August 6, 2015.
It was a scorching hot day in Philadelphia. Handfuls of children sought refuge from the heat in the public fountains scattered throughout the historic city. As they jumped and dove and splashed and swam and danced and squealed and laughed and played in the cool water, they were the embodiment of freedom, they were free, they were free—something many, if not most, of us only know as a lofty ideal. There was a sense of beautiful irreverence, a proclamation of the now, an unintentional announcement of their presence in their carefree acts of swimming and playing in the fountains, most of which are remnants of an antiquated past. Their young, uninhibited bodies inhabiting, and juxtaposed to, the monuments of a time forgone was altogether alluring and haunting, both sacred and sacrilege, all at once and in the most wonderful way.
Those kids were free.
On Eakins Oval, two—more adventurous—teenage boys climbed up into the large bowl that served as the second tier of an enormous fountain. Their wet, bare, dark brown bodies glistened in the sun like jewels. There, on the upper level of the fountain, possibly perceived as “off limits,” there was an extra degree of liberty and protest in their play. They had conquered the fountain. For that moment, they ruled the world, if only the world as they knew it in that moment. They were free. Their expression of freedom was unapologetic. And their freedom was either infuriating or contagious to those who observed it.
I watched in awe.
One of the boys, possibly bored of that exploit or ready for the next, decided to return back down to the lower level of the fountain. His friend helped him down, tightly gripping his arms as his body hung and swung over the pool below. Every taut muscle in his friend’s back and arms were revealed as the other boy’s body swayed like a pendulum, his dangling toes still a good several feet from the lower pool. And suddenly, with some sort of inaudible command, his friend released his arms, and the boy’s body dropped and, with a splash, disappeared into the water below.
Still on top of the world, his friend stood up in the upper pool and slapped the water around, splashing it from right-to-left, left-to-right. He looked up at the towering statue in the distance, a statue of General George Washington—America’s first president, a slave owner, a soldier kitted-out in a Revolutionary War uniform, riding a massive, brawny horse. The boy cocked his head to the side as he walked backwards, backing up to the center of the fountain, approaching the spout that was powerfully spewing a strong, straight stream of water ten-to-twenty feet in the air. Eyes still locked on the statue, with a sense of defiance and genuine intent in his movement, the young man leaned back against the stream of water, sending it spraying in every direction except its intended course.
The powerful stream of water was no match for the boy’s strength. The spray fanned out like a giant peacock train, each bead of flying water using the light of the sun to capture a different color of the rainbow. For several seconds, or maybe even minutes that felt caught-up in some sort of timelessness, the young man used his force to manipulate the mighty jet, sending the spray all around and beneath, to the concrete that lined the circumference of the fountain, and the grass that met the concrete and extended out into the vast park. Not once did the boy take his eyes off of General George Washington, looking at him in a way that dared the colossal, bronze man to ride his horse over and attempt to stop him.
Frozen, stuck in time, General George Washington had no response for the boy. After a few seconds of what seemed like the boy making sure his adversary had no final objection, he stood up straight, releasing the water back to its regular flow. Still with an uninterrupted gaze at Washington, the boy stood tall and strong and proud, the water shot up straight behind him, seemingly stronger than before. He was power. He was free. I wondered what he was saying to Washington in his head. And then, without taking his eyes off of Washington, the young man tromped through the water over to the periphery of the upper fountain bowl, hung his upper body over the side, gripped the edge tightly, flipped his body over, swung beneath, let go, dropped and, with a splash, disappeared into the water below.