Who are they kidding?
I don’t know exactly when this happened - when a perfectly adequate swamp got gentrified and became the China Lake Nature Preserve - but they’re not fooling me - it’s the same old Fircrest Swamp that I knew and loved as a kid.
Now I’ve not spent much time at all in Tacoma since I left there in July of 1974. Oh sure - short visits to my parents and one time in about 1980 I spent nearly three weeks there - but once my mom and sister moved to Lacey, Washington in about 1998 or so I’ve just not logged many hours there and when I did visit it was seldom to the neighborhood where I grew up. So imagine my surprise when I drove by the old swamp to see that it had morphed into a nature reserve.
I grew up (a debatable concept) three blocks away from the swamp. It was a magical place for every young boy (and a fair number of girls too) and it was every mother’s nightmare. Because it was generally forbidden territory to us, it became one of the places that we cherished and we spent as much of our free time there as was possible. To a kid in elementary school, the swamp had everything - fishing for perch or sunfish, catching frogs or pollywogs, swimming, mud fights - you name it. Then there was the old trolley trail through what was almost old-growth forest, building forts - the endless rumors of tunnels that were supposedly used to smuggle the Chinese into Tacoma from Salmon Beach - and of course all the urban legends of one kind of nefarious death or another, abandoned treasures, strange hermits, etc.
It was a magical place where your imagination and the outdoor environment could meld - a place where the bonds of friendship could be cemented, and a place where memories were made - every kid should have at least one such place - no matter where they live.
As we moved on to that awfully awkward time period known as junior high (in our district that was grades 7 through 9) - our relationship with the swamp began to change - we of course began to change. Our “engineering” skills had progressed to the point that we could build rafts that actually worked, rather than sinking within a yard or two of being launched - but we quickly got bored with the fact that we had mastered getting ourselves into the middle of the swamp without swimming. It did freeze over every couple of years or so - never for very long but usually long enough for a game or two of broom-stick hockey. Then there was the time that Roger Kuhl attempted to ride his cherry-red, oh-so-pimped out Schwinn Sting Ray across the ice. Roger - true to his name was the epitome of “cool”. Wearing his trademark mirrored aviator glasses he launched across the swamp. Alas, he made it only about half-way before the ice opened and both Roger and the bike disappeared. We managed to fish Roger out, but the bike would stay submerged until spring and it just never seemed quite as grand a bicycle after that.
It was the second half of junior high where our relationship with the swamp became one a little less virtuous than the carefree days old old. It became one of the nearby places we could slink off to and smoke purloined cigarettes, explode illegal fireworks, try out marijuana I would imagine and generally be dickheads. Our time there declined rapidly as options for transportation other than our feet or bicycles began to appear - hormone levels began to skyrocket and interest in spending time with girls no longer had anything to do with catching frogs - even though they would continue to consider many of us as frogs for some time to come.
By high school our relationship with the swamp was mostly just driving by it often and more often than not I would crack a smile over one memory or another. Times had changed - so had our needs, desires and interests - we had outgrown the swamp - but it was still damn nice to know it was there.
As I said earlier I haven’t spent a hell of a lot of time in Tacoma over the past 46 years - just little bits and pieces here and there. As both of my parents are buried there and the fact that my best friend lives there - sort of - I’ve spent more time there the past 5 years than I had for the preceding 40 years. Of course things have changed - a million things have changed.
At the swamp almost nothing hasn’t changed. Oh sure - they leveled out the piles of dirt that contractors had illegally dumped near the street entrance - made a little parking lot - and erected a sign proclaiming that it was now a nature area but that seems to be about it.
I’m actually damm glad it’s a nature preserve - while I’m just cantankerous enough to piss and moan that they’ve done nothing but put lipstick on a pig - that it is still nothing but the Fircrest Swamp - if even one more kid can grow up loving this 28 acres like I did - discovering the “wildness” of it surrounded by a much denser neighborhood than I ever lived in - it is worth it. I grew up in a time when we could take such places for granted - of course the swamp would always be there - now days we better make damn sure we do our best to preserve all of the green spaces that we have remaining in cities - in my world it’s a fundamental right!
peace be with you - Hendo.