There were many summers in recent years that for me did not involve much swimming at the public pool. And having grown up living at the pool during my youth, it felt bittersweet one mid-August day to show up at a pool that was almost deserted. All but the last guards had departed for college. The tanned moms and their rugrats were even thin in ranks. I paddled around for an hour or so wondering where the summer went.
But this year is different. Our local swimming pool is just a mile from my house and even closer to my art studio. It’s still hard to find time to swim, but my membership paid in full is enough incentive to get over there and do it. I’m training to swim a few events in open water, and need time in the pool to get ready.
Our local watering hole is known as Quarry Pool because that’s what the foundation is built upon, an old limestone quarry. The pool was built with government money back in the 30s when infrastructure investments put people to work. As a result, our nation got wonderful park facilities and roads through the mountains though public works projects. Those benefits remain to this day.
At the entrance to the pool, there’s even a long history of how and why the limestone quarried there was formed. The sign talks about the geological history of Illinois and how the limestone that built all kinds of structures in town was originally formed. Thus the history of our community in Batavia, Illinois, is inextricably tied to the land upon which it sits. The buildings that once housed windmill factories now still stand with proud faces made from the tint of the earth and rock below. That history keeps us grounded in many respects.
One could call the Quarry Pool quaint, for it is a throwback to times when public pools were not so sophisticated, or safe. Yet there are still zero depth sections of the pool where younger children can wander in. And there are very few public pools where large quantities of sand form the perimeter. It’s a rather honest place. Not too fancy. Just right.
The sand that forms the botrom of the pool does mean the water gets a bit murky by end of day. I you go swimming then, the water will not look crystal clear the way it does upstream at the Geneva or St. Charles public pools. But that makes it perfect to practice open water swimming for the lakes where I do triathlons.
Truth be told, the gritty side of the water is a reflection of the fact that Batavia’s always had a bit of working man’s flair to it. The pool is a reflection of that humble side. Significantly, it still has a very high diving platform. Generations of kids have faced the fear of jumping twenty feet down into the deep waters below. That rite of passage is not to be found any longer at public pools across the country. Too much risk and downside. That’s why diving boards and platforms across the land have been removed.
The high dive of youth
But in Batavia, you can still see an eight-year-old kid that has just passed the Swimming Test stand on top of that platform with trepidation and joy. From up there, the world looks small. The collection of moms across the pool lolling on beach chairs may not notice you, but with luck your own mother or father might be watching that first jump off the platform.
As the kids age, they form into bands of boys and girls reveling in their summer skin. The girls wear increasingly small swimsuits and the boys admire them. Yet among all that there are also likely boys that secretly admire the bodies of other boys, and girls who feel the same way about girls. Those summers in the middle school years can be confusing times for youth whose orientation is not heterosexual. Just imagine those who live with a transgender reality in their genes, and their jeans. The swimming pool is no easy place.
Yet at its most basic level, the public pool accepts them all. The water knows and demands no difference in who dives in. Yet society too often demands a baptism of choice against nature. You’re not normal if you take a dip in your own urgings.
The same goes for race, and Batavia’s public pool is at least an integrated place. We’re largely free from bans on skin color these days, and the population in the Fox Valley has diversified over the years. That means the shining brown bodies of black children and Latinos are an avid part of the population at Batavia’s pool. Yet there are noticeable absences. Where are the black girls and Latino girls? There are some young kids from that background but by the time middle school comes around, that segment of the population seems to disappear at the public pool.
Stay in your lanes
Into these waters one dives. The nation is wrestling with its own version of the public pool. Entire populations seeking justice are clamoring toward the deep ends of the Republican and Democratic conventions. Too often they are denied access by the lane ropes or even at the admission gate.
Indeed, all of us are swimming in rough waters, these days. But that’s exactly why I go to the public pool to swim laps. The waves created by dozens of kids jumping in and out of the lap lanes closely resemble the chaos at the start of a triathlon. In order to practice for those circumstances, you need a bit of disturbance in the water. It helps me practice sighting as I go, the better to avoid collisions and keep on course.
As the laps go by, a lifeguard stands watch over the pool. Like so many other lifeguards in so many other summers, she is lovely beyond description. Through my swim goggles she appears above the water like a summer statue, lithe and tan. Her legs look extra long from pool level. Her face is cast straight ahead.
To her I am invisible, an old guy swimmer who seems to know what he’s doing. Her job is to keep watch for those who don’t.
At a certain age, men should become invisible to girls her age. We are fathers, not people of their age to whom they should be attracted. It is, therefore, the job for Men of a Certain Age to essentially ignore the bodies of the young women at the beach or pool.
Yet we all know that’s impossible. Call it the Baywatch Syndrome. The red suits worn by female lifeguards are clarion calls for attention. The girls must know this is true. And as the guard walked away to the next post while I bobbed in the water between swim laps, I could not help noticing that her form was so classic one ait almost made me laugh.
And let’s be honest: it’s the same gig among mother’s admiring the strong young shoulders of the male lifeguards at the pool. The glances may be more discreet, but they are still real imaginings. And largely harmless. We’re human. Get over it.
A few years back, perhaps 25 or so, a friend called to warn me that the guards at our public pool that summer were particularly lovely. “Don’t do it,” he warned. “Don’t go there. You won’t survive.” We both laughed.
And he was absolutely right. The guards were stunning, all tanned and shaking blonde and brunette and red hair in the sun.
It’s an amusing fact that the public pool has its own perpetual brand of pornography on display. It doesn’t matter what the guards wear or do not wear. Human imagination is far more powerful than that. Lust ruled the beach and pool long before swimsuits shrank to nothing and buttocks were given the right to full public display. The sight of an ankle, then a calf, then a thigh was enough in the “old days” to send eyes reeling. What we see now is the progression of honesty, over time.
We have arrived at the point in social progress where it should not really matter what anyone wears to the beach or the pool. The rational thinkers among us have learned to acknowledge that the human body is what it is. Certainly, triathletes know this better than most. The act of swimming is a piece of in-your-face self-expression. Men swim with women and everyone is an equal in the water. The water cares not what type of body parts you have. The water swarms around you no matter what shape or size your body may be.
At an event called Madison Open Water Swim that equality is put on display like no other. There are extremely heavy swimmers whose bodies roll with fat. And guess what? That can actually be somewhat of an advantage in the water! buoyancy helps! It makes you realize why some creatures in evolutionary history waded back into the water, and stayed. Indeed, dolphins and whales have traces of vestigial walking limbs and hips buried in their flesh. This is testimony to the fact that ancestral mammals living semi-aquatic lives found advantage spending more time in the water.
Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for all of us. When it comes to sink or swim in this world, we’re all the same. The water accepts us all. In that regard, the public pool seems a poignant reminder that for all the disturbance created by our seeming differences, at night the pool rests calm and reflects the night sky. It forgets the wrongs we place upon it. Forgives the thrashing breadth of our existence. Discerns there is no difference, in substance, between work and play. And accepts the human condition for what it is: so brief and temporary it is insane to think it otherwise.