Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pool Boy, Part Three

My memories of days spent at the Chase City Community Park pool were triggered this spring by my current role helping maintain the community pool where I live. Yes, I am a pool boy again. No lifeguard responsibilities this time, no pay, just volunteer pool maintenance and cleanup.

Some things have changed in 50 years, others have not. There are many more rules to ensure the public a safe pool. On balance, a good thing. The public, however, has changed little. That subset of unnecessarily messy adults and their annoying brats are still with us.

As our pool season ends this week, it is time to bring this mini-series to a close with a first person account of the most memorable morning in my lifeguard career.

At Deercroft we routinely test the pool water every morning for five or six chemical attributes. To keep the water safe and pleasant we have a variety of chemicals that can be added to maintain acceptable parts per million of whatever. In the early '60s all we had were 55 gallon drums of granulated chlorine (probably calcium hypochlorite), a bucket, a simple ph test kit that always seem to register the same results, and the burning eyes of small children.

Working drums of chlorine were kept in the concession area near the basket racks. Every morning one of us would place a bucket next to the drum, remove the metal lid, and, with a new paper cup that would otherwise be used for vending soft drinks, would fill the bucket. After closing the drum and throwing away the cup, the chlorine would be dumped into the pool, rendering the water bit more sanitary than before. This procedure had been passed on from one lifeguard to another for years. Old drums would be recycled as trashcans around the Park, although we would have not used the word recycle back then. We kept one such inside the concession stand on the other side. No problem.

There were, even in those days, warning labels on the drums, lots of small print basically advising care should be taken to keep contaminants out of the chlorine. Bad things could happen. No problem.

This particular morning I opened the drum to find a cup already lying in the chlorine. That sometimes happened; one of us would forget to throw away a used cup. This morning, in the interest of time or laziness, I picked up that cup, scooped some chlorine, and began filling the bucket. After about three scoops as I reached down into the drum a glob of something fell out of the cup and into the chlorine. It started to pulse a bit and then took on a deep blue glow. I bent over into the half-full drum, to get a closer look at the electric color. Within a few seconds a wisp of white began to rise from the glob, almost like smoke. The blue glob became yellow/red around the edges. Marveling, I stood up and turned, calling to Patsy, my fellow lifeguard. I wanted her to see this!

Patsy, who was already in the concession stand, started to walk toward me. Then she stopped mid-stride. Her face froze, her considerable tan started to blanch. For a moment I wondered why she had stopped. Then I heard and felt what was happening beside me. I turned to see large globs of white exploding from the drum shooting towards the ceiling; there was heat, smoke, the smell of chlorine, and a roar coming from the drum.

We probably set some sort of record for vacating the premises. I took the short way over the countertop, I think. For maybe a minute we just watched as molten chlorine was ejected into the concession stand all the way to the roof. Boxes of snacks stored above the shelves starting smoldering. I had never seen a volcano, but this was close enough.

Snapping out of my daze I ran to hook up the water hose. Soon a spray of water had joined the finally diminishing chlorine being ejected from the drum. I noticed the drum had turned black from the heat, the warning labels burned to a crisp. Layers of white chlorine smoke filled the concession stand.

When the drum had stopped erupting we carefully went back inside. Any danger of fire had passed, although the wet white globs were still too hot to touch. Having determined that this morning’s events were beyond keeping to ourselves, I headed for the phone. My father was president of the Community Park that year, I would call him.

The phone had been very close to the drum. It was a standard black, rotary dial phone. The black plastic was now melted. Salvador Dali would have been pleased. I picked up the still warm receiver with two fingers. A dial tone. God bless Western Electric. The only number I could remember was my own, so I called home. I told mother with as much cool as I could muster that there had been a chlorine accident at the pool and to call dad. It was a very short conversation as I was determined to clean up as much as I could before he could get there. I already had some practice at this. Besides, it was close to noon and we opened at 1. Then the fire truck arrived.

Living in a small town has its advantages. Keeping bad news quiet is not one of them. A neighbor had seen the smoke and called the fire department. Under most circumstances I would have been happy to see them. Except we had no fire and all this mess was both my responsibility and my fault. About the time they were turning to leave, a little disappointed it seemed to me, my father arrived. The place looked pretty rough.

After explaining that no one was injured, there was no lasting damage, and we would get the place ready to open on time (I was probably talking REAL fast) I noticed that I was having problems breathing. The harder I tried, the worse it got. I then thought of the chlorine gas I had been breathing and something about WW1. Keeping cool - I was a lifeguard after all - I walked down to the pool to lay down, trying to make it easier for anything in my lungs to leave. While I was doing that, my father walked about assessing the damage. After about 5 minutes I stood up, pronounced myself cured, and grabbed a broom and tried to look busy.

Dad left, in character, saying little. We cleaned up and opened at 1. The place still smelled like chlorine, there were charred boxes to dispose of, and there were - and a few years ago remained - scorch marks on the wooden ceiling. For the remainder of the day and that summer season I answered questions about the incident. Using glass coke bottles I even replicated the chemical reaction on a small scale for the amusement of small children. The phone company guy replaced the phone, no questions asked.

What had happened was easy to reconstruct. Someone had mistaken the working drum of chlorine for a trash can and tossed in a cup with a small amount of a soft drink still in it. It had landed so the liquid was still in the cup when I started scoping the next day. I had mistaken the cup for a dry one used the previous day, never considering what might be inside. I had had only a short window of time to scoop out the glob as it smoldered, but I played empiricist. Had I not decided to share my discovery my head might have been still in the drum when it erupted violently. Remember children, it is nice to share.

I did not bother applying for a job at the pool the next year; it was time to move on. So I spent the next summer packing blue jeans at a local cut and sew factory. More money, much less pleasant working conditions, and extra motivation when I left for college that fall.

I don’t remember visiting the Community Park pool much thereafter. After I went away to college I devoted summers to seasonal jobs, summer school, and golf - not necessary in that order. Our local country club by then had built a small pool which satisfied any aquatic desires I had. But to this day I cannot visit a pool without looking about for drowners, wondering about what kind of filter system it uses, and where they store their chlorine.

The Community Park pool closed sometime in the 1970’s. The circumstances of its closing has been mercifully forgotten as it likely reflected the unsettled racial politics of the times. It was soon filled in, the diving pool corner later excavated and used to expand the adjacent baseball diamonds. The Bathhouse/Concession stand still stands, renovated for storage, recenty painted but a bit worse for neglect.

Here are some photos I took this past summer. The first photo was taken from the approximate location of the lifeguard stand. CCCP 3The small addition on the west (left) side of the building is a storage room was built after that fateful summer in 1962, mainly to safely store chlorine. I doubt anyone thought to name it after me.

CCCP 1The second photo shows the little remaining evidence of the pool. In the foreground is the area where the baby pool was and a small fragment of concrete apron. The baseball field is to the right.

Finally, below is the portal through which a generation of Chase City youth once streamed to learn to swim, hang out with their buddies, show off, and blissfully wile away summer afternoons. Few now remember how much has been lost.