Saving Graces: One Kid’s Summers in a City Park

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The modest one piece swimsuit was made like a tiny sheath of stretch terry. The narrow blue and green stripes appealed to me, colors of leaves and grass, sky and water. I regarded the new clothing article as if a challenge to conquer; it looked fine but would I fit right in it? White washed walls and cement floors of the large locker room reflected waves of laughter and talk. Pleasant in a sharply familiar way, a scent of chlorine infused the air and would soon overtake our skin, hair and suits. The rooms were jammed with bustling children, morphing clots of girls and varieties of adult women. The latter group methodically corralled or instructed their charges or worked their swimsuits over winter-and-spring-pale forms.

I yanked mine up and over twelve year old awkwardness. Grabbed my well-used towel. Then strode around a curved wall, through a door-less opening into the bright, chaotic, beautiful scene of Central Park Public Pool. It was like entering a broad and deep open air stage. I  wanted to find, then claim a place on it. It was that strange summer after elementary school and before junior high school. The in-between time.

I felt as if I stood on a precipice. Of course, the sneaky onset of adolescence had already begun; continuous movement forward felt rocky. Also more obvious to others. I was beginning to look different. But what baffled me was that I felt rather unlike myself. I was of two minds about it, at least. On one hand, it was perhaps overrated. The social and emotional lurching about was uncomfortable and at times embarrassing, a new experience. Other moments it felt irrelevant in the larger spectrum of life experiences. Why all the fuss? We grew bigger like every creature, no choice in that. I was largely unimpressed with this while more attracted to more learning and creating things. The arts, exploring the outdoors and athletics, invigorating my brain and enjoying the company of those who shared my interests: this was what felt right. Yes, I was a child on the way to maturity technically, but I did know what I liked. This wouldn’t appreciably change–would it? I felt like the same person, overall, but suddenly less secure in new scenarios. Even old ones, like the swimming pool in summer. It was as if I was slightly off-balance when before I had a solid foothold.

The problem was, there appeared to be curious new expectations. I wasn’t sure what they were, only that they existed. They were discernible in the teens I passed at the pool. The open or closed looks thrown my way or a total ignoring of my presence. Eyes travelling up and down my somewhat curvier yet still shorter length (when would that change?). Every face seemed to hold a question: who was I; how old was I; was I cool or not cool; who there knew me and what junior high was I attending in the fall? Some called out or I recognized them, a relief beyond measure. It was smarter to go to the pool accompanied by friends.

Someone said sooner or later, “Oh, hi, you’re a Guenther, the musical family–I know your dad (or mom, brothers, sisters).” Ours was a public family, in large part due to our father. He was well known in our Midwest town of about 29,000 in1962. I was used to being identified simply as one of that clan–not exactly what I was aiming for as I got older. Like all youth, I longed for my own unique moniker, a separate identity–eventually.

As I perused the pool’s areas, I became acutely aware that I was, well, walking. Leg joints and shoulder and back muscles and tendons tightened as if in a vise. I wasn’t clear why. I was usually in control of my limbs. Walking by the boys sunbathing or engaged in random hilarity and shoving matches on wild beach towels, I could barely nod. It was a tad easier passing clumps of girls as they lounged in changeable, eye catching poses to show off swimsuits and tans, whispering in each others’ ears. Well, that looked boring and silly. Some I knew from my elementary school and neighborhood. Others I recognized from arts’ or academic events  we’d participated in over the years. Some were a curious unknown. But I had coping skills: smile at everyone, nod or say “hi”, and stand tall with head up. The “head up” part was one of my mother’s mantras (“Chin up; hold your head up no matter what”) and it was second nature by then.

But seeing them well and clearly was, in fact, my first challenge of the day. I suffered from significant myopia and had worn glasses for near-sightedness since age seven. These were banned when in the pool, sensibly. One couldn’t see with water on lenses and the glass was a safety hazard. This was long before prescription swim goggles. (It would be two more years before I would be fitted for a first pair of revolutionary hard contact lenses, which I would learn to wear underwater by squeezing my eyes shut, then squinting the rest of the time.) So when I walked out into this public place I moved in a perpetual haze of diffuse light and shadowy forms, and among human identities that felt tricky to acknowledge.

