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The concrete rectilinear cavity is thirty feet across by one hundred feet in length. And, the depth varies from approximately two feet to twelve down at the drain. At the twelve foot end the high-dive structure sits ominously adjacent to the low board. The Opp Municipal Swimming Pool is the center of attention during the sweltering summer days in south Alabama, and it's no wonder that the young’uns wait impatiently for the coach to open the gate at nine o'clock every morning. Hell, where else can you get a Coke and a bag of Lays Barbecue Potato Chips for sweeping out the men’s and women’s locker rooms, and still enjoy a full day of swimming and running 'round the concrete in total defiance of the lifeguard's whistles.
At the deep end of this man-made ersatz pond are two wooden planks mounted on sturdy iron stanchions. One board is about three feet above pool level while the other board seems to disappear into the clouds. The high dive is reserved for budding Esther Williamses or crazy daredevils like Harry Jackson, Charles Nelson, or Louie Grimes. No telling how many belly flops result from the last minute panics and total disorientation as the divers become airborne, only split seconds away from the rock-hard, blue-green, chlorine-saturated cold water that siphoned down from the omnipresent Opp water tank—seen for twenty miles around the county.
We southerners are a visual people. Water tanks depict where you are. The bulbous gray monolith rises above the trees and low buildings and becomes the monument for high schools boys to utilize for significant rites of passage, such as hand-painted epithets: "Beat Kensington Eagles!" "Go Bobcats!" Beat those little fuckers on the football gridiron or my name painted here will be mud for another 365 days. Annual ritualistic misdemeanors, never enforced, surround the permanently embossed name of the town, followed by a comma, then the abbreviation of the state, like we don't really know where we are here in this county.
The Opp Municipal Pool is situated amidst the park which contains a tennis court, the city water tank, a seesaw, a whirl around, several sets of swings that take us up to the stratosphere, and many large trees and bushes that provide cover whenever we need to hide, for one reason or another. The pool is the main attraction and it is sacrosanct. No one dares to vandalize the pool or its facilities. Lordy knows, all there is to do is swim and sunbathe on many summer days, so why mess with a good thing. Besides, if someone caught you trespassing or vandalizing the pool or clubhouse facilities, Coach Nolen would automatically suspend your pool privileges with absolutely no recourse for appeal. This is the word that had come forth, passed down through generations, and everyone simply abides by its meaning, or woe be unto you, brother.
Most important in the daily procedures are the hours of operation because the children plan their entire schedules around this time. If you know there is going to be a western movie at the Royal Theater at 2:00, then you swim your butt off in the morning. If the matinee consists of some second-rate comedy, then take it easy in the morning and continue with your swim, and frolic in the afternoon. If the movie is Sierra Sunrise or Susanna Pass, then count on missing your time at the pool after dinner. Let us bow our heads in prayer, chillun.
Roy Rogers Riders Club Pledge
1. Be neat and clean.
2. Be courteous and polite.
3. Always obey your parents.
4. Protect the weak and help them.
5. Be brave but never take chances.
6. Study hard and learn all you can.
7. Be kind to animals and care for them.
8. Eat all your food and never waste any.
9. Love God and go to Sunday School regularly.
10. Always respect our flag and our country.
In lower Alabama, that summer sky is a dull gray as cloud cover develops shortly after sunrise. And the temperature hovers around ninety degrees, with the humidity close behind. The smell of ozone fills the air and we nourish that sensual effervescence along with the fragrances of gardenias, dogwood, and honeysuckle.
Every day, Rego and I run from Granny's to the pool, from the pool back to Granny's for dinner, and back to the pool after our naps. We run just to have a fountain Coke, and to shop for Levi's at Leo's Economy Store. We run everywhere. Our bodies are finely hewn machines—sinewy, lean, mean or, just plain skinny. Not one ounce of fat camps out on our puny frames.
We live nine months for the day when school is out and the pool opens for the hot, sultry summer season. We wear faded, shredded Levis with the patches sewn over holes where our knees have worn through; we eliminate any sign of footwear. The soles of our feet are like elephant hide, impenetrable by most objects, notwithstanding rusty nails and broken glass, for which tetanus shots are forthcoming.
Because he is the absolute leader and arbitrator of all occurrences around the pool, Coach Nolen must be discussed, and analyzed. Here is a young man, truly southern, whose mission in life is to train young boys in the fine art of a contact sport known, in Dixie, as a para-religious experience, practiced in the sanctuary of a coliseum on Saturday afternoon or Friday evenings. You guessed it—football, southern style. Coach Nolen is the supreme commander of all football activities at Opp High, which is located on the north side of town, comprised of one hundred percent white students and faculty, and a very small school compared to those in Mobile, Birmingham, or the Division One programs, up in Montgomery.
