Sucking Air: Above-Ground Pool Chronicles
by Denis L. Mulroony
In the summer of 1984, my father purchased for our family an above-ground swimming pool. The pool was placed in a corner of our backyard and was, as the law required, surrounded by a chain link fence. Its width was fifteen feet; its height was four feet, and in the height of usage, it was filled from dawn to dusk with the friends, enemies and acquaintances of my two brothers and me. With the exception of the Moreno family who had an in-ground pool, ours was the only one in the neighborhood.
The two pools could not be more different, however. The Moreno’s lavish watering hole was a bean-shaped masterpiece that would have made a Vegas casino owner jealous, and except for an assortment of professional landscaping, it assumed the majority of their entire backyard. At one end of the pool sat a circular hot tub whose overflow of steaming goodness spilled into a shallow end of four feet and warmed the entire body of water to bath-like temperatures. This wading area gently sloped into a spacious deep end that sunk to ten feet. Overlooking the crystal waters was a diving board with a legendary spring, and overlooking the entire scene was a sprawling deck complete with lounge chairs, barbecue grill and eating area. While the beauty of the Moreno pool was unquestionable, gaining access to it was another matter. Mr. and Mrs. Moreno regulated admission as though as it were an elite country club and their two sons had no problem following suit, relegating our paltry construction as the place to be during the summer. While the Moreno’s oasis was an elite, serene, and controlled swimming experience, our four-footer was akin to a Chuck-E-Cheese: poorly supervised and a little dodgy.
Every summer since its genesis, our pool was overflowing with kids, their bikes littering our driveway, towels scattered around the lawn to dry, and looking back, I can say with total confidence that at least half of the kids in Parsippany peed in my pool at one time or another. My parents, in their typical laissez faire approach, did not care who was using the pool as long as they weren’t floating face downward in it.
As to how the pool was used, however, they had a few straightforward rules that were followed to varying degrees of obedience. My mother’s only decree was that the pool was hers from 3:30 to 4:30 each day, no exceptions. During this time she would float around the pool reading Danielle Steele, her torso on a raft while her legs drifted behind her. Meanwhile, my friends and I watched the clock and filled our time playing prison-rules basketball. By the time 4:30 hit, ten to twenty little hands gripped the chain-link fence as five to ten noses poked through the openings. My mother’s departure down the ladder corresponded with an army of ten year olds flinging themselves over the side of the pool like it was D-Day.
My father, on the other hand, whose patience was usually to a fault, possessed several hot buttons regarding his favorite, above-ground child. They were as follows: no food in the pool; no “whirlpooling”[i]; no wave pool[ii]; no wrestling, no jumping off the side of the pool; and most important, no screwing around with the filter. It serves as no coincidence that in the hours my father was working, these specific activities filled the majority of our days. We filled our bellies with sandwiches and chips, whirlpooled until we were nauseous, wavepooled until we were sea sick, wrestled, chicken-fought, marco-poloed, shark-and-minnowed, and jumped/dove/splashed until he returned from work, at which time we innocently practiced swimming laps and lightly tossed Nerf balls to each other.
Despite our resistance to authority, there was one rule that was followed at all costs: no screwing around with the filter. During the summer my father’s day started and ended with a calculated check of the pool’s mechanics. He would arise at the crack of dawn to turn on the filter for the day and then lovingly place two chlorine tablets into its basket. Upon his arrival home from work, he would return to the side of the pool to empty the basket of any debris and check the ph levels of the water. The checking of the ph levels was an intricate routine that required intense concentration and no interruptions of any kind; we were forced to stand completely still and utterly silent for the entire proceedings. My father, with the focus of a geneticist on the brink of discovering a new genetic strand, would fill both tubes of a tiny plastic beaker with pool water. He would then remove two little bottles whose chemical contents he would carefully drop into each tube. Once filled, he would cover the tops of each tube with his fingers and shake vigorously. It was then time for the reading. At this point, he would take his glasses out of his chest pocket and place them onto his face; simultaneously, he would bend down into an absurd crouch and hold the conjoined tubes against the sky with an extended arm to get an accurate reading. If the color of each tube matched the desired color of the code in the middle, then swimming could resume; if not, the pool would have to empty until the next day as it was deemed unsafe.
