To generations of kids in Patrick County, Virginia, Fairy Stone State Park might just as well have been Disney World.
While I was growing up about 10 miles from the park, it was always THE place to be on a hot summer day, especially its swimming area and the cold water that beckoned there — similar to what nearby Hanging Rock State Park in Stokes County offers.
We were promised by adults in the household that if we were good, they’d take us swimming — and yet we still always ended up going to that wonderful place with its pristine lake and a sandy beach filled with sunbathers.
Since my folks were sadists, the visit to the park usually included a picnic lunch there before the swimming began. Which was accompanied by the dreaded standing order that we couldn’t set foot in the lake until one hour after the meal, because otherwise you’d have abdominal cramps and drown — supposedly even in water only 3 feet deep.
And I’m here to tell you that those were the longest hours I ever spent.
It was as if some God-like figure was peering down while checking his watch and saying “no, it’s only been 55 minutes, so I’m going to make that kid cramp up like a vise and sink right to the bottom the instant he enters the water.”
Fortunately, we never suffered that cruel fate, but recently my idyllic memories of Fairy Stone State Park were clouded by another kind of threat: E.coli bacteria.
The discovery of elevated levels of that bacteria — some strains of which can cause illnesses — forced the temporary closure of the Fairy Stone swimming area earlier this month. No one there could recall when, or if, such a thing had ever happened, and I know this was never the case in my younger days.
Now, we’ve all heard about hazards along the beaches of Rio de Janeiro — site of the 2016 Summer Olympics — but after all, the waters there are full of raw, straight-piped sewage. From what I understand, the tainted H20 of Rio contains billions of parts per million more bacteria than would be tolerated in places in the U.S., a dangerous, drug-resistant super-bacteria to boot.
Yet even in this country conditions aren’t perfect, as evidenced by increasing problems at public swimming or fishing venues:
• Just this week came a report that a fisherman nearly died due to bacteria in waters off Virginia Beach. Charles Ballard Sr. not only avoided death, but having his leg amputated, after contracting a rare, life-threatening bacterial infection while fishing with his son last month.
He encountered Vibrio vulnificus, which can occur either by getting seawater in an open wound, such as Ballard did, or through eating undercooked seafood.
• In June, a 6-year-old girl from Newport News, Virginia, became afflicted with a severe case of impetigo after visiting Huntington Beach there. Impetigo is common among infants and children and usually appears as red sores on the face, especially around the mouth.
The girl — whose eyes were completely closed shut and face, neck and arms became swollen — had committed the innocent but dastardly act of going swimming with a scratch on her face.
And such cases are not just a Virginia phenomenon, as my crack research team of Curious George and Associates also uncovered troubling incidents at other locations. These have been reflected in headlines such as:
• “Swimmers getting sick from bacteria in water,” surrounding a July 6 report about conditions in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina;
• “Man swimming at Texas beach catches flesh-eating bacteria” (from June 27);
• “Bladen County (North Carolina) officials testing White Lake for ties to skin rash outbreak” (reported Friday);
• And many others that can’t be accommodated by space limitations.
However, I never, ever would have imagined Fairy Stone State Park being closed to swimming due to a bacterial issue — a venue in the middle of nowhere with no industries, livestock farms or people nearby.
I guess it must be like a zombie apocalypse, in that no place is safe.
The official explanation for the Fairy Stone situation is that recent heavy rains had caused an increased runoff of pollutants into streams feeding the lake.
All the scientific reasons aside, it just goes to show you that nothing is sacred, and I can’t blame parents if they hesitate in taking their kids to Fairy Stone State Park even though the lake allegedly is safe now.
Maybe those who do venture there should bring along a chemist to test the water during that post-meal hour when kids are forbidden to swim.
Tom Joyce is a staff writer for The Mount Airy News. He may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.