Coach can't wait for the opportunity to come each summer when he can take advantage of and mock my so-called Yankee accent. He says that I call him "Coo - ach." Hell, he thinks I sound funny and I know he is a true redneck with that Alabama drawl. This becomes ritualistic and I actually look forward to arriving in Opp, and expecting this harassment from the Coach. It becomes part of the syntax of the summer. Coach Nolen is in charge of the pool and its facilities during the three months of operation, from June until the beginning of September. I'm certain that this task is one way in which he can supplement his teaching and coaching income. In turn, all of the lifeguards report to the Coach.
Coach Nolen also holds in his supreme command the nominations for several lifeguards during the summer months. I am never a serious contender for one of these positions because Coach perceives my physique as being similar to that of a starving refugee. How could I possibly transport someone in danger to safety while swimming in the pool? He always underestimates my strength and my ability to react in a panic situation. More importantly, he underestimates my desire to wear the lifeguard's whistle, cap, and title. That is what really hurts.
Coach never suspects it but Rego and I know how to manipulate him. Somewhere between the time the pool opens in the morning and the noon dinner, we suffer from extreme hunger pangs as a result of all the swimming, and running, and swimming, and . . . you get the picture. Since we have no pocket change for snacks, we conjure up ways to sucker Coach into some work for pay. Usually, he pays us the huge stipend of twenty-five cents for the menial tasks performed. That quarter, however, buys us two Cokes, and a bag of potato chips, just enough to hold us over until the noon whistle.
"Panky, I’ll race you to the pool," Rego shouts across the dining room after dinner.
"Let’s go, Rego," is my reply as we blast out the front door and I am a mere three or four feet ahead of my cousin.
We are at full speed by the time we hit our stride in front of Miriam Donaldson’s house next door. Streaks of sheer light speed with the grace of two gazelles running through fields of grain, our knees pulled high as our hamstrings became fully extended, racing across the intersection in order to beat the oncoming traffic. Sometimes, it was a ‘50 Chevy or a senior citizen on foot, or an old black man pulling the reigns of a horse drawn buckboard. Of course, this is an illusion. In fact, we run like two Mexican jumping beans. Two blocks to go as we blaze in a dead heat past the First Methodist Church, down past the empty tennis court, by the seldom occupied swing sets and now, the last seventy-five yards, it is all downhill through the trees and shrubs to the pool gate.
"Rego, last one to the gate is Harold’s boyfriend."
That is all it took for Rego, the slower runner, to gain a final burst of speed held in reserve that would be crucial to the outcome of this foot race. Regardless of the adrenaline or of any supernatural ability, I usually win that daily race. Reason? I run out of sheer terror because I am a small kid and, furthermore, the stakes are high. I might even have to kiss Harold, God forbid! (We consider Harold the town sissy.)
"Okay, Panky, you win. But, I ain’t gonna kiss Harold. Wanna Dr. Pepper or a Coke?"
"Dr. Pepper’ll be just fine, Rue, if I can ever catch my breath. You almost beat me this time so I’ll give you less of a head start from now on, boy."
"Rego, Panky, get your butts in here, settle down and behave," said Coach Nolen, and he means it.
"Coach, how’s about a couple of quarters to clean up the locker rooms and sweep ‘round the pool?"
"Okay, you two, but make darn sure the women’s locker room is clear before you burst in there, like you did the other day. One of these days you're going to walk in there, and Miriam Donaldson's going to come out and kick your butts!"
Heck, that’s the only way we can get a shot of a little tittie, and that never hurt any young boy, for Pete’s sake! One of our victims is Myrtle Wright who tattled on us, and she said she would tell our parents if we ever did that to her again. Myrtle is my heartthrob, and I am very sensitive to how she feels about me. I wouldn’t do a thing to upset her, and so Rego and I made sure Myrtle wasn’t present when we acted up.
Boy, can Myrtle dive off that high board and she has perfect form, almost every time. I idolize her ability to do a jackknife, or a swan, or a full gainer when I can barely keep my legs and feet together for the most basic of any dive. “Hey Rue, and Butch, let’s sit over here and watch Myrtle practice off the high dive. She says she’s going to try a half gainer and I’ll believe it when I see it.”