I had by then learned to recognize faces by committing to memory what were previously clear features, shapes and colorations. Voices told me a great deal. If all else failed, I just walked close enough for friends and neighbors to move from blurry to clearer focus, as a camera brought things to the sharper fore. I could get an assist from them as needed, my name called out or a directive to head this way or that. But I wasn’t so self-conscious about it and had only occasional trouble navigating. Besides, unless I was there specifically to join friends, I was there first to enjoy swimming. Or, more to the point, to dive. All this I did by sensing my way about, by trial and error.

There was a high diving board and a low diving board. The way to start off swimming was to leap from the high board, splash into the fenced-off, deep water diving area, and come up gasping. After arriving at the top of the steps, I paused a moment at the start of the board. Assured myself it wasn’t so far down, then walked fast along its flexible length, made one strong bounce. Jumped. The trip down was always faster than planned and the cool shock of the water better than anticipated. The low diving board was better, as I didn’t think twice about the distance from board to pool’s surface. For a couple of years I’d been practicing swan dives, jackknifes, and somersaults, and hoped to try flips. There was also a straightforward plunging forth, making a slim sheath of my body so as to shoot out and rapidly descend, then slice through that welcoming turquoise expanse. Exhilaration! I was happy, confident on the diving boards, perhaps more so than just in a more crowded aqueous expanse. (I hadn’t learned to float well but I had a strong side and breast stroke and enjoyed laps as well as just swimming about.) After I burst through the surface, blinked with eyes stinging, I swam back to try it again. Someone shouted my name. I waved gaily, not sure who it was until the person swam to the diving platform and stood closer. But no matter; summer was big, bright, voluptuously so. All was well enough.

The evening swim periods were magical. As the twilight gained depth I felt increasingly at ease, relaxed, half-stealthy in the low light. Less apt to draw any attention. The lights in the pool lit up rich blue walls and floors, and darkness enveloped us, sky opened to mysteries above. I floated and dove and slipped swiftly through the deep, entered a world of silent, seemingly mystical properties beneath the known surface. Life felt even more intense. Peculiar and lovely.

The acreage of Central Park was like a second home for me and hundreds of others. That summer perhaps more than usual as I plotted my way through the contradictions of childhood versus teenager-hood. I needed familiarity, the constant of old routines, comfort of getting what I expected–even, for example, getting the pleasure of swimming after paying twenty five cents for pool admittance. I knew every portion of that park, the public spaces for gatherings of many sorts and more private ones where I could sit and dream within the shade of huge deciduous trees. There was always something to do if I wanted to do it. Even play tennis, although Dad, a tennis lover and energetic player, despaired of me improving significantly after several lessons and work outs. “It’s that darned ball moving so fast; I have to run this way and that to meet it”, I complained. I was afraid it would hit my glasses or my eyes and then what would I do? I’d rather play volleyball or basketball–“Mom’s sport in high school”, I reminded him. I could see those bigger balls coming and this alone guaranteed an environment far less risky.

The city park took up a huge area and was three and a half blocks from my family’s house. Spread over eighteen acres, attractions included four tennis courts, a softball field, an outdoor ice skating rink and a summer bandshell where Dad conducted a city band during each June and  July. There was also, on the other side of the park, a large and shiny community center that held an Olympic-sized indoor pool, exercise rooms, gymnasium, table tennis rooms, dance and martial arts classrooms and arts and crafts sections. Plus meeting areas. I’m sure I am leaving things out–it was a large, well-designed modern building, well funded.

Surely, my neighborhood’s Central Park had about everything a kid would want for entertainment those days. There were even (supervised) Saturday afternoon dances set up at different times for younger teens and older youth. Ultimately, I found those well worth the wait to get in, as I was a dancing nut and there were those boys who had become more interesting.

My 12th summer, following others like it, offered not only  a couple of hours at the pool. There were also musical evenings to enjoy. It wasn’t what most young people would get excited about, perhaps. This was a night devoted to old standards, Broadway tunes, easy pop music for general audiences and older people. The June and July concerts were held on an open air stage called the Bandshell, with rows of benches on a gentle hillside. Dad, the Chemical City Band conductor for many years, carried forth the program. It seemed one of the things he enjoyed the most having once been a big band saxophone, trombone and clarinet player. By that summer, I was the only child left at home, so I was next in line to help him with preparation and distribution of the music folders, set up of music stands and chairs, participation in a sound check. I also tore down the set-up and helped sort and re- file sheet music later. This work with my father was treasured time though the chores were tedious.

