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A fossil dives back in

Forget the calendar. When I was a boy growing up in the Midwest, the real evidence of summer was circumstantial: the last school bell, the first stubbed toe, watermelon on a paper plate, turning the crank to make ice cream on Granny's front step.

But for this kid, and I suspect many others, summer did not officially begin until I went to the public pool and took the first jump off the diving board. The high dive.

Two decades have passed since I last made the long plunge. As I stood on the deck at Fossil Park pool in St. Petersburg one recent afternoon, it all came flooding back: The chubby kid (that's me) climbing slippery steps, tiptoeing to the end of what seemed very much like a plank, with the eyes of everyone there boring in. Finally, the leap of faith _ with a prayer that it wouldn't end in the dreaded bellywhopper.

I was never one of the fearless, those chlorinated James Deans who, their cut-offs frayed and hanging from bony hips, would swagger up the ladder, ignore the lifeguards' admonition against double bounces and cut effortless flips through the sky. Still, I relished that first jump. It was the first breath of summer, warm with possibility, quick with danger. No more school clothes or trips to the principal's office. Even if you didn't dare to bounce twice, there was comfort in knowing you could, and the lifeguard couldn't do a thing to stop you. You were totally, breathlessly, free.

Breathless would be the word to describe me climbing the steps to the big board at Fossil Park more recently, a man trying to revisit a boy's rite of passage. As I walked out onto the narrow board, the world swayed and lurched. Heart hammering and knees wobbling, I crept to the edge and peered over. Below, far below, the blue water beckoned. I jumped.

Hey, that wasn't so bad. Exhilarated, I strode out on the board, did a jaunty little bounce and jumped again. Another bounce, and a head-first dive, decidedly graceless, but at least I wasn't in traction. I contemplated a somersault.

Nah. Why rush things? It's summer.

Jeffrey Good is a Times editorial writer.