So, the three of us place our little frames on the bench adjacent to the lifeguard stand and proceed to watch Myrtle scale the ladder clear up ten feet. Just watching her wiggle that little butt of hers as she climbs up those stairs is enough to make my day. My hormones were racing at a tender age. Feet together, hands down by her sides, eyes straight ahead, she begins her approach down the board. She springs up for the last jump to gain the altitude necessary to get her legs and feet up perpendicular—out in front. Then, with those feet tucked together, toes pointed, she reaches for her toes, holds her position for a split second and then throws her head and upper body back to form a straight perpendicular to the waterline. Myrtle’s hands, head, torso and legs enter the pool with nary a splash. “10, 10, 10,” we shout as she swims over to our side of the pool. “That’s a perfect dive, Myrtle. How come we can’t dive like you? Come in to the clubhouse and we’ll buy you a Dr. Pepper and some barbecue potato chips.”
About this time Harry came over to us as we were sitting at the deep end dangling our legs in the water, sat down beside us and said, " You boys know how to keep from getting the clap? Well, let me tell you."
I looked at Rego and he looked at me and we both wondered, "What in the heck is the clap?"
Harry said, "When you’re through, you pee. That's what gets rid of the bug that gives you the clap."
What in the heck does this have to do with Myrtle diving off the high board, we wondered?
"Rego, have you, Butch, and Panky been uptown to see the tinker selling all sorts of stuff?" asks the Coach. "He’s got pots and pans, animals and snakes that you should see. He usually rambles through these parts every summer and we like to think of him as an institution here in Opp. A little weird but he’s okay."
"Rego, let’s quit swimming and hightail it up there before dinner, okay?"
"All right with me, Panky, but we don’t have our money from Coach yet. Coach, can you pay us in advance for sweeping out the locker rooms, plus a couple of extra quarters? We’ll pay you back this afternoon."
"Here’s some change, you two, and I’d better see a return of my investment or it’ll come out of your hides," is Coach’s reply.
Shortly before noon we change back into our jeans and then we run up the street towards the post office where this vagabond has his wooden wagon, sort of like the chuck wagon you see in the western movies, with all of his paraphernalia displayed. What a character he is— scrubby, with a beard and tattered clothes, but his sales pitch is eloquent. Here is a natural born salesman with that critical ability of creating a need within everyone he spoke to and being able to negotiate the correct sales price for whatever goods or animals being considered by the townsfolk. This tinker has rabbits, foxes, squirrels, pots, pans, clothing, herbs and snakes. Snakes!
Rego, Butch and I literally go crazy when we spy the slithery creatures in their makeshift cages, and we simply have to have one. Our pulses speed up and when the tinker opens the cage and gathers up a small reptile, we can’t believe our eyes. This vine snake is about a foot long, a quarter inch in diameter, and can’t hurt a flea. Well, maybe a flea but nothing else would fit down its measly mouth. Other than the fact that it moves, the most significant characteristic of the snake is the color. Its back is a bright Irish green and its belly is a softer, more yellow-green. It’s the cutest “thang” I’ve ever seen.
"Hey, boys, hold this one for a while. Won’t hurt you. Get familiar and you won’t be afraid. Put it around your neck and feel it move," said the tinker.
I reply, "Are you out of your mind?" I am terrified at the thought of this thing creeping ‘round my body.
Rego says, "Panky, put it ‘round your neck and I’ll do it too."
Rego always makes me go first and, like a dummy, I do. "Say, it feels weird but not too bad. Tickles and it’s a strange sensation but, otherwise, I don’t mind." Knowing that this was totally strange and unlike anything we’d ever done before, we got a wild charge out of it, like we were getting away with something.
"Panky, bet you won’t wear that snake around your neck when you go home for dinner, just to scare your folks," Butch challenges us.
"Bet I will too, Butch. I’ll wear it and Rego gets to ring the doorbell. When they answer, they won’t know what’s happening until they stare at my neck and see the snake begin to slither."
"Mister, how much do you want for the snake?" we ask.
"Gimme fifty cents and he’s all yours. It eats insects and small leaves, so don’t go feeding him grits, and stuff like that."
We give the tinker everything we have, and then proceed to giggle all the way home. Butch went on down to his house and said he’d join us back at the pool later. As we approach Granny’s house, we stop to regain our composure, as if we had any to begin with. I coil the snake around my neck and then proceed to put on my poker face. Rego and I slowly and quietly walk up the front porch steps when we hear everyone inside the house preparing for the noon dinner. Rego reaches up to turn the mechanical doorbell as I step squarely in the middle of the front door, with our friend slithering from my shoulders up to my ears.
