Southern Illinois was poor. Southern Illinois was hillbilly. Chicago is a far away land that has nothing to do with Southern Illinois, other than that's the place where Dad used to sell his moonshine.

As kids, we needed places to play. Places to discover adventure. Places filled with danger. Thankfully, such places surrounded us.

We used to swim in the strip ponds. The good strip ponds. A strip pond used to be a strip mine, which has now filled with water. Nobody, but nobody, ever even considered so much as dipping a hand into the bad strip ponds.

The bad strip ponds had red or yellow water, depending on the poisons it contained. Trees around bad strip ponds were long since dead. Strange red streams poured from bad strip ponds, highly acidic from sulfur or boron. Poorly placed abandoned vehicles sometimes stuck out of the surface. You could throw a frog into a bad strip pond, and he would kick maybe three times, then just float, dead as a doornail. Hell no, I ain't going in there. Visit the bad strip ponds once or twice, like the lairs of dragons, but don't even touch them. Go to the good strip ponds for fun.

A good strip pond has a shaky, collapsing highwall near the edge where you can jump in. A good strip pond has some relatively stable slope near the edge where you can climb back out. Strip ponds run notoriously deep - 60 feet or more in sheer drops, which to a kid is as good as a mile. Unseen ledges, often sharp, are in all strip ponds, so that wise, worldly children can learn of their placement and warn newcomers. Strip ponds are unnaturally cold, even on the hot summer days when the bugs just won't stop buzzing. How deep down can you dive, brave boy? Can you come back up with a handful of dirt? Did your ears pop?

A good strip pond has deaths associated with it. Billy Joe's uncle Tony died swimming here as a boy. Billy Joe's granddad died digging this hole. Good strip ponds are haunted. Just ask Dad, he can tell you all you want to know about it.

A good strip pond still has partially salvaged husks of gigantic mining equipment nearby. This equipment, long since abandoned by the Palzo Mining Company, the Stonefort Mining Company, the Peabody Mining Company, or some other Southern Illinois failure, becons to your youth. Gigantic chains, each link three feet long and weighing hundreds of pounds, snake around each other. Black tarry soot and grease cover the tracks and cables. You can sometimes sit in what was once a drivers seat, and stare at the incomprehensible levers and switches. Graffiti fills your head with knowledge of past lusts and liasons and hatreds.

You can imagine strange beasts lurking in the bottoms of such depths. These imaginings are fed by the real beasts sometimes pulled from the strip ponds with fishing line - ancient snapping turtles as big as manhole covers, four foot long catfish, covered with slime and smelling like refuse.

Girls would sometimes, ever so rarely, come to the good strip ponds. Wild with the imagined possibilities, we boys would grow ever braver when girls came by. Running madly down slippery slopes into still waters. Wrestling and holding your buddy underwater until he bubbles. Never once did I see a girl get in the strip ponds. They had no death wish, I suppose.

Reclamation is the word of the day, in this modern age. Reclamation of old mining land does wonders. It can actually take the horrid scars of land and turn it into a soft, beautiful natural wonderland, with streams and wildlife. Reclamation is expensive though. Reclamation takes time.

Fly into Marion, Illinois sometime. Take the little puddle jumper from St. Louis, Missouri. Don't worry about being able to see, every seat is both the aisle and the window. As you come in for your approach, look out at the shiny pools of deep water, red and yellow and crystal blue. So many people died to build them for you, the least you can do is admire their stark beauty.

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