John Richards was sitting in a canvas chair on the grassy edge of Allen Pond, his hands knotted in his lap, a weather-beaten cap tipped low over his forehead and a fishing pole lodged at his feet. He said he was 38, stepfather of two, and an Army recruiter on a week's leave from work.
He said he had seen much of the world in his time, from the Pacific Coast to Europe, but nowhere had he ever found a place quite like Allen Pond. As his brown eyes glanced beyond the red and white float on his fishing line to the children, geese and mallards across the way, he tried to explain what he meant.
"The place has a kind of mystery to it," Richards said. "The peace and quiet get to you. A few months ago a big motorcycle gang roared up in the parking lot, but an amazing thing happened. They took one look at the pond, the lillies and ducks, and all of a sudden they calmed down. They laid back in the sun and kept quiet for hours -- almost out of respect, it seemed."
Richards paused a moment. "That's what this place is about," he said. "There's no trouble here."
There are no street signs telling you how to get to Allen Pond, a tiny body of water on the southern fringe of Bowie, a middle-class town of 33,000. Even if a detailed map is handy, it's not an easy place to find. To get there a driver has to motor through Prince George's County's suburban sprawl, find a street called Northview in Bowie, and follow signs leading to the Bowie Ice Rink.
There, behind the rink, is the pond, 10 acres of serene and placid water stocked with bass and bluegill, an unlikely oasis where lovers meet in a gazebo atop an island hill overlooking the pond, where mothers picnic on the grass with children, and old men play checkers and chess on tables and chairs set amid tiger lillies and heather.
If Claude Monet were alive, he might well find inspiration here on a quiet Monday afternoon on the far eastern edge of Prince George's. A small, arching footbridge connecting the shore to an island in the pond's center seems not unlike the Japanese footbridge and water garden the master impressionist painted at Giverny. There are, as well, the lilly pads he became obsessed with in his last years.
But mainly at Allen Pond there are the impressions of light, shadow, people and color, impressions that Monet was famous for.
On weekdays the pace and rhythm of life at Allen Pond return to normalcy after weekends filled with bike riders, boaters, fishermen and picnickers. With few human hands around to feed them, the squirrels return to the sycamores and maples, while the ducks and Canada geese retire to the center of the pond.
It's the sort of place where work and stress seem far away. "I was here over the weekend and just decided I deserved another day off," said a young, dark-haired man who was listening to jazz over a portable radio, while reading a paperback novel near the footbridge. He declined to give his name, explaining that his boss would surely find out that he had lied about coming down with the flu. "I'm supposed to meet a friend here later on," he said. "She called in sick, too."
On the other side of the pond, a vacationing 29-year-old mailman and his 5-year-old son were fishing beneath a willow. "Reel it in, Dorrien, reel it in," Danny Bell said, as his son, his eyes wide with astonishment, pulled the tiny bluegill to the bank of the pond. He stared at it a moment, then ran his tiny hand up and down the side of the fish, as his father explained the bluegill's anatomy. His father said, "Now, throw it back in, Dorrien, before he dies," and Dorrien did, squinting into the brownish-blue water as the bluegill disappeared beneath a lily pad.
Allen Pond is for the faithful. Ask picnickers or fishermen how long they have been going there, and more often than not the answer will come back six or seven years. Even the animal life seems faithful. The pond had never seen Canada geese until several years ago when a family of them arrived, one suffering from an infected wing. Park attendants mended the wing, and the geese, according to attendant Stanley Jones, have been sojorning here each summer since.
But no one at Allen Pond seemed to know much about its history. Jones, barefoot and clad in shorts, suggested a visit to the Bowie public library might turn up something. A librarian rummaged through a vertical file filled with local history, but there was nothing about Allen Pond. "Try the Bowie Blade," she said. "They might know something."
A news aide answering the phone at the Blade and News, Bowie's weekly newspaper, couldn't remember anything written about Allen Pond. "But hold on a minute," she said. "I'll ask some of the old-timers around here." A moment later she returned to the phone and sighed, saying, "Sorry. Try City Hall. They might be able to help."
At City Hall, office workers in planning, water, and community development didn't know much about Allen Pond or its history, either. Finally, a gray-haired receptionist said, "The only thing I could suggest is the recreation department. Maybe somebody there will know."
Luckily, Catherine Posey was in. She was a brown-haired woman and the name plate on her desk said, Park Naturalist. "Actually, I'm more of a park manager," she said. "I manage the two city-owned parks here, White Marsh and Allen Pond." She explained that Allen Pond is an 85-acre park, about a third of which has been developed in recent years. It includes several ball fields and picnic areas, in addition to the pond itself.
Aquatic life includes four species of fish: bass, bluegill, pumpkin seed fish, and catfish. "We've tried stocking it with trout in the spring, but we found they die off when the weather warms because the pond is shallow."
In the fall, she said, an effort will be made to correct an imbalance in the fish population at the pond. "Way too many pumpkin seed," she explained. "We'll use a fish toxicant to poison the pumpkin seed. That'll give more room to the bass and bluegill and allow them to grow bigger."
Then Posey handed over a xerox copy of the only history available of Allen Pond. It was an old newspaper clipping from a local newspaper, headlined, "Who was Mr. Allen and Why Is A Pond Named After Him?" In short, the article explained that James A. Allen was a Mitchellville tobacco and cattle farmer who moved to Bowie in 1910. An avid fisherman, Allen dug himself a pond and stocked it with bass and bluegill. The pond eventually became so popular among local folk that Allen began charging visitors 50 cents a head to fish there. But Allen, the article went on, was a staunch teetotaler who didn't like having to pick up after the wine- and beer-drinking fisherfolk, and he soon closed the pond to the public.
In the early 1960s, Allen sold his 200-acre farm to a developer and retired, according to the article, "with $500,000 to an estate on the Eastern Shore," where he died in 1978.
Posey explained that Allen's old fishing hole is now owned and maintained by the city of Bowie, which, after much debate over environmental impact, has given a go-ahead to another local developer, the 437 Land Company, to develop vacant areas surrounding the pond into single-family and multi-family homes.
To the young couples, checkers players, fishermen and bike riders who gathered at Allen Pond Monday afternoon, however, that debate over land development seemed to be as distant as Giverny. On the bandstand, a lone little girl in shorts and a tank top practiced pirouettes, as her mother watched and mallards quacked. Nearby, among the tiger lillies, an old man slapped one red checker atop another and let loose a victory cry that echoed through the willows. And on the opposite bank, as sunlight shimmered across the water's surface, two boys in cutoffs, fishing poles in hand, cheered their good fortune after reeling in a green and yellow wide-mouth bass.