Despite my father’s concern for a clean and safe pool, the structure itself was a veritable deathtrap, capable of killing children in multiple, painful ways. I am proud to say that my friends and I did nothing to decrease the odds of a watery grave in any way. There were several factors that made swimming in our pool so treacherous. The first was the side of the pool, a four-inch piece of aluminum that capped off the walls. As two of our favorite games required jumping into the water (sharks and minnows[iii] and the golf tee game[iv]), our use of this precipitous high wire was frequent. Due to its frail construction, walking around the side of the pool was tenuous as it wobbled and shook with every step one took. Falling into the pool was obviously not a concern; however, hitting the land was another story. For reasons unknown to me, my father decided the best surface material for the area surrounding the pool was jagged rock. I am not sure if this reverse-moat was his attempt to keep us permanently out of the water or in it or if this was his feeble attempt at Medieval landscaping. Nevertheless, many people had the unfortunate experience of falling away from the water and tearing up their feet, legs and arms on the crags below.
Chemical and viral disease was also a threat at the pool. Every year during the last week of June, after we begged him for a month and the Morenos had banned us out of theirs, my father would announce that it was finally pool season. The next Saturday morning the Mulroony clan would make their way through the fence and gather around the pool in silence as my father gave directions for pulling the cover off. It should be noted that while in-ground pools, during the winter, are as empty as the a realtor’s soul, an above-ground pool remains filled with water and requires a floatation device and a cover, both objects designed to keep things (animals, leaves, garbage) out of the pool and thus maintaining the clarity and quality of the water. It should also be noted that this is only a theory, and every June when we took that cover off of the pool we were greeted with the blackest, most malodorous water I had ever seen. As my brothers were assigned to bleaching and hosing off the vile pool cover (a job I always questioned the assignment of two people for), it always fell to me to brave the murky, freezing water and skim out everything that had found its rest at the bottom of the pool.
It remains, to this day, the most horrifying experience of my life.
The memories of skimming the black, death water are understandably blurry. I remember shivering, dry-heaving, and crying as my brothers laughed at me from the lawn. My skinny, pasty-white frame stood in dire contrast to the oil spill we called a pool as I struggled to lift the leaves to the surface and dump them over the fence with the skimmer. Ultimately, leaves were the least of my concerns. It never failed that every year at least one animal would, for some inexplicable reason—part of me thinks my brothers put them there—choose our pool for its final resting place. I know this because during the formative years of my life I spent several Saturday mornings stepping on the rotted carcasses of squirrels, birds, rats, mice, and in an instance that elicited instant and violent vomiting, a possum. After locating the critter with my feet, I then had to fish them to the surface and dump them over the side of the fence as well. In these moments of horror, tears streaming down my face and sick gathering in my throat, my father would offer to take the skimmer and do the job from the outside the pool, causing me to always wonder why he made me get in the pool in the first place. Despite an intense phobia of dead animals and road kill that persists to this day, I suppose I should be happy I never got malaria or trench foot from the experience.
