Chlorine Stings the Eyes

The pool at the Tallmadge YWCA was divided into three sections when the kids from the summer day camp had their afternoon swims. The shallow end, the middle, and the deep end. There were about thirty of us, maybe more, six and seven year olds all the way up to fourteen year olds — teenagers who walked among us like gods. All morning long we were packed into a room at the top of a bleak set of stairs and locked in, doing who knows what. I don’t remember. Board games. Activities. But every afternoon, if we weren’t off somewhere on a field trip, it was down to the pool, after lunch had been given an appropriate time to settle, of course.

The lifeguard, a towering woman with a slight mustache, had a clipboard with all our names on it, along with notations. “S”, “M”, or “D”. It was simple. Depending on the letter one had after their name, that child had free reign over the entire length of the pool, could roam the middle, or was restricted to the shallow end, with all the little kids who couldn’t swim, the babies. I didn’t want to be a baby. Standing in three feet of water the deep end seemed so far away I could swear it faded into the distance. Yet I could see them, I could hear them over the shrill cries of the kiddies, the babies. The teenagers were all down in the deep end, diving underwater and disappearing for ten, twenty seconds at a time, longer. Roaming the deep, they’d pop up with rubber rings and diving bricks in their hands, retrieved from the nether reaches, a whopping ten feet down to the pale blue tiles. Every now and again, the lifeguard would wheel out the diving board. Good lord, that looked like fun. But all I could do was watch. No diving in the shallow end.

And they had room over there. There were only five or six of them, ruling over a third of the pool, while I was packed in with the kiddies, the babies, being hit with errant splashes, scratched by the occasional toe nail, wading...ugh...through warm patches in the water. Kids would lie on foam boards and just kick and paddle aimlessly, eyes tightly shut. I’d get run into, kicked, battered, clawed. Enough. But it wasn’t easy to get that “D” after one’s name. There was ritual and ceremony, designed to weed out pretenders. There were qualifications and proficiency ratings.

First, to get out of the shallow end, I had to qualify to swim in the middle, the no-man’s land of the YWCA pool. Five feet deep, too much for non-swimmers, too close to the little kids for the lords of the deep end, it was a lonely place. It was a place for transition only, a way station between worlds, a part of growing up that had nothing to do with time, and everything to do with guts. Was I grown up enough to pass the test?

Before every swim the counselors sat us down on bleachers beside the pool for a head count. Then the lifeguard, with her clipboard in hand, would ask, “Anyone for the middle?” A hand would go up, maybe two, then the small figure of a pre-pubescent boy or girl would walk to the edge of the pool, right next to the five foot depth marker. For many, this was it, the first and only time they ever were on the other side of the rope that kept them penned in the shallow end. All they had to do was jump in and swim half the length of the pool to the shallow end without drowning. That’s it. But we’d all seen so many try and fail. Trying out for better pool privileges was a singular experience, one shared with no one. The pool was clear, void of everyone so the lifeguard could keep a close eye on whoever was swimming. All eyes, lifeguard, counselors, fellow children, all watching as one kid tried to prove they had the stuff to survive an extra two feet of pool water. So when someone failed and had to be fished out, it was a howler. Pointing and laughing, shouts and cries, luckily the water swallowed the tears as a ruined kid was perched gently back onto the bleachers, wrapped in a towel and the comforting arms of one of the more motherly counselors.

That sight, that vision, held me back weeks that first summer. I’d be damned if I was going to let that happen to me. Better to wallow in the shallow end than go through that humiliation. I knew I could swim, too, in a fashion, well enough to get those letters, so my reticence was ridiculous. I waited, and swam through fresh piss and whatever else leaks out of little kids until the injustice of it all demanded action. I wasn’t alone, either. An insurgency built among a small group of boys I belonged to. In a single week all of us stood, marched to the five foot mark, dove in, and got “M’s” written next to our names. It was that easy, nothing to it, but while the others settled for life in the no-man’s land, they, the teenagers, were still there, occupying a place and prize I wanted, rulers of the mysterious depths.

The day after I got my “M”, a little girl, no more than eight or nine, perhaps inspired, got her “M”. The next day, she went for it all. When the lifeguard asked, “Anyone for the deep end?” she got up again. She shuffled to the end of the pool. Behind her the lifeguard grabbed hold of a gigantic hook attached to a pole taller than two men. The girl stood at the edge and looked down, ready to dive in and begin. Maybe it was the still water, her nervous eyes reflected back at her. Maybe it was the color of the water in the deep end, the depth making the tiles on the bottom a richer blue than anywhere else, it reminded one that they were staring into the abyss. Ten feet of water to the bottom. Conversely, ten feet to the closest air when sitting down there. Maybe those thoughts raced through her mind when she lowered her head. Whatever it was, her body sagged and she fell limp into the water. When she realized she was in the pool, she flayed and splashed, in her mind still trying to make it to the other end, but she didn’t move. She just made a lot of noise, then began to sink. In went the hook. The lifeguard pulled her to the edge and lifted her out. Oh, ignoble end. Embarrassment of embarrassments. That kept me in the middle another week.

“Anyone for the deep end?”

I raised my hand, got up and went to the deep end. I dived in, swam underwater for a bit, and made my way down the length of the pool. It was just as easy as before. And why not? I was swimming in a calm, empty pool. If a person can swim half of that, they can swim it all. There was a huge grin on my face as I climbed out, until the lifeguard told me I had failed.

“What? Why?”

“You spent too long underwater.”

What crap. What utter, unbelievable bullshit, even. Too long underwater? Was she kidding? Swimming underwater is harder than swimming on the surface, you nitwit. That wasn’t drowning you witnessed, woman, it was skill.

I didn’t take the news well, and spent the rest of the day in punishment for using a vile stream of foul language to express my disagreement with the lifeguard. I was banned from the pool for a couple days, as well, forced to sit on the bleachers fully clothed in that humid natatorium and watch the other kids swim. That was a common punishment for transgressions, one I had gone through before, but that didn’t stop me from setting new records in childish surliness as I sat there. And why not? I was robbed. I was humiliated in front of my peers for no good reason. It was their laughs more than anything else that brought the beast out in me. The only saving grace I had was that at least the lifeguard hadn’t used the hook on me.

As soon as I was able, I tried again. This time I made a point not to display my underwater skills, and emerged from the pool with a fresh “D” next to my name on the clipboard. I spent the first fifteen minutes of pool time in abject joy, doing nothing but repeatedly diving to the bottom of the deep end, touching the tile and looking briefly up at the surface, so far away, before going back up. When they pulled us out for a head count, I stood next to the deep end, among the teenagers as one of them, only years younger and more than a foot shorter, but what did that matter? One of them looked over at me and said, “Hey, whyn’t you get back to the kiddie end, ya big baby?”