In June 1961, I was seven months short of 17 and walking around without a clue. Aurora, Ill., was the center of the universe, the exact latitude and longitude of Greenwich Mean Time and more. Why? Because, that's where I was born and raised.
Aurora was just a small factory town (population 57,000 then) of no great significance, a mere postage stamp on planet Earth; I was no bigger or any more important than a red ant.
Aurora sits neatly tucked in the Fox River Valley, which was named after the Fox Indian tribe. The Fox Indians grabbed a hat and split at first hint of white-man encroachment. The only concrete evidence of their existence was the occasional flint arrowhead found haphazardly along the river. I examined such an arrowhead. It was so small I doubt it could have laid out a squirrel.
In '61 all you had to do was venture west one mile out of Aurora and you could see nothing but these huge Jurassic stalks of corn. Blame it on the rich topsoil. Rows of corn seemed to stretch out to the very end of the known world before dropping off into the black void. Over at 921 North Ave., I sometimes looked out my bedroom window, reading into the book of night and wondering how I had come to be in such a place. The Fox bisected the city into east and west. In summers, the sluggish river moved through Aurora stinking of dying carp and sulfurous orange iron foundry tailings mixed with foul, oily gray effluents issued freely from the North Aurora aluminum plant. The river had a base color of mud brown derived from farm runoffs and direct-deposit sewage. It was a regular chocolate milkshake.
While the river was a horror, Aurora had two public swimming pools with pristine waters so fresh and glorious I thought the pools were among the Eight Wonders of the Modern World.
That summer of '61 I was hired on as a lifeguard at the Phillips Park swimming pool. Except for myself, all guards were college students from the West Side; all of the female guards save "Plain" Jane were ravishing beauties and, actually, at certain angles Jane wasn't all that bad.
The first time I saw Pat remove her white pith helmet and scoop her wet vanilla blond hair back into a ponytail I was head over heels in love. Pat was a sophomore at a nearby university. It was out there in the boonies, surrounded by all of that corn. Even with a compass and map, you couldn't find the place until after the fall. I was of the opinion that the school was a Midwest version of Harvard.
All I had to do as a lifeguard was to sit on an elevated platform with a chrome whistle in my mouth and scan my purview for danger. The third day on the job a 9-year-old girl, face full of freckles, flaming red pigtails, in a pale yellow tank, took a hop, skip and jump -- tra-la-la-la-lah -- from the low board and sank to the bottom like a stone. I was off my tower with blinding speed and pulled her from the water before she could entertain the notion of drowning, which was exactly my job, of which I was mightily proud.
By the end of that first week, Pat was giving me after-hours kissing lessons in the bucket seats of her MG. Pat could kiss so good my cheeks flamed like a burning bush from the Old Testament (Exodus 3:1-5). Yet the first time my hand slipped south of the border, Pat slapped my face and said, "Kissing only, Ace, and if you give me anything close to a hickey I'll kill you!"
ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, Pat and I sat in the pool lot with the MG's top down drinking beer and watching skyrockets burst in formations of brilliant color over Phillips Park. Thereafter Pat and I went to Friday night sock hops at the Tomahawk Club. We went horseback riding; we played miniature golf and drove mini-race cars. Mostly we went to the movies.
Once, halfway through "Jailhouse Rock," with Elvis putting on some real cool dance floor moves, Pat bolted from her seat to the ladies' room to puke Paramount Theatre popcorn and a half a giant-size box of Black Crows.
Pat ran into "Plain Jane" and her date in the lobby. Pat lapsed into a fit of paranoia, as would any reasonable college sophomore caught dating a high school student.
After a while, I turned around looking for Pat. She was nine rows back sitting next to Jane and her boyfriend, Trent, a short guy with Tourette's syndrome. I cast a what-the-hell look, and Pat fired back an Elsa Lanchester "Bride of Frankenstein" look of reprimand. She did not want to be spotted with a 16-year-old kid.
After that close call, it was mostly TV at her place. She was hooked on "Peyton Place." I wasn't much on soap operas, but Mia Farrow, whom Pat greatly resembled, was launched into stardom in that series. (I preferred "Have Gun, Will Travel." Once, after an episode of "The Rebel," featuring Johnny Yuma, Pat said, "If he didn't wander around in that gray Confederacy rebel hat, he wouldn't get into such a load of trouble.") One night we drove the MG to the EJ&E Railroad footbridge. The EJ&E straddled the Fox. We sat on a blanket smearing peanut butter on slices of French bread and feeding them to each other.
Below us, the Fox had a narrow current just fast enough to send a cool breeze up to the bottoms of our bare feet. As we dusted bread crumbs from our laps we saw a shooting star, long and profound.
Pat said, "I wonder what cavemen thought of the moon and stars."
"I dunno," I said.
"Okay, then what did cave people tell their little cave children?"
"Maybe they were too dumb to think," I said. "I mean they were basically gorillas, and gorillas don't have such thoughts."
Then and there I blurted out my true feeling: "You are the most wonderful girl in the world." My declaration of love went over like a lead balloon. She said, "Let's call it a night, Slim. I'm dead tired."
DURING THE DINNER BREAK at the pool, it was my job to hose down the deck. When I finished, I began to hang the coiled hose back on its peg in the basket room. Pat came with a bag of Italian beef sandwiches, and when I turned around to look at her, the hose popped from the hook and its thick metal end whacked me on the end of my big toe. It felt like a train had rolled over my foot, and I hopped around the basket room like a Fijian fire dancer crossing a plain of flaming coal. Pat straightened a paperclip and heated the end with a Diamond kitchen match. I got the drift of her intentions and said, "Have you lost your mind?"
