A Recollection of Swimming Pools

(this is a more finalised version of an earlier post)

It’s hard to think about now. Well, it’s more that it’s hard to remember. The last time that I made a summer visit to my grandparents (my mom’s parents) must have been in 1996. I was thirteen. Now, looking back fourteen years later, things are sort of hazy- a haze that is either the fault of time or the heat of an Iowa summer.

There are several things that stand out, however. I do remember Odebolt, Iowa. Odebolt was an agricultural town, surrounded by cornfields and hog farms. I say was, because even at thirteen I could feel that it was a town on its deathbed. There was little to do in the town where my mom had grown up. There was no movie theater, no great playgrounds, not even a shopping mall. There was a dime store and a supermarket. There was the high school where my mom had been educated. There was a big bank that mom claimed was in some movie.

And then there was the swimming pool. A literal oasis from the dry heat of Western Iowa, its blue water and two diving boards offered hours and hours of entertainment. My younger sister and brother (three years and seven years my junior, respectively) and I whiled away most of our summer visits at the pool. It was cold and wet and fun.

You have to understand that we loved visiting our grandparents. Their house always smelled of baked goods and there was no shortage of cookies or hugs. They had books and board games. My Grandma Max would gladly play the Chipmunks’ Christmas Album in the right season. But theirs was not a house for children. Someone was always napping (my Grandpa Herb couldn’t even be relied upon to complete a game of Scrabble without dozing off) and we were told to either play outside or in the basement.

Their basement was interesting with its swinging doors (more at home at a Western saloon than in a green carpeted Iowan basement) and shelves full of forbidden objects, but there were no actual toys. There was a wicker basket full of wooden spools. There were five or six foam blocks the size of shoeboxes. And there was a pair of boxing gloves. But the three of us could only come up with so many permutations of fun before we grew bored.

There were two giant oak trees in the front yard, but the limbs began too high for us to even attempt climbing. In the cool evenings we could run around and catch lightning bugs. Some bugs were stuffed in jars, creating temporary lanterns, while other bugs were popped open and we smeared their phosphorescent glow onto our fingertips and foreheads. But it was hot during the day. Too hot to do much more than sit under the shade of the oak trees. So we went to the pool.

The pool must have been there since forever, because our mom had learned to swim in the pool and worked there as a lifeguard. It was a big, blue rectangle, with a shallow three feet on one end that sloped to a depth of twenty feet at the other.

The bottom of the pool was not smooth. It was rough like a textured ceiling, and it inevitably tore through the soggy, raisined flesh of our feet as we bounced around in our play. The lacerations weren’t deep enough to draw blood, but our feet always looked chewed on after a day of swimming. The small, red tears would heal overnight, and our feet would be tenderized once again the following day.

There was also too much chlorine in the pool. The tangy, chemical aroma was noticeable from the parking lot. Though the levels were no doubt high enough to bleach hair and clothing after prolonged exposure (as evidenced by photos of my mom in her youth), we were in the pool just long enough that our eyes became a burning, bloodshot red, which caused us to squint even tighter in the summer sun. The chlorine also stung at our abraded feet. But the water was cold, and it was a delightful break from the heat of the day, and, as I’ve mentioned, there were no better options.

Despite my hazy memory, I do remember one day at the pool very clearly. It was during my last summer at the Odebolt pool, and it was the only day that I neglected to slather myself with sun block. As a child, you don’t think about how much sun hits your body while swimming. Sure, there are the children who realize that lying prone on a towel will allow their skin to roast and crisp into an idyllic golden brown, but few are aware that the sun is ever present within the water too.

Standing chest deep in the water, I had effectively placed myself into a convection oven. The sun’s rays reflected off of the bottom of the pool and danced on the mirror surface of the pool’s water. The sun assailed my fair, Dutch-Irish-Norwegian skin from all sides. Of course, as I threw a ball back and forth with whomever (we make friends much quicker, and with much less thought, as a child) my skin’s tone turned from cream to carnation to strawberry to maraschino to burnt. I’ll never understand how some children fail to get sunburn. Their skin darkens and darkens, but it never reddens. It has never been this way for me. I burn and then burn again. My tan is rosy sepia, usually looking more burnt than anything else.

I’m not sure when I became aware of the sunburn, but it made its presence most felt as I toweled off before heading home. The soft fluff of the towel was a rasp against my shoulders and neck. I gingerly tugged on a shirt and leaned forward, off of the seat, in the car ride home.

Of course, the sunburn was bad enough. But it wasn’t until later in the evening that the blisters erupted from my burned skin. They were horribly painful and stretched my damaged skin to its limits. They were an ugly yellow color, like snot, and any contact with them at all caused the blister to weep a runny fluid. These were the biggest blisters that I’d ever seen. They were the diameter of a silver dollar and rose a half inch off of my shoulders. My mom applied ointment to them and tried to pad them with gauze, but it was no use. My siblings went back to the pool everyday, but I was relegated to sitting on the sofa (my grandparents called it a davenport) without a shirt. I couldn’t lift my arms and I slept sitting up.

Eventually, the blisters receded and the loose, dead skin flapped and tore away. But by then we had left Odebolt for Minnesota. And the next time we would visit Odebolt would be under different circumstances. My grandparents got sick and each successive visit was spent at nursing homes and hospitals rather than at the local pool.

I guess it says something that my mind has chosen to remember my pain at the pool rather than my grandparents’ pain as their health declined. Or that I remember the boring toys at their house much clearer than any time spent at the nursing home. I’m glad that I can’t focus on the bad stuff, and that, at least to me, Odebolt will be equated with wooden spools and a swimming pool.


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