Sunday, July 04, 2010

Pool Boy, Part Two

As a rookie in 1961 I was fortunate to fall under the influence of two lifeguards who put up with me and taught me everything I needed to know about running a pool. For a summer they gave me the illusion of having two - quite different - older brothers.

Carl was the Manager. He was quick with a smile, always in good humor, and full of stories - some repeatable. With Carl a bit of mischief was never far away. His recipes for Purple Jesus and other like refreshments served me well in college. He seemed to enjoy life, good times, and working at the pool; but he took being a lifeguard very seriously. For you girls from Chase City who would like to see Carl without his shirt just one more time...

Carl & the Community Park

Andy, the other lifeguard, was the smart one. Of the three of us, he was the most quiet, the one who seemed to be always thinking about something. Yet ever so often he would hold forth at volume and length, sometimes on topics neither Carl nor I fully appreciated. I remember one extended monologue about the Infinite, a topic that seldom came to my mind in those days. Another morning he mused as to why men had nipples, again searching for answers to questions no one else seemed to be asking. He drove an ancient, black, Model A Ford that bounced and rattled as if it was going to fly apart as it approached the speed limit; the faster it went, the bigger his smile. But sometimes that smile seemed to be coming from someplace far away. No surprise, he became Dr. Andy, a professor of psychology and university administrator.

For what I learned that summer I should have been paying to work there.

Much work around the pool, as I said, was custodial. We had to keep the water clean and chlorinated. The grass needed to be cut, the trash picked up, the changing rooms and toilets cleaned. But once the door opened our attention turned to the customers, mainly the youth of Chase City. Grownups actually in the pool were a rarity. At its most basic we were supposed to keep the children from drowning, hurting themselves or each other, and following the pool rules. Other than that they were free to have as good a time as their imaginations would allow. Being a lifeguard turned out to be great preparation for my years as a teacher and principal.

Precious little swimming goes on in your average public swimming pool. They are wet, dangerous playgrounds. Usually when children injured themselves it was because they slipped and fell down. The consequences of running on wet concrete are thoughts which seldom rises into the consciousness of young people. Thus our customers were always in motion, often screaming for no apparent reason. One loss of balance or unusually rowdy incident and stories would be told at dinner tables around town that evening. A major thread within these narratives was how the lifeguards handled the situation. For as we were watching the children, parents were watching us. One learned to be easy with the whistle, quick with the stare, and plentiful with the "Yes, Sirs," and Yes, Ma'ams."

I learned from Carl and Andy one could not watch everyone all the time. Accordingly patrons were divided into two rough categories: Swimmers and Drowners. Because we tended to see the same children throughout the summer, lifeguards quickly knew how well most of the town's children could swim, who was getting in over their heads, literally or figuratively. Thus, we naturally focused our attention as we scanned the pool on those most likely to sink. Strangers required special attention until we could tell how well they could swim. Made-for-YouTube moments like jumping into the pool and pulling out someone were seldom called for. In fact, if you were doing your job, incidents like that could be avoided by intervening early with a struggling swimmer. Only once in my two years on the stand did I need to jump in and pull out swimmers as the Red Cross classes trained me to do.

Brothers I had never seen before joined a crowded pool one week-end. The elder was about 13 or 14, the other about 9. Both were weak swimmers, but seemed not to know it. It was that second observation that bothered me; they became Drowners. About an hour after they arrived the older brother jumped off the diving board. His little brother jumped in behind as he came up. He swallowed some water, panicked, and grabbed his older brother from behind, knees gripping his back, arms tight around his throat. The older brother gurgled and both sank like a stone. By this time I was already going down the lifeguard stand. It was too late for Reach or Throw; it was time to Go.

I found them at the bottom hardly moving. I approached from behind. Grabbing the younger boy underneath his armpits, I used my feet to pry him off his brother. Rising to the surface I pushed him to the side of the pool. By then the older brother had bobbed up. I pulled him to the side also. Bystanders helped them out of the water while I took the pool ladder. As I walked by I squatted down and calmly suggested they take a break for a while before going back in. The normally noisy pool had become almost silent. Someone handed me my prescription sunglasses which had gone flying. As I climbed back up the stand and started to towel off I felt people staring at me. Then, as things were getting back to normal for everyone else, I noticed my legs were starting to shake, my knees felt like jelly. My breathing was shallow and more rapid. No telling what my pulse was like. Patsy, the other lifeguard, came by to take her shift. I waived her off for a few minutes until the adrenalin rush subsided. I was not sure if my legs would take me down the stand.

If that incident was the high point of my career as a lifeguard, the low point would occur soon after, one morning before the pool opened.


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