"It works, Slim, trust me. I saw my dad do it once."
Pat barely touched the base of the now-purple nail, raising the odor of burnt hair. When she made a second hole, a stream of dark red blood flew over her shoulder and my pain vanished in an instant. And so did my summer of rapture proceed.
If we weren't clowning around at the pool, making out in the MG or engaged in an aforementioned date of some sort, we were on the phone with each other by the hour. Everyone at the pool knew what was up at that point, but Pat no longer cared what anyone thought.
IN MID-AUGUST, a large Babe Ruth-looking gentleman showed up at the pool solo and began doing cannonballs off the three-meter board. Dangerous-looking cannonballs. Whistles were blown at him for crowding the board and general mayhem, but he failed to acknowledge them. His eyes had a glassy sheen, and it was pretty clear it had been more than a two-beer afternoon for him.
I was standing at the Dutch doors of the basket room watching the Babe's tsunamis rock the water. One after another. Climbing the ladder to the high board caused the Sultan of Swat to grow breathless. He was beginning to wear down. His cannonballs began to miss the mark and his form deteriorated. One went awry, resulting in a belly flop. In another attempt he grabbed his ankles firmly and, like a sumo wrestler without a whole lot of flexibility, his back crashed the water with a declarative smack. Sort of knocked the wind out of him. The head lifeguard attempted to intercept the diving giant, but the mammoth shoved him aside and climbed to the board again. What to do next? Or what not to do. He stood at the end of the green fiberglass board trying to come up with something new. "Well, go ahead and do it," I thought, "before the board snaps."
The Babe flared his thick nostrils and jumped from the three-meter board to the one-meter board, hoping to achieve a kind of Cape Canaveral liftoff. He would blast into the stratosphere and, upon reentry, perhaps a two-and-a-half gainer in the full layout position.
His aim was tragically off. From the high board, he hit the outer edge of the low, and his body shot to the side of the pool, his head slamming against the edge with a loud pop. It was one of those moments in which everything seemed to happen in slow motion. He floated motionless with his head bent cockeyed and with red ribbons of blood issuing from his nose, mouth and ears. There was an awful lot of blood. It took four of us to get the man out of the water, but his neck was broken, and he was deader than a mackerel.
THE POOL WAS CLOSED for three days. The pool's highly efficient filter could easily clear blood from the water, but the pool was drained and refilled. Pat dropped out of sight. When I phoned, her mother told me she was out and said that I didn't need to call five times a day. It was beginning to smell like the 23 skiddoo.
When the pool opened again, Pat took me aside and confidentially admitted she had a "real" boyfriend, a premed student who was working as a fisherman in Alaska. When she showed me the guy's picture, I felt ill. He was tall, dark and handsome in his Abercrombie & Fitch lumberjack clothes. I staggered away from her in a daze.
I could not eat; I could not sleep. I lost 10 pounds in hand-wringing despair. I had never experienced such awful emotion in my entire life. Finally, one of the guards said, "Two months ago, you didn't even know she existed, and you were fine!"
"No matter," he said, "time heals all things." Well, this happened more than 40 years ago, and if I were over it, why would I be writing this story?
LABOR DAY WAS THE LAST DAY of the season. The weather had begun to turn, and when it got cool poolside, the guards wore arctic-white quick-release jackets in the event of a split-second emergency. It was growing dark, and only a few swimmers were still in the water. Bob and I were the only guards working. In half an hour the gates would be locked up for the year. Bob and I were talking about how the White Sox had tanked. Suddenly a girl of 10 ran up to me and said that her best friend had jumped off the board and still had not come up.
The water under the diving boards was turbid after a day of intensive use. I couldn't see to the bottom, but dove down to the long rectangular drain feeling around with my hands. There was nothing. I surfaced for a breath of air and went down again. When I came up again I saw Bob had the girl in a cross-chest carry and was swimming to the edge of the pool. Within a few moments, the girl was breathing well and was surprisingly unfazed. She saw her mother's black Ford pull up and said it was time for her to go.
Moments later, as I was pulling down the chain security gate out front, the girl jumped out of the car to thank me for saving her life. I told her it was Bob, not me. "That time I jumped off the board a long time ago, you saved me," she said.
The freckled face, the red pigtails. It was the girl I had pulled out back in June. I said, "You learn the hard way, baby doll."
I made her promise me that she would take swimming lessons at the YWCA. I got a "yeah-yeah-yeah, sure!" and, as I watched the Ford pull away, its tires crunching across the gravel parking lot, I saw the girl's hand waving at me backward from a side window of the Ford.
"Okay, so long," I thought as the Ford picked up speed and soon vanished from sight. Thus ended the glorious summer of '61.
I kick-started my moped and buzzed past East High School on the way home. There was no concertina wire surrounding the red brick building, nor guard towers occupied by sharpshooters with high-powered rifles, but still it resembled a prison from which I had had only a momentary reprieve. In another day I would return to my homeroom in D-Block with a number rather than a name.
But sometimes you stumble onto a blind run of good luck. By mid-October, I was dating a tall, slender brunette who was easily the most beautiful girl in school. She kissed better than Pat, who, it seemed, had merely taught me the rudiments of that fine art.
Thom Jones is the author of the story collections The Pugilist at Rest, Cold Snap and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine.