• Melissa Westemeier

past pools

This strange summer I have worn down a path moving through my daily routine. Kitchen to make coffee. Library to write. Garden to pull weeds and occasionally add water. Back porch to read. Pool to swim laps.


While I've carved a path from one end of the pool to the other, I watch the clouds float overhead. Dragonflies and swallows flit past. The leaves have changed from bright green to deep green and now are tinged with a golden color, marking the beginning of the end of summer. I'm buoyant and light in the water. Our pool has no strong odor, we have a salt system. I share the water with beetles and dead flies I failed to skim out, leaves and sometimes my youngest son. When I float on my back I can hear the steady hum of water circulating. The temperature rises and falls with the weather because we don't heat it--there's really no need.


During my laps I've thought about how I learned to swim and the pools of my childhood. My family moved frequently, and my earliest memory of learning to swim took place at the YMCA in Sheboygan, WI. I remember concrete steps, the burning smell of chlorine, slippery tiled floors, communal showers with wall-mounted faucets. I remember trying not to get my socks wet on the floor and standing beneath a hand dryer before heading outside into the winter night. At the end of each session I'd receive a Red Cross report card, boxes marked to indicate my progress. I learned how to turn my head to one side to inhale, duck my face back into the water to blow bubbles.


My next swimming spot was unique in that it was also a tourist attraction. Thermopolis, WY boasts the world's largest hot springs and both locals and visitors swam at the TePee Pool. The temperature was always warm (sometimes uncomfortably so) and the sulfur smell of the famous water overwhelmed you until you got used to it. Beneath the high dome of this pool I learned how to take off my blue jeans while treading water and convert them into a life jacket using my breath. I got timed falling into the pool fully clothed and performing "The Dead Man's Float." I learned how to do a kneeling dive--a perfectly useless skill. This rinky-dink mountain town also had another pool, The Star Plunge. I have no memory of going there, but I'm sure I must have swam in that pool, too, but my family paid its dues at The TePee Pool. The image below from the Casper Star Tribune is from 2014, not 1970-something. The domed roof is the same, but that slide is new since I last swam there.


Our next move took us to West DePere, WI where I swam indoors most of the year and outside during the summer. On summer mornings at the VFW pool I would sit on the concrete deck dangling my legs in the water, dreading the moment when the instructor would blow a whistle and tell us to jump in. The steam would rise off the water's surface along with the fizz of chlorine. The metal pin with my locker number would poke my hip where I'd attached it to my swimsuit. Goosebumps would speckle my skin. I'd practice the front crawl and elementary back stroke from one end to the other, staying in my lane. At the Green Bay YMCA (an impressive building pictured below) I passed through the levels--Fish, Flying Fish, SHARK! My Red Cross report card got longer. The chlorine was a familiar and beloved smell. I mastered the back crawl and never got good at the butterfly. With each level, the number of pre-lesson warmup laps increased. I believe I maxed out at ten laps before my lessons began. I loved the humid air, the bang of the locker doors in the women's changing room, the snap of my Speedo one-piece when I'd pull it up on my shoulders. I remember looking with longing at the high dive--I had a friend who was on the diving team and took diving lessons there. My diving lessons were only the swimming kind, to enter the pool efficiently, no twist or turns or somersaults involved.




Before I could realize my childhood dream of becoming a Red Cross-certified swim instructor and lifeguard, my family moved again. Ironically, we moved to a house on Stratton Lake in a town with no pool. There was a public beach (on another lake), but this is where my swimming lessons ended. Now I swam purely for fun. I remember running and jumping off the end of our dock, spending hours floating in an inner tube, swimming out to a raft anchored in the water, sneaking out to skinny dip on summer nights. I loved swimming so much that I would wear a swimsuit instead of underwear beneath my work clothes (shorts and polo shirt) and I'd come home from the ice cream parlor where I scooped cones for tourists, strip off shirt and shorts while I crossed the lawn, and SPLASH into that lake. Stratton Lake is like any other lake in Wisconsin, surrounded by tall pines, sandy soil, mosquitoes and ducks. Fish, minnows, turtles and frogs swam with me. The water was probably on the chilly side, but always clean. I have no memory of algae or bad smells--not like Lake Winnebago where my grandparents lived and where the opportunity to swim became rarer each each as the lake's quality degraded. I have fond memories of swimming in Stratton Lake. It was a peaceful spot, not overrun with visitors like other lakes in the area, and consequently very clean and pretty.



There's much to recommend swimming outdoors in open water, but for convenience I sure do love having a pool. I miss swimming so much when the weather turns cold here, and there aren't many indoor pools with open swim times where I live. (And the few that have open swim times offer terrible time slots for my schedule.) I have learned of a fitness center about 20 minutes away where (according to my friend who is a member) hardly anyone jumps in to use it. Someday after my youngest graduates I may check that out so I can get my swim on year-round. Meanwhile, I will enjoy this swim season as long as I can.

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