I have always viewed Oak Park as a hotbed of activism. Most times this is a good attribute. But other times, well … other times we can make a controversy out of something that’s supposed to be fun. I’m talking about the proposed pool facility at OPRF High School.
I completely support the petition and referendum process. But my hope is that with the various angles of interest having developed over this issue, we all don’t lose sight of the numerous joys and pleasures that a swimming pool provides.
As “Pool-Gate” develops, I’ve been thinking back on my own experience with aquatics.
Growing up in River Forest, our family was very fortunate to have a pool in our backyard. A new pool at OPRF may or may not be open to the public, but our family’s pool definitely had a community aspect.
Occasionally family and friends still make references to the old backyard pool.
Recently, my son John, who last year was working as an Affordable Care Act navigator in Chicago, informing local residents about the health insurance exchanges and assisting with enrollment, texted me: “So I just enrolled some dude who used to swim in your pool. Small world, eh?”
Our pool was an important part of my upbringing in the 1960s and ’70s, and it seems a metaphor for the ups and downs of life itself.
My parents thought they were done having kids after number six. The pool, by virtue of its evolution as a neighborhood gathering place, seemingly increased our family size exponentially. The Romanos, Espositos and Nuzzarellos became “cousins,” and the Goggins, Jacobses and Wattses became just as close. The numbers kept growing as each of us invited our friends each summer.
And sometimes people who weren’t family or friends found their way into the pool. “Pool hoppers” were usually less benign than Neddy Merrill of the famous John Cheever story “The Swimmer.” Their 3 a.m. splashes often were met with a flashlight and lecture from my dad, who sometimes called the police if he was in a bad mood.
Lots of people, fully clothed, were tossed into the pool in the name of fun. Age, gender, and reason? Didn’t matter. There was the summer party guest, who, not having trunks, decided to just jump in naked, to the amusement of the other 40+ parents and kids — and one Catholic priest.
People smoked more back then. We had ashtrays for visitors, and as kids we giggled when we offered one inscribed, “We don’t swim in your toilet, please don’t pee in our pool.”
Safety always loomed and the general rule was having an adult around if anyone wanted to swim. At some point with all the people traffic and near-misses, my dad recognized a liability. He printed up half-page slips for parents of our friends to sign, waiving our responsibility in case of an accident or worse. But over time he became less insistent about it.
There were close calls and, at the end, a tragedy.
I saved two people from drowning. My brother Gian, around 4 at the time, was following my dad and me around as we planted spring flowers. I thought I’d heard a slight splash, so I approached the edge of the pool where Gian hung helplessly. I pulled him out with one heave.
A few years later, in the fall, as the pool water lay brackish and pumped down a few feet, the unattended 6-year-old grandson of a family friend fell in, witnessed and heard by no one. I happened to walk into the yard at the right moment and pulled him out.
But in 1991, a young neighbor wandered into the yard, fell in the water and drowned. It was devastating for our neighbors, extended family, and us. Somehow the pool would never be the same. Less than a year later, my parents announced their divorce, and the house and pool were sold soon thereafter.
A couple with a 6-year-old moved in, and soon word spread around the neighborhood of the unthinkable: The pool on Ashland Avenue was being dismantled and hauled away, and the ground filled in with dirt.
Any body of water has the potential for danger. The pool taught us that. But it was also a place where we learned the skill of swimming, where we played imaginatively, and where we developed social skills and friendships. These are things I’m hopeful a new pool facility in Oak Park will provide.
In the meantime, references to the old swimming hole never end. I visited a friend who moved back to Oak Park just the day before. As we walked into his backyard, his new neighbor appeared. His name was familiar and before I could place it, he said, “Oh yeah, I know your sisters. I swam in your pool!”
Anthony Gargiulo lives in Oak Park.