Unlike our coastal counterparts blessed with an abundance of sharks and sand rash, our childhood summer days centered around the public pool. Every year the first lungful of fresh chlorine was a blast of memories of summers passed. Every year, the crystal clear water would slowly become tepid and cloudy with dead skin cells, and our eyes would become permanently bloodshot, yet its mysticism endured. Houses with air-conditioning were few and far between. Restless kids were sent outside under the wear-them-out doctrine. Drowning risks, sunstroke and general paranoias about basic hygiene? Pfft, she’ll be right mate. Bruised shins from a walrus re-enactment gone wrong*? Easily patched up with Band-Aids and ice packs, not legal action.
Romanticised and ringing with the stretched out vowels of rural Australia, this is my ode to the public pool.
The Pool was the shrine of salvation from a drought-stricken childhood. From the October long weekend until ANZAC day, we crossed barren sheep paddocks and parched creeks seeking its twinkling waters of respite. The Pool was a typical 1970s council build: squat and symmetrical. In fact, take away foam pool noodles and first aid kits, add some rugby paraphernalia or some hay and dust and you could just as well be in the footy change rooms at the oval or the toilets at the rodeo ground.
The Pool was smack bang in the middle of town. Its real name – Murrurundi Memorial Baths – was written in concrete letters on a decorative breezeblock wall. Its covered entrance was flanked by the pool manager’s office and the Kiosk, and depending on what job Mr Russell was performing, this office also doubled as an office for the lifeguard, swimming instructor and squad coach.
Stepping out from the shadow-cold threshold of turnstiles, our eyes would take a reverent three seconds to adjust to the blinding light. Spread before us in perfect visual harmony lay three pools: the Baby Pool, the Kids Pool, and the Big Pool.
This was Nirvana. An oasis of rippling green fields and the pools glimmered alluringly under a radiant sun. Nothing could muddy our wide-eyed wonder. Not even the threadbare bindi-infested grass. Not even the scorching hot concrete that scarred water-soft skin. The aqua blue of the pools left patchy circles of questionable paint powder on our fingers and feet after a long day of duckdives and handstands; our marks of holy ritual.
Big existential questions were prompted by The Pool. Like what is the real flavour of rainbow paddlepops? Is cola slushie colder than raspberry? How many times can you use the ‘fish out of water’ rule in Marco Polo? And is it justifiable by the code of a decent game?
Going to The Pool meant perishing Speedos, rockhard Killer Pythons, Ocean Girl re-enactments, floating bandaids, prune fingers, sunscreen, and sunburn. It was defiance of authority: broken no diving rules, broken no running rules, broken no swinging on lane ropes rules. And it was survival of the fittest: swimming club races, squinting through leaky Goggles, graduating to swimming caps, one breath for the whole 25 metres, dry heat stripping tender nostrils, tumble turns, and inch-wide polyester ribbons pinned proudly together.
It also provided us with un-subtle answers to the questions of life. Where my parents and teachers failed to educate me about the grossly confusing world of puberty, The Pool valiantly filled in. Boobs began to bulge under lycra and goosebumps came with nipple lumps. My friends started wearing boardshorts and avoiding the pool for a week at a time. Claire Friedman’s** yellow one-piece was see-through as she stood on the blocks for the weekly Swimming Club 50m freestyle. Fortunately, though, despite the warnings of a cartoon sex-ed video I saw at Healthy Harold, I never once saw an untimely erection. Nonetheless, hormones ran amok on the vectors of sweat and chlorine. Our blossoming sexualities had us holding hands underwater, sitting on shoulders for tackling matches and knees tentatively touching while we watched club races.
By the time my puberty hit, I was safely in the North Coast, swimming at Byron Bay where pubes and boobs soak up sun with reckless abandon. But I still wonder how I would have dealt with the fierce embarrassment of everyone knowing everything. Was this a rite of passage? Could have I known the secrets of surrendering to change, or to embracing my body for its rawness? I will never know.
These public pools are almost lost in the nostalgia abyss, a place just beyond our living realm where all ‘back in my day’ things go. A kind of Harry Potter Room of Requirement where the artefacts of our childhoods gather a rosey tint. In this place, there’s your dad’s marble collection. There’s a neighbourhood where kids can stay out late and roam the streets alone. There’s Icy Poles that cost less than a dollar and BeyBlades in chip packets.
Yet I clutch onto hope with a booger-soaked hand that some things do resurrect from the dead. Whether or not the quintessential public pool still exists, I’ll be here with open arms for whatever manifestation it takes, ready to thrust my imaginary children into its depths of wonderment and self-discovery.
* My best friend insisted it didn’t hurt. It definitely hurt.
** Name concealed for belated dignity.