16. July 2005 · Comments Off on Cool Water · Categories: Domestic, General, Memoir

Summer heat is at its’ worst in July and August, in Texas now as it was in Southern California when I was growing up, sequentially domiciled in the White Cottage, Redwood House, and Hilltop House. The summer heat seems much more merciless in Texas, even if it is broken on occasion— like it was Friday afternoon, by a thunderstorm blowing in— a violent wind lashing the tree branches, a blinding grey veil of falling water, the garden momentarily flooded, and the street running ankle-deep— everything momentarily cool and damp. This weekend, it will be humid, the mosquitoes encouraged no end; everywhere on the highways and byways Friday afternoon were reports of auto accidents. It has been nearly a month since the last good drenching, so the asphalt roadways have acquired a slick of oil, mixed with water, floating above the surface— to the great detriment of anyone trying to brake suddenly. But the rain cooled things down, even if only for a few hours, and I am grateful for not having to run the sprinklers. The garden was starting to look a bit limp and droopy— this storm perked up the plants enormously for the next couple of days. And the dry asphalt street and concrete sidewalks suddenly developed that curious indescribable smell, compounded from bone-dry surfaces suddenly wetted.

It’s as evocative as the feel of it, walking barefoot on the black asphalt in the late mornings, crossing the street to get my mail out of the community mailbox drop. The concrete sidewalk is comparatively cool, especially in the shade of the trash trees, my neighbors’ green lawns are also comfortable to the feet— although they are getting a bit dry and crunchy— but the street itself? This might be another meaning to the phrase “hot-foot”: Ooohh! Eeegh! Owww! Eeek! The soles of my feet are not as tough as they were when I was eight or nine, and going barefoot throughout the summer; I scamper across the street, unlock the mailbox and scamper back. It is as painful as it was, those summers when we went to swim in various pools, since Mom was convinced that flip-flops were bad for our feet. But perhaps it made the coolness of the water, all the more refreshing, all the more rewarding.

There were only a few places for natural fresh-water recreation when we were growing up— hardly any lakes, and the braided streams in Big Tujunga Wash were usually only at best knee-deep: no quarries full of ice-cold water, and snapping turtles, no muddy swimming-hole. An airline flight, on low approach towards any city in the southwest reveals where Pippy, JP and I explored the joys aquatic; the hundreds of translucent turquoise swimming pools, rectangular, square or bean-shaped cut gems, set into the green or tawny background of suburbia. Those children of one or two households in any given neighborhood who had a pool were guaranteed popularity everlasting, especially in the summertime— it was either that, or going to the public pool, which however well-chlorined, was always slightly suspect. And besides that, was full of eagle-eyed life-guards bellowing “Stop running!” “Stop fighting!” “Stop cannon-balling off the side!”

It was not like that, up the hill from Redwood House, at Waynes’. Possibly there were other households with pools nearby, but Wayne was JPs’ friend, so JP and I were there frequently. Mom didn’t let us go nearly as often as we wished, not wanting to impose on Wayne’s parents, but it truth, his parents hardly ever seemed to be present. We never went into the house, and in fact I have no recollection of ever seeing the inside, or his parents at all. The outside was fascinating enough, a hillside of pasture and a couple of horses, and a huge mulberry tree… and of course, the pool. Wayne seemed to live a sort of Pippi Longstocking existence, coming and going as he pleased. Although I am sure he went to school, he certainly didn’t have the extra lessons that we did… including swimming lessons.

We had learned to paddle, after a fashion, by floundering around in the shallow end of various pools, before Mom decided that lessons were in order. Several times a week, over several summers, we were loaded into the Plymouth and ferried to a large house in La Canada, which boasted a near-Olympic sized pool. Two women, mother and daughter, both of whom had been on the American Olympic swim teams in their respective younger days, briskly drilled an assortment of small and not so small children in necessary water skills. They were kindly but exacting teachers, not well disposed towards inattention or disobedience. Pippy, nervous in the deep end but a fair swimmer for all that, stubbornly refused to swim out of reach of the pool side. They patiently tried to talk her out of that bad habit, but she still refused to swim out into the middle. Finally, one of them picked her up bodily, slung her into the middle of the pool… and when she swam back to the side, howling, the instructor plucked her out of the water… and slung her into the middle again. I was at the other extreme; I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t up to something— like treading water.

On the very first day, we were directed to go off the diving board, come up, tread water for a minute and then swim to the side. I had never done that before, but didn’t want to admit it in front of all the other kids, and a teacher who went off the diving board and into the water with barely a teacup of disturbance in the water, which closed with a tiny splash and a schooping sound over her toes. It looked easy enough! I went out on the diving-board and went in, came up to the surface all right, and tried to do what the kids before me had done. I think it was the senior instructor— she must have been a little short of my grandmothers’ ages, who jumped in and swam me over to the poolside before I went down, gasping and choking for the third time. Sensible and practical woman, she didn’t let me out of the water. As soon as I finished gasping and spitting out faintly chlorine-tasting pool water, I got a hasty lesson in treading water, and rejoined the rest of the intermediate class. It was indeed easy enough, to make your body into a straight arrow, from fingertips to toes, as the Olympian woman coached us over the next couple of summers, to hit the water in a clean and focused movement, with only the tiniest of splashes, moving down into this strange cool element of water.

This was our refuge, in blistering dry heat, to stand on the diving board, and look down at the cool, embracing water, and taking a deep breath before diving in.

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