Swimming was the only thing I cared about when I was eight. We had a big public pool in our neighborhood but you had to be nine to go swimming on your own. So, I remember watching the kids through the mesh fencing as they laughed, splashed, jumped and dove their way through the summer. The school year was even slower than most but as with all things summer finally arrived once again.
The pool offered “free swim” from eleven in the morning until noon and then you could return from one in the afternoon until nine in the evening for twenty-five cents. I knew it was going to be a problem getting the quarters every day but I had saved enough for the first week. I had one main drawback; I couldn’t swim. I couldn’t go in any water deeper than three feet which was at the shallow end of the pool. It didn’t take long to get bored plus, all my friends already knew how to swim and were diving off the diving boards as well as the side of the pool in the deep end.
I had begged my parents for swimming lessons but they were very poor and just couldn’t afford it.
I hatched a plan. What I covertly did was to go to the six foot mark which was a full foot over my head. If I was detected by a lifeguard as a non-swimmer, I would be asked to swim “across and back”. Failure to do so would result in automatic expulsion from the pool for a week.
I started by jumping off the side of the pool holding on to the gutter with my right hand and then when I surfaced, I would pull myself up along the wall. I would then move down the side to the shallow end ladder; crawl out; then go back and repeat the process.
Little by little I moved further and further out. During this process I discovered how to “bob”. If I went under water and pushed off the bottom as hard as I could, and, then, when I resurfaced, let myself go back to the bottom and push off again, I could control moving through the water at the speed and direction I wanted to go. This allowed me to go anywhere in the pool without being able to maintain any kind of stroke.
I loved that pool so much. It was huge. As I said it had an aluminum mesh fence all around. The water was crystal blue. There was a large concrete walk all the way around the pool where everyone stretched on their towels. Kids would run and jump in the water performing a “cannonball” or a “jackknife” in order to splash the kids on the “shore”. Everything smelled like chlorine.
The pool went from three feet deep on the shallow end to ten feet deep on the deep end and, on the deep end there were three dives. Two dives were three feet above the water and the high dive which was ten feet above the water. The high dive towered in the middle of the end of the pool like a hovering presence flanked on each side by the lower dives which served as stepping stones to the ultimate challenge.
One day as I jumped out in preparation to “bob”, I accidentally began to move my hands in a digging motion. I had taught myself to “dog paddle”. It wasn’t long until I learned some strokes and was able to swim. As I watched other kids I mastered first the low and then the high dives. Swimming gave me all the freedom and fun I knew it would, and, it was all thanks to that big public pool.
It’s funny. There used to be a pool in about every nook and cranny of the city where I live. Then, in the name of progress, pools were consolidated to create so-called “strategically located swim centers”. They’re huge but difficult for everyone to get to.
I remember walking home from the pool with a little water in my ear. My skin was tight and warm from a day in the sun. I would stop and get a “Green River” from a confectionary on my way home and once there would go straight to sleep for a couple of hours. It felt wonderful. I was always ready to repeat the process the next day.
Our public swimming pool wasn’t only a recreational facility; it was a place where kids who had nothing could go. It was a social meeting place. It was ahead of it’s time in that it brought many cultures together.
Perhaps the biggest thing the swimming pool did for me, however, was give me a memory that I’ll cherish forever.