Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Badge Pool

I've been thinking a lot about the Park Forest Aqua Center these days, particularly the Badge Pool. For those just getting ot know Park Forest through the blog, the Aqua Center was this amazing city pool complex, all outdoors, run by the city until the late-70s or early 80s when it became a YMCA and started its decline. It has had many incarnations and seems to be doing well now, run by the Park Forest Parks and Recreation Department. It was built in 1954 "by the citizens of Park Forest," a gigantic single pool with an octagonal deep end and diving boards that turned a corner and became a shallow kiddie pool.

When we were kids it was a complex of five pools. There was the adult pool for parents, completely gated and fenced; the teen pool, a long narrow rectangle with a high dive and deep end and a shallow end; the baby pool-- just a series of concrete puddles; a kiddie pool that was basically a two-three foot wading pool; and the badge pool. The badge pool was squat and full of kids who could swim, although mostly they were playing. You had to have a badge to get in, and to get the badge you had to swim two lengths of the pool.

Every day at 3:00 was the test, and kids would start lining up about 2:30 for the chance to attempt to get a badge. At 3:00, the kids were sent into the pool in spaced intervals. Those who already had badges would line the edge of the pool to cheer kids on or just to watch the drama. Lifeguards spaced along the way decided if you were still swimming or just struggling for your life. It was the first big test in life, like a driving test for nine-year-olds. Were they going to let you in the deep water? Did you have the skills? Were you a good swimmer, or at least good enough?

I remember the lead-up to getting my badge, going up to the fence and trying to get a sense of the challenge, seeing the bigger kids in the pool having much more fun than we could ever have in the kiddie pool. I took swimming lessons, so probably qualified for my badge earlier than some other kids. We'd try practicing in the 3-foot waters of the kiddie pool.

I don't really remember, but I doubt I made it on my first attempt. I sort of remember standing in that line several times. THe only way to really practice was just to do it. And I remember my utter lack of confidence, feeling that I certainly would not pass the test. I'm sure a large part of it was psychological. There was also the pressure of all those kids with badges watching you, yelling at the pool, knowing you were being watched AND tested. In not wanting to be embarrassed, how could you help but try too hard, gulp a big mouthful of water, and so fail. We'd psych each other up: "Just relax. You're a good swimmer. You can do it." But standing in that line in nothing but a bathing suit, it was hard to believe.

I know my sister didn't make it on her first try, because I remember standing by the side of the pool to cheer her on, watching as she started out strong, lost speed, more or less stopped kicking, and eventually was lifted out of the lane. Some kids would just keep flailing and turning their heads to breathe even as the lifeguard was removing them from the pool. It was in some ways a terrible spectacle. It was very clear when someone earned a badge, and when someone didn't. The bobbing and flipping sideways to gasp for air, the sinking, said quite distinctly that this particular child could not be allowed in deep water, lifeguard or no (of course all the pools had lifeguards-- four of them at the badge pool alone).

There was no triumph like the day you got your badge. It was a white plastic circle printed in red. As the possessor of a badge, you then had another decision to make. What bathing suit should you sew it onto? You likely had more than one for a whole summer of swimming, but only one badge, and it had to be sewn on to count (no sharing of badges by pinning them on the suit). So would it be the Speedo with the bad racerback tan lines, or the scoop-neck with the low back? I'm sure I went with my red Speedo the first year-- it showed off the badge's colors so well.

And when you were tired of swimming, there was no place like the gigantic sandbox alongside the locker rooms. The sand was clean and deep and the sandbox was shaded-- the only place in the Aqua Center that offered relief from the burning hot concrete. You could dig your toes into the deep, cool sand, watch the kids with all their trucks and buckets making elaborate construction sites, and live the dream of your town, where a couple men after World War II claimed acres and acres of farmland in the name of Families and Progress. The American Dream.

Please leave your memories of the Aqua Center!

Photo: Octogonal Pool at the Park Forest Aqua Center in the 1950s.


SauroMotel said...

What a cool entry...I don't have any memories of The Badge Pool but I could easily write a story based on this description. We have a public pool in my town now that is very nice but probably 1/20th the size of The Badge Pool and yet it is the envy of the city.

As to diving boards, I love when you see the bolts in the cement at a roadside motel from where they used to be...ask someone under 30 and they won't know what they were for.

Susan Sink said...

Thanks, Bob! The photo above is not of the Badge Pool but of the original pool in the 1950s which seems to have ben 3-in-one. The Badge Pool was not a terribly large pool, not even Olympic size I don't think. I think basically if you could swim, you should have been able to get a badge.

I also love those concrete and bolt remnants from pools at hotels.

Anne Lloyd said...

I just had flashes of badge test anxiety. We were all decent swimmers, for goodness sake, because our parents made us take swimming lessons from age six. But the Badge Pool looked so big and we were so cold, standing in line on June afternoons.

Mamaearth said...

I know that on more than one occasion, I wore my non-badge suit to get a badge for a friend. This brought back a lot of great memories.