Our mothers, Lucy and Evelyn, open the door and say, "What are you two doing now? You never ring the doorbell. Why are you standing in that doorway with those silly grins on your faces? You talk to us, young men. And, what is that thing around your neck, Panky? Granny, come here and look at how strange these two are acting."
At this point the two of them recognize the object around my neck, and their perfectly lipsticked mouths begin to let out screams that can pierce a steel reinforced concrete bunker. These damsels come apart at the seams. Neighbor’s doors burst open, cats scurry up the trees, the hens in the backyard fly the coop, and Rego and I fall down laughing. We are choking to death and our stomachs cramp from the strain of our own laughter. It is a marathon of comedy and, by far, the liveliest event to occur on Ida Avenue since a young and well-endowed Miriam Donaldson walked out to retrieve her morning newspaper clad in a very short negligee. Rego and I’ll never forget that sight. Think that was the point in our physiological development when we began to feel some serious hormonal changes.
Mom and Aunt Evelyn almost have to be taken to the Mizell Memorial Hospital, and Granny to the couch for respiration, because of our prank. Rego and I assure them that the snake is harmless and we find a glass Ball jar in the kitchen so our little buddy can have a home. Throughout our noon meal Rego and I can’t keep straight faces. We’d take a few bites of food and then burst into laughter. This ordeal is repeated about a dozen times before we are warned that one more outburst will result in a serious switching. This threat settles us down for about five seconds. There is absolutely no hesitation in my mother’s and Aunt Evelyn’s voices when they emphatically say, "The snake WILL be returned now to that tinker for a full refund, or else."
Do you think that Rego or I question the "or else" for one, single minute? We do not. Discretion dictates that we capitulate and get uptown quickly to return our newly acquired friend.
Laughing all the way up Ida Avenue across the empty lot and up to the post office we rehearse what we will say to the tinker. "Sir, our mothers said we can’t keep the snake, so can we have our money back?"
"Boys, I don’t want a used snake. How can I make a living if everyone returns what they bought? Tell you what. I’ll take it back but it’ll cost you a quarter for my troubles, so you get only a quarter back. Fair enough?"
“It's all right with me, Panky," Rego said.
"Okay Rego, let’s get our money back and beat feet back to the pool."
We reluctantly surrender the snake back to the tinker in return for half our investment. Obviously, he is miffed with our return, but he makes fifty percent on the deal and he can resell the little fella to other idiots like us. Soon, we leave the post office to head back to the pool but not before stopping at Dean's Pharmacy for a fountain Coke. Nothing, absolutely nothing beats the taste of a fountain Coke along with one of Delia Barganier’s chicken salad sandwiches, which are stocked fresh daily on a plate situated atop the fountain. These delicacies consist of fresh chicken salad spread on Holsum bread, with the crust removed, and then wrapped in Cut Rite wax paper to preserve the flavor. Delia is Granny’s sister-in-law who lives next door to us, and this is one way that Delia picks up some extra spending change.
Next stop is Uncle Johnny’s store, right next door to the pharmacy. We love going into his store and teasing Rego with slogans such as, "See Rue for shoes," or "Rego Rue has holes in his shoes," or "I'm Rego Rue. My dog, Buster, and I live in there too." Silly stuff but fun. Most of all we want to use Uncle Johnny’s shoe X-ray machine to view our feet under the green light, and use the pointer to measure our big and little toes. Uncle Johnny yells over for us to curtail this activity because he has paying customers who need to be fitted for shoes. And, our feet are filthy and probably crawling with microscopic creatures just waiting to jump off into his machine.
When we return to the pool and tell Coach Nolen and the lifeguards about our purchase, and the terror that ensued, they can’t stop laughing. As a matter of fact, they think it is the funniest thing they’ve heard in a long time, and their only regret is not being present to witness the hysteria, first hand. Coach said, "Panky and Rego, you’re darn lucky that your mothers didn’t break your necks after that silly stunt. Maybe your fathers will take care of that personally, knowing them. Nonetheless, it is quite a tale and you two never cease to amaze me with your antics. By the way, go ahead and keep the quarter as good luck. I’ll work it out of your hides tomorrow."
So, back to Myrtle and her diving. A much more serene way to enjoy our leisurely afternoons at the pool. First, she performs a beautiful side jackknife, then another half gainer, followed by an Esther Williams-type swan dive. Shoot, I can’t follow this act, so we go around back of the clubhouse for some smokes. Is Coach here or has he gone home for lunch?
Who's got the Pall Malls?
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