Thursday, August 26, 2010

Grande dame of the chlorinated world

In a mildly frenzied attempt to fit in all the activities we'd wanted to try before summer's end, we've been doing some running around in the past couple of weeks. Trips to fairs, museums, theaters, and water parks have all occurred here recently. One of the unexpected highlights, for me at least, was a recent afternoon at North Park Pool.

Now, North Park is huge, and I've canoed on the lake and taken walks and attended various picnics and parties there. But until last weekend, I'd never visited the pool. We simply live too close to our local pool to justify driving the extra 5 or 10 minutes to that old northern behemoth. However, after our last trip to the nearby pool, Marcus declared it too "splashy" (translation: too overpopulated with mostly older kids who kicked, jumped, and otherwise disturbed his watery revery). I'd read about the monstrous North Park pool and wanted to check it out.

I called on Saturday at lunchtime for prices and hours, and found out from the recording that the pool would be closing in just two days because they simply could not keep it staffed adequately beyond that very weekend. We panicked, threw sunscreen and drinking water into the trusty beach bag, and headed north. That day, the pool's next-to-last day, was our only chance to go this season since we'd been gifted with baseball tickets for the following Sunday afternoon.

The vast pool parking lot alone is impressive; it has to cover 4 or 5 acres, or I've lost my spatial gauge altogether. We found a spot with ease, locked my ancient vehicle, and carried our goods to the window to pay admission. Following the signs led us through the women's shower and locker rooms (the only way to reach the pool). Those spaces, too, were unbelievably large—I stepped into more than one wrong passageway before finally finding my pathetic way, kid in tow, and emerging into warm sunshine.

The view hit me immediately. Both restrooms exit onto a huge concrete patio, the largest I've ever seen. Gigantic welcoming steps lead down to the pool, which is surprisingly enormous. The boy and I carefully descended those steps, going toward the separate baby pool which is also immense. We found a spot on the grass in between baby and "big" pools, spread our blanket, and hit the water. (No plastic adjustable chaise lounges here—this is old school, people.)

There was no danger whatsoever of splashy kids. The shallow end stretches for what seems like miles; any trouble is easily visible from some distance away. It was a cinch to avoid the few bigger boys who'd rented large, yellow tubes on which to float (and to upset from underneath unsuspecting buddies). The space along the wall, normally coveted areas of moms and small kids everywhere, was so ridiculously available that we didn't even feel the need to linger there. The water was perfect, not too warm but warm enough; we could look down to the other end and watch kids zip out of the big slide, observe others jumping into a deep end that was flocked on both sides by solid, red brick bleachers. Those babies weren't going anywhere. There must have been swim competitions here back in the day—perhaps there still are, for all I know.

When we headed up to the snack bar for goodies, peering inside revealed how it was also absolutely huge. The choices were limited; the management was trying to unload all the current stuff and hadn't ordered anything new in light of the next-day closing. We got some fries and I asked about taking them to our blanket. The young girl who served us explained that no food was permitted off of the veranda.

Yes, the veranda. I noticed the same message on a sign posted near the snack window. Now, I ask you: how many pools have you visited that have a veranda? Heck, how many homes have you visited with a veranda? My answer is none. Unless you count Fallingwater. But I didn't know those people, and it's not a home these days. So.

While we sat at one of the many picnic tables, I read bits from an old plague posted on a large brick wall that keeps snackers from tumbling down to the level of the pool far below. Apparently, this lovely, impressive place was dedicated in 1936. Probably a WPA undertaking, although I couldn't confirm it. The official title those days was "Allegheny County Swimming Pool," according to a separate but also ancient plague. I looked down from the massive veranda at the thousands of gallons of wet, at the very stable brick bleachers at the far end, at the expanse of grass on all sides of water, and I imagined what it must have been like when it opened. People streaming in wearing more modest swimsuits, throngs of ladies donning their gear in that mammoth dressing room. I wondered what sorts of snacks they served in the 30s. I pondered what the admission would have been, how long it must have taken many pool-goers to drive in temperamental automobiles on back road after back road. I tried to imagine the fellows, impressing the gals with silly dives and stunts, just like nowadays, yet more innocent—or at least that's how I pictured it. I longed momentarily for olden days, when just going to a pool was enough, when a shimmering rectangle of water was a day's vacation in and of itself.

And then I realized that it's still enough. I breathed a deep breath, stole one of the last fries from my son, and we wiped greasy fingers before tossing the evidence and lazily sauntering down to our blanket once more.

The swimming pool—or should I say, this swimming pool—will suffice quite nicely. It's still every bit as appealing as it was on opening day, because a true grande dame maintains her charm, even when her dew has gone.


chris h. said...

Oh, thanks for the trip down memory lane! We grew up going to North Park Pool -- there used to be a bus from the nearby elementary school, and it was the best thing my brothers and sisters and I remember about summer. The pool and facilities ARE amazing. I love the twists & turns through the dressing rooms and showers before, as you said, you come out on that magnificent veranda. (And by the way, I have yet to see a WPA project I don't love -- those things are full of stone and beautiful craftsmanship.) North Park itself was our go-to picnic site (and pretty much everyone else's I knew, too). I just love that place.

Cher' Shots said...

Why do summers end so soon and winters drag on forever? Great post.

Mel said...

Hey Chris--I totally forgot about that being near your old stomping grounds! What a great place to recall from childhood. and yes, WPA (good thing or mistake, you decide) produced some wonderful and memorable results.

Cher' Shots, thanks for stopping by! Totally agree about the winters dragging on. Come back and visit anytime!