Monday, April 5, 2010

Sink or swim

Some memories last longer than others.

About forty years ago, the Citadel Mall had a variety of fountains interspersed throughout the building.  Some used multi-colored lights; others would shoot jets of water high up into the air.  People would toss in coins and make wishes, and I loved to gaze deeply into those square-shaped pools, certain that the glittering contents therein had to be like a gazillion dollars.  The sound of the falling water was like music to my ears, and I would daydream about the wishes each coin had purchased.  Somewhere in my mind, I knew that the wishes bought by the larger coins had the best chances of being granted.

Hey, a fairy godmother’s got to make a living, no?

Anyway, one day while out shopping with my beautiful mother, we stopped at the JC Penney’s perfume counters. My mother was a shopaholic at the time (and still is today), and I’m telling you, such excursions went on for hours and hours.  I imagine I got bored watching her sniff one scent and spray on another. 

A fountain stood just outside the store; I heard the water calling me, and wandered off from my mother’s side.  Perching myself atop the stone ledge that went along the perimeter of the fountain, I sat….contemplating.  A young couple holding hands stopped to make a wish; shutting their eyes tight, they tossed in two coins, smiled at each other, and walked off. 

“I wish I had some money right now,” I remember thinking; “I’d wish for this shopping trip to finally end so we could go home.”

Who knows what the scrap of paper was that I held in my hand; all I know is that, for whatever reason, I set it afloat…and then thought better of it.  I stretched out my arm to retrieve it - actually touching it with my fingertips – stretching just a tad bit more, I imagine I hung there for a moment before toppling in head first.

Bubbles, bubbles, everywhere, as I splashed and sputtered with shock and surprise.  Though it couldn’t have been more than three feet deep, I might as well have fallen into the deep end of an Olympic sized pool.  With the coins sparkling underneath my panicky legs, I made the wish that someone might rescue me…and the next thing I knew, I felt someone’s arms take hold of me and pull me out of the fountain.

I stood there, dripping and embarrassed; my mother had come running, and was giving me that strange angry-glare/thank-God look that adorns mothers’ faces when their child has just averted disaster.  A man came running from the bath section, holding several towels, and thrust them towards my mother…and after briskly toweling me off while muttering at me in Dutch, we left the mall and went home.  Wish granted.

It was a baptismal of sorts…and though I was a bit traumatized, I was also hooked.  My parents - having thus been convinced of how important it was that their daughter know how to swim - enrolled me in learn-to-swim classes at Municipool; and as with most things not math, I took to it quickly, and swim like a fish to this day.

I earned my Red Cross lifeguard certificate, and have had the opportunity to swim in streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans; and when I was 19, I had the mind-blowing, life-changing opportunity to scuba-dive in Hawaii; sorry, but I can’t understand how anyone could see what I saw while deep beneath those beautiful waters and surface with a disbelief in God - it is indeed another world down there entirely, beautiful, mysterious, and certainly, no random accident.

Do they call people like me Aquaphiles or Hydrophiles?  I’m not sure; but I do know  there’s hardly a sound I like more than that of children laughing and having fun at the pool…or any aroma I find as cloying as that of swimming pool chlorine; and if the day was super-hot, and the rules of decorum relaxed, I’d easily be persuaded to skinny-dip, or even jump in fully clothed, Citadel-mall style.  

Municipool eventually came to be known as the Aquatics and Fitness Center; and as with all “new and improved” things, something was lost when the old went away.  In this instance, it was the hot tub for the adults…the small kiddie pool where small children could wade…the vast open lap lanes…and the diving boards. 

Man…back in the day.  Municipool had two diving boards that were the regular height…and then, there was the high-dive.  Every time I’d go, I’d swear I’d dive off it head-first; but each time I climbed that ladder and stood at the very top looking down, my courage would fail me…and though I’d argue and double-dog dare myself to just do it, I chickened out every time…settling for the plain-old feet-first approach.  Evenso, for a moment I felt like I was flying.

I was so surprised the last time the kids and I trudged up to the Aquatics and Fitness Center to go swimming; I made the mistake of diving in, and a young lifeguard whistled at me sternly.  “Ma’am…Ma’am!  No diving please!”  I looked at the youngster scolding me, and resisted the temptation to roll my eyes. 

You never know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.  If only I’d known that Municipool’s high-dive would be replaced by a spiral slide and water park primarily for children, I’d have forced myself to overcome my fears and dive in head-first without second-guessing.  If only I’d known that the pool, like the school that was within walking distance of our house, would be closed due to budget cuts, I’d have bought summer swim-passes last year.  But I dove into District 11 matters instead, coming up only occasionally to breathe, and missed the opportunity to teach my own kids to swim. 

If I thought it would re-open as a result, I would throw a thousand coins into the bottom of that now-dry pool.

I was under the mistaken belief that all of the community centers and pools would remain open at least until the end of the year…so it was with great sadness when I glimpsed the Gazette photograph of the last vestiges of the Aquatics and Fitness Center being taken from the now-closed facility.  I know that all summer long, the poor kids will be envying those lucky rich kids up by Cottonwood Creek – the only public pool that remains open.  But that’s probably because the malls up north still have fountains in them, and no one wants a rich kid to accidentally drown.

That’s merely supposition; the last time I was at Chapel Hills Mall had to have been 15 years ago…and like the sprawling developments that now blanket the vast stretches of rolling plains, I’m sure I’d lose my bearings entirely…becoming lost and utterly unsure of my place.

Pondering the changes in my hometown and the ways of the world these days leaves me with a great, gaping hole in my heart.  If this is where society has come, then my God, where are we going?  It seems that these days, every danger, every obstacle, every challenge, every opportunity for learning is being taken from us for our safety and protection and for our own good… and we are all left only remembering when.

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