At no time was death nearer than when my brothers and their friends would join us for a swim. I am amazed that no one ever had to be carted away to the morgue, myself in particular. While my ten-year-old friends and I leaned more toward organized pool games, my brothers’ teenage friends expressed an interest in acrobatics and violence. Together, they formed an illegitimate family of sadistic circus performers whose routine consisted of grabbing me and throwing me as high as they could into the air with little or no concern to my safety, the aluminum side of the pool and the rocky terrain constant hazards. As I was both slight in build and submissive in nature, I was the perfect carnival prop and was recklessly flung eight to ten feet in the air or simply tossed between two of them. On the rare occasions that I protested my use as a projectile or as they inevitably grew bored, their activities would turn even more sadistic. While their friends preferred chicken fights[v] as an aquatic alternative to torture, my brothers omitted the competition element and went straight for the payoff, simply dunking me under the water in fifteen second bursts (like skipping the main course and eating dessert first). As I fought under the water on those afternoons, struggling to escape to the blissful sky above and earnestly praying for gills, I was never quite positive that they wouldn’t actually kill me. Having never really been shown any affection from them in the ten years prior, I was pretty sure that they dreamed of a world without me in it- the couch would become bigger by 33% as would the rations of cookies, ice cream, and chips; my room would become a personal gym/love den where they would bring their unwitting teenage girlfriends who had no idea they were cold-blooded conspirators. I suppose that the only thing stopping Leopold and Loeb was fear of retribution from my father as my water-logged corpse would undoubtedly clog up his precious filter. Ironically enough, the only thing that sucked more air than the filter during those years was my lungs, in-between dunks from my brothers.
As was the custom, my father insisted that we close up the pool each Labor Day, regardless of the weather. Despite our protests, we dutifully inflated the ineffective floatation device and fastened down the plastic cover to the aluminum sides of the pool with water-filled milk cartons. The entire process took about half an hour, longer than a game of sharks and minnows, neater than a wavepool, tamer than a romance novel and less fun than attempted murder. As I peered into the crystalline waters, the site of my near-watery grave, I always got so sad, not because I almost died there but because for nine weeks we really lived. For our father, it would be ten more months until he resumed his love affair with the filter; its affection would be replaced with various projects at his basement workbench. My mother would devote herself to three months of Christmas preparations and two months of holiday cleanup. My brothers would return to high school, sports, girls, partying and when time permitted, the contemplation of patricide. As for me, I usually rode my bike to the Moreno’s house with my fingers crossed and a baby-blue golf tee in my pocket, hoping for a few more days of summer.
[i] “Whirlpooling” or “Whirlpool” was a game where the inhabitants of the pool circled the perimeter of the structure in the same direction at the same time, thus simultaneously creating a vortex and pissing off my father to no end. My father claimed the whirlpool effect caused the filter to, as he put it, “suck air”.
[ii] “Wavepool” was a similar game only in the propensity to cause the sacred filter to “suck air”; it was played by simply grabbing any floatation device and making the biggest waves you could. It was accompanied by hooting and hollering and usually ended with the garden hose being inserted into the pool to reestablish a water level above the filter line and prevent air to be sucked by it.
[iii] “Sharks and Minnows” was a game of skill and strategy where one person begins as the shark and treads water in the middle of the pool while the minnows stand perched above the water. The object of the game is to jump into the pool and swim to the other side without being tagged by the shark. If you were tgged you fulfilled the shark role as well. This continued until there was one minnow left. (Potential for filter clogging: minimal)
[iv] “The Golf Tee Game” started with everyone standing on the side of the pool. One person held a baby-blue golf tee in their hand and jumped in to place it on the bottom of the pool. Everyone tried to get it first as it floated to the surface. As with any game, score was intensely kept and physical contact was encouraged. (Needless to say, this game was a lot more fun at the Moreno’s house.)
[v] “Chicken Fights” were gladiatorial contests where smaller, younger victims were placed on the shoulders of larger people and pitted against each other until one of them was thrown under water. Punching, scratching, pulling and pushing were the rule.
Denis L. Mulroony is a part-time writer and full time educator with twenty years of experience as a teacher, coach and currently, a high school principal. He earned his D.Litt. from Drew University and his undergrad from King’s College. He is an eager writer and essayist who hones his craft whenever time allows (usually after his wife and kids go to sleep). Denis’s creative non-fiction has been published in the Atticus Review, Inkwell.org, FortyOunceBachelors.com and Survive Parenthood Magazine. He only uses his middle initial for writing purposes and when trying to compensate for being less-than-photogenic (see author photo).