradisiacal swimming hole is no more so here is how you would’ve gotten there in those long ago days: you drove south out of Dalton, first past the one-room school, now a community center, where I was threatened with attendance in the eighth grade after we moved to Dalton from Chicago but after I howled like a gut shot coyote at the prospect of having to attend school with a bunch of hillbillies (cosmopolite snob that I was), my parents paid the tuition so I could go to Keytesville elementary school six miles away, but a place with at least more than one teacher and presumably more than one or two books.
Across the street from the one-room school was the Methodist Church where once, at the urging of my mother, I sang “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” to a massively disinterested congregation, a performance enlivened mostly because a wasp fell on my neck and stung me midway through the song. I said a word not often heard in church, one that I had learned in the alleys of Chicago, and an old lady fell asleep and snored in harmony to my adolescent warble.
Continue on South on a gravel road until it’s time to turn west on yet another gravel road toward the Dalton Cutoff. Drive between the Sasse brothers homes, on either side of the road— they owned most of the land east of the Cutoff–and ahead you will see the levee, an earthen barrier designed to keep the Missouri River at bay, something it has failed to do many times over the years. In fact, in 1951 and again in 1993, the Big Muddy overwhelmed not only its banks but the many levees along it, flooding farms and towns to the point where some, like Dalton and Cedar City, became historic footnotes.
Turn on to the farm lane at the base of the levee and park. Get out of your car scramble up the levee and across the top and there, for your bemused eyes, is Sasse’s Hole. From then on it’s up to you. I give you the directions because they no longer are operable or have any meaning. They would’ve worked 65 years ago, but assuming that today there even is a body of water it will be as I discovered it some years later when I made a pilgrimage to the site— a sort of homage revisitation to the bright and sunny days when I was a teenager and all the world lay ahead of me.
I parked and scrambled up that same levee somewhat less agilely than I had done years before and what I beheld was a mudhole, suitable for mud turtles, water snakes, and possibly a gar or carp. Time and floodwater had eroded the barrier between the Dalton Cutoff and Sasse’s Hole and they had become one.
A fragment of my youth had washed away with that barrier and drowned in the passage of time. Somewhere someone’s grandmother may remember an afternoon when she wore an ill fitting bathing suit and dangled in the water like a mosquito larva with a skinny kid.
What was that kid’s name again?

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