Labor Day weekend, the traditional end of summer. I don’t need a weatherman or astronomer to tell me when summer is over. I know it always came the week the pools close and we had to go back to school (How about these poor kids that have to go back in mid-August now? Add in a general lack of air-conditioning in public schools, and I think you’ve got two grounds for cruel and unusual punishment.). A few weeks back, an uncle who works for a newspaper in New Jersey sent me an article he wrote. His editor asked his staff to all write something about a summer memory. My uncle wrote about the massive garden my grandfather kept for many years, and having to eat all the fresh vegetables my grandmother put on the table each night. Sounded like a good exercise to me, so I thought of what reminds me of summer most. Two words: swimming pools.
I recall a time when summers weren’t full of weddings, moves, honeymoons, and bridal showers. No, not the summer of 2000, but farther back. In the early 1980s, while I was busy absorbing the pop culture of the age, I would retreat for a month or so to my ancestral lands in glorious south central Kansas. For most of the time, I actually enjoyed being away from the city. It was a completely different world, but since I was staying with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, it wasn’t entirely foreign.
Summers in rural Kansas were idyllic, storybook times. That may sound strange, but they were simple, which is the required element for a good summer when you’re a kid. I knew I would watch The Today Show and The Price is Right every morning. After lunch, my cousins and I would be dropped off at the pool in town. If we had been especially good that morning, we would be allowed to sit in the back of the pickup as my grandmother drove slowly down the dirt roads. It was a 15-minute ride, and we would quiver with anticipation the entire way in. We’d literally jump out of the pickup as soon as grandma brought it to a halt, ignoring our grandmother’s pleas to behave ourselves and vaguely registering the time she promised to return later that afternoon. The hint of chlorine and Coppertone in the air. The fuzzy sound of the piped in radio station. The heat of the concrete on my bare feet. These are the things I remember immediately.
For the next three or four hours, we splashed almost endlessly, chasing each other around the edge of the pool (but not so fast we got yelled at by the lifeguards), dared each other to go off the high dive, and held impromptu races of varying distances. I also remember trying to use my city kid status to impress the high school aged lifeguards. I was the picture of manhood as I parked my skinny, tanned body next to the lifeguard stand to talk to my favorite, Lauren, for hours at a time. Back then, I thought she saw something in me that could cut through the six year age difference. Now I realize she probably thought I was retarded or otherwise impaired and just felt sorry for me. That’s not far from the truth, since I was generally stumbling around half-blind without my glasses on. There was no lower point that talking to some girl for 50 minutes, only to see her frown when I put my glasses on during Adult Swim so I could count out change to get some Laffy Taffy or a chewy Sweet Tart.
Being the city kid did have some advantages. I was never called away from the pool to help with cattle or to work the fields. I was always conflicted when someone I had been throwing the Nerf ball to on the high dive got called away. I was glad I was staying, but also thought it unfair that 12 year olds were asked to give up their summer fun to help adults. Wasn’t that what all the college guys who moved to town for the summer were for? The fact I had actually been to Royals Stadium and seen George Brett in the flesh made me especially popular among the other baseball fans. Despite all our talking about the Royals, we never dared bring our baseball cards to the pool, lest they be ruined in a run-away wave or tossed into the pool by older bullies.
Between 4:30 and 5:00, we would reluctantly wrap ourselves in towels and wait for our rides back to the farms. On the really good nights, when our grandparents, or some other adults had to go into town, we would eat a quick dinner of sandwiches and root beer floats, then pile back into the pickup for the evening hours at the pool. It’s funny to look back and realize that after spending hours in the afternoon sun, we would get a burst of new energy and think it was the greatest thing ever if we had a chance to go back for two more hours at night. Today, if I’m at the pool more than 30 minutes, I quickly doze off and even then have to sleep extra late the next morning.
Sure, there were negatives to being five hours from civilization. There were only three TV channels, all of which were received with inconsistent degrees of clarity. There was the annual “get the city kid on a horse and see what happens” game, in which I inevitably ended up flat on my ass as the horse galloped away. Some summers there would be a decent radio station within range, others I would be stuck listening to nothing but the Royals in the evening. (The story of when I broke down all kinds of musical barriers in my family, ironically with the Footloose soundtrack, is one for another time.) But all things considered, I don’t regret spending five straight summers in America’s outback, where my only excitement came from spending afternoons in overly chlorinated water.
Today when I go to a pool (a very rare occasion) I worry about if I’m burning, if my gut is too big, whether I can get a lounge chair or not, how loud the a-holes on the other side of the pool are being, and so on. When you’re a kid, though, the pool is your social club, work out facility, and sanctuary all in one. I miss being able to go to the pool with that same lack of care and sense of abandon, not realizing or caring how annoyed people were by me flying off the edge of the pool to catch a poorly thrown football over-and-over. Memories of summer always include Little League, vacations, chasing girls, and the amazing sense of freedom we had. More than anything, though, the swimming pool is what I think of most when I recall the summers of my childhood.