Brigitte Bowers: Every kid deserves a place to splash

May 18, 2013 

As long as I have lived in Merced, it has been a town divided into south and north, with most of the growth and financial capital invested on the north side.

So I was pleased to read recently about the long-overdue improvements planned for McNamara Park, including upgrades to the pool area.

Public pools featured prominently in my childhood summers. My father was in the Navy, and we often lived on base, where our summer mornings were filled with reading, fighting and bike riding.

But at noon, the time the rec center pool opened, was always in the back of our minds. At 11:45 a.m., wearing our swimsuits, towels draped over our shoulders, we joined the other kids on the crowded sidewalks and began the daily pilgrimage to the pool.

For 50 cents, we got five hours of swimming. No one paid any attention to the sign by the bathrooms that said the pool had a maximum capacity of 95. We were all allowed to enter, but sometimes the pool was so crowded that actual swimming was the one thing no one was able to do.

Swimming wasn't the point, anyway. The little kids were there to play, and the teenagers were there to hang out while pretending to watch their younger siblings.

At the diving board, older boys practiced their cannonballs, splashing the girls who sat on the edge of the pool, their legs dangling in the water. We never noticed any adults, and I suspect that's because there weren't any. The lifeguards were all high school students who yelled at us, over and over again, to stop running on the cement.

Most of us were under 10, an age when there is no such thing as a stranger in a public pool. The opportunities for contests in a large body of water, where gravity seemed suspended, were endless.

"I can do seven flips in a row," one boy would say, and soon 10 kids were flipping around in a frenzy of churning water, coming up only long enough to announce their scores, which were almost always a lie.

If a 10-year-old boy claimed he could make the biggest splash, in an instant we were out of the pool and throwing ourselves back in again.

If a 9-year-old bragged that she once swam across 10 times without stopping, a race was on to beat her record.

If an 11-year-old announced that he could hold his breath underwater for two minutes, without pause we were sucking in a lung full of air and submerging ourselves. Cheeks puffed out, bloodshot eyes open to make sure nobody slipped to the surface for more air, we stayed underwater until we thought we'd explode.

I learned to float in a public pool. My older sister Isabelle taught me one afternoon. While kids all around us zipped by, screaming and splashing, I lay on top of the water, Isabelle's hands under my back, and tried to be weightless.

Sometimes, Isabelle and I tried to sit at the bottom of the pool, our legs crisscrossed and pretending to drink tea.

When 5 o'clock came around, the lifeguards blew their whistles and made us get out. We found our towels, which were always soaked, and headed home. We were exhausted and hungry and our eyes stung from the chlorine, but we'd had a good day.

Though most of us were the kids of enlisted sailors and money was tight at home, we had access to luxury at the pool.

We considered swimming a birthright, and I still think this is a correct assumption. Every kid needs a neighborhood pool, and I hope the one at McNamara stays open for a long time.

The people of south Merced, an area that has suffered from economic decline for so many years, deserve a park where kids can feel safe and have fun. The upgrades to McNamara and the pool are an investment.

Hopefully, it will be protected by a strong and highly visible law enforcement presence.

Perhaps a better park will lead to further development on the south side, and help to foster a more integrated city, one that is vibrant and relatively safe for all the children who live in it.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.

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