During the concert I often sat in the audience with my admiring mother. We both loved the tunes performed, humming along. At times Dad would invite the audience to join in and the hillside would be alive with music. He even sometimes sang one especially for Mom, his eyes and warm voice emanating love for his industrious, outgoing, attractive wife. They were in their early fifties then and year after year this continued. Watching them was a lesson in friendship and romance.

The city sky grew darker as music played on. Constellations above seemed on full power, more lustrous. I imagined what it must be to hear such lively music waft across the park and into residential blocks as people sat on their porches and in their backyards. Listening.  Free music for all.

Sometimes there would be a dance after the band concert, held on the tennis courts. There was a DJ; the tunes were current. Entrants allowed into this activity were eighteen and older. I pressed my fingers and nose against the chain link fence, watched fresh-faced young women attired in summery dresses, young men debonair in crisply ironed short-sleeved shirts and slacks. The circled each other, nervous creatures, then chose partners, started each dance with all manner of hopes flushed with excitement. They were so beautiful with their secrets and fascination, perplexing desire, laughter light and sweet on a humid breeze, their dancing like a rite of passage far beyond my reach. But I was content to watch, wait, dream, knowing my time would come, too. Wondering over it, what it might bring.

At twelve, I was still a kid and I felt quite at home in the world those evenings. I ran back over the hill, sweat sliding down my spine, sandaled feet flying. There were my parents down below, Dad opening a cold can of his favorite Squirt and both of them chatting with friends. Ready to turn out the bandshell lights once more. Many lingered, reluctant as I was to be released from a music-filled hour. To move from graceful open spaces into hot houses, leave behind an ease and reassurance of ordinary life lived well. Each week the groups shared camaraderie,  the neighborly news. Simple courtesies exchanged in a moonlit night.

I remember that summer before junior high school, before the thrilling, unnerving leap toward thirteen. It was part of a bridge from one age to another. We all embark on certain passages dictated by age, even gender; by family ways, religious traditions and cultures. And without a community to school you, to provide a framework within which to tentatively move and grow, it must be so much harder to accomplish. We each keep close certain people, times and places which have lit the path for us. That grasped our hands and cheered us as we searched for our fledgling adult selves. I was given invisible life saving aids even when I wasn’t aware, when I slipped, flailed and sank beneath other, more deadly surfaces than water through the years. Because all that time I had a refuge, a playground that was safe and inviting, with neighbors and friends close by. Those good times were as real as terrible times.

Optimism and liberation were encouraged in Central Municipal Park long ago, and still does. It’s rituals and recreation, its people and design. It’s taken me years to fully understand its power in my life, from childhood day camp to private figure skating lessons; lazy days at our equitable pool to music given voice in velvety dark. It was an active arena within which to also discover stories, small magic gems amid ordinary rock piles. I learned how to work and play better with others thanks in part to adult guides found there. And the beauty of a small city in mid-Michigan opened itself like clockwork each season. All I had to do was take myself into its bounty and participate. These things helped deliver me to myself that year and many others.

Every child needs a place to call freedom. Opportunities to find an expanded life. A good public park is one accessible place; their summer programs improve countless lives, I am certain. More youth and children ought to have their curiosity awakened, their bodies challenged. Perhaps more adults can recall the possibilities in the simplest of leisures –or create new ones. Why not put down technological distractions a few hours each week or even–stride to the edge of change!–daily, the rest of this summer. Find more to enjoy and bring it into your life.

 

Central Park Swimming Pool, 1964
Central Park Swimming Pool, 1964

3 thoughts on “Saving Graces: One Kid’s Summers in a City Park

  1. Fortunately the children in my pool hadn’t reached that awkward stage. Central Park must have been a safer place then than we hear it is now. Pondering your story makes me realise I couldn’t isolate any memories of my 12th summer in 1954. Well written as ever

    1. My story Central Park is in my old hometown, a Midwest city, not NYC; I don’t know how safe it is now… But I would bet it is in good shape, still,knowing how the area and inhabitants have been historically Re: pride of place. I guess I have a few memories of certain times that really stuck! Thank you, Derrick, for your words.

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