This man, apparently, is drowning. He's a large fellow, sagging listlessly a few feet below the surface of the water, which, in the glare of the morning sun, is the pure hue of old Coke-bottle glass. A girl about one-third the victim's size swims over and starts trying to hitch an oblong lifesaving cushion around his trunk, but somehow it is not working. The seconds tick away. Then the victim gets impatient, gives a quick, churning kick, breaches and sighs a spray of pool water from his lips. "Here," he says to the girl, gliding into a more manageable posture, "You got to . . ." She slips the cushion under him. "I'm a lifeguard," the girl says. "I'm here to help you." The rescue more or less achieved, the lifeguard swims back to the side of the pool. The victim, who is a lifeguard himself, takes a breath and sinks again, awaiting his next savior, who leaps from a line of teenage lifeguards, queued up in drill formation beside the pool.
Ryan White, manager of the public pool serving the suburban communities of Glenmont and Wheaton, is looking on. Ryan is having the guards practice rescues this morning because this evening the pool is having a get-together for local teens, who, all of this careful preparation seems to indicate, might have an exceptional knack for drowning. "On average," Ryan says, "you've got about a minute after someone starts to drown before they sink to the bottom."
A drowned patron is, of course, chief among a pool manager's worries, though there are lots of other hazards, mishaps and disturbances of the peace Ryan strives constantly to forestall: sunstroke, fistfights, loudly uttered curse words, scraped knees or cracked teeth of incautious people who run and trip on the concrete, electrocution via lightning bolt, spinal injuries, lost children, broken glass, unhygienic lapses in the pool's chlorine concentration, and bees, which today, are infesting the water slide tower and, as the day wears on, wind up stinging six of the patrons in Ryan's charge.
Ryan is 23 years old, about 6-foot-5, with a muscular, swimmer's build, a healthy mane of sun-lightened hair and a stern, capable demeanor. Late afternoon, Ryan stands in the guardhouse. His veneer of calm authority is showing signs of strain. "I'm irritated on many levels, for lots of reasons," he says to a couple of lifeguards. "I really want this to go smoothly tonight, or" -- he points at his temple -- "hemorrhages." But, for now, he has other problems. Someone has just fouled the leisure pool.
"It wasn't diarrhea, was it?" Ryan asks one of the guards. A brief, unappetizing conversation about the mishap's specifics ensues, and then, armed with a form reading "Fecal Contamination Clean Up Procedures," Ryan ducks out of the guardhouse. The pool in question has been cleared, but Ryan needs to go down to the pump room to crank the chlorine level up to E. coli-annihilating intensity and let the filter run for a couple of hours before the pool can be reopened.
This is Ryan's third year as manager of the Wheaton-Glenmont Pool, and, if all goes well, it will also be his last. Ryan graduated from the University of Maryland in the spring, and he's hoping that when the pool closes after Labor Day, he'll be able to start a career with the Secret Service or the CIA, which he seems to imagine will be a less trying line of work than managing a public pool. "When I got into this, I knew it was gonna be bad," he says, walking briskly past the contaminated pool. He breaks off midsentence, eyeing a brown bit of something in the water. He goes over and investigates what turns out to be a stone. "But there are so many things about it I didn't anticipate, dealing with kids, dealing with customers . . . You go home at the end of the day, and you're tired and sunburned, and you're so exhausted you can't talk to anyone, and it's the happiest you've ever been in your life. You're swearing up and down, 'I hate this job,' but I still come back, so I must like it, I guess."
Back in the guardhouse, a full-lipped, soft-bodied 13-year-old named George Romero is lying on the black Naugahyde daybed, suffering, he says, from dehydration. Ryan goes to the freezer and hands George a packet of gelid blue first aid slush to press to his head. George is one of the local boys who come to the pool every day, and Ryan knows him well -- a little too well, sometimes. Aside from George's medical condition, Ryan has just had a complaint that George flipped someone the bird.
"George, they told me you flicked off some woman," Ryan says.
George's eyebrows rise suddenly. "What woman?" he asks with vigorous sincerity. "I didn't do anything."
"George, I heard it was you on several accounts," Ryan says. "You know I'll be a lot less [ticked] off if you just tell the truth."
George sits up and nervously palpates the packet of slush. "What did I do?" he says, imploringly.
"I told you. Put that on your head," Ryan says, pointing to the packet.
George pauses. He knits his brow. "I showed her the finger?" He holds up his hand. He has a beige rubber band looped across the tip of his middle finger. He flexes his finger against the tension of the rubber band, as if to imply that if someone thought he'd given her the bird, she'd probably just gotten the wrong idea about the new finger exercise he was trying out.
"Yeah," Ryan says. "You showed her the finger."
Expelling troublesome patrons is a big part of Ryan's job. He has ejected so many people from the pool that he sometimes describes himself as "one of the most hated guys in Wheaton." But he does not eject George Romero today. "George is a good kid -- you want to help him out," Ryan says later. "But then he does things like this."
Anyway, Ryan's got other fires in need of putting out. Another lifeguard comes over, looking vexed. "Ryan! There's a little girl in the pool who doesn't have a bathing suit on, and she won't get out."
"Ryan!" And so on until evening, an unspooling chain of miniature crises, all needing Ryan's particular attention. As Ryan does his circuit, the sunset reddens and dims. "Teen night" staffers arrive, and so does a full complement of police, uniformed officers and also plainclothes officers with bulky Kevlar vests under their shirts. It's a little disquieting -- the avidity of the security detail; the visible, if holstered, firearms; the portent of pandemonium hanging thickly in the air. The line of people in the parking lot lengthens. Inside the fence, staffers, police and lifeguards hurriedly attend to last details, radiating the tense alertness of a ship's crew battening down for heavy weather.
BEFORE THE WHEATON-GLENMONT POOL WAS BUILT IN 1968, there were no municipal swimming pools in Montgomery County. In his forthcoming book, Contested Waters: A History of Swimming Pools in America, historian Jeff Wiltse cites a 1959 survey by the Washington Evening Star that found that in the 10 years following the desegregation of public pools, attendance at the District's eight public pools plunged from 416,000 visits in 1948 to fewer than half as many in 1958, "and seven of the eight pools," Wiltse writes, "were used 'predominantly' by blacks. Where had all the white swimmers gone?"
A lot of them had gone to the suburbs, to places such as Wheaton. The new suburbanites still went swimming, but in privately financed "community" pools -- built by developers to entice home buyers to their freshly manufactured neighborhoods -- not in public pools built on the county's dime. The community pools were popular among those suburban whites who had preferred the days of racially segregated pools; community pools, which operated as private clubs, gave members the right to restrict membership rolls, which tended to exclude their black neighbors, Wiltse writes.
In 1968, when Harry C. Press, an African American radiologist at Howard University Medical Center who lived in Wheaton, applied to the Wheaton Haven community pool, the pool's board rejected him, Wiltse writes, "and then passed a bylaw restricting membership to whites." A few months later, an African American woman named Grace Rosner tried to visit the pool, as a guest of white members Murray and Rosalind Tillman. Rosner was admitted, though the next day the association's board rejiggered the bylaws essentially to prohibit white members from bringing black guests to the pool. In a lawsuit that eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, Rosner, and the Press and Tillman families (with the support of Montgomery County), won a 1973 decision forcing Wheaton Haven to open its doors to African Americans.
By then, however, swimmers of all ethnicities were welcome at the new public swimming pool that the county had built five years earlier next to Wheaton High School. The opening of the county's first integrated, government-financed pool signaled the demise of the private community pool trend and presaged the changing cultural landscape of Wheaton itself. Through the '70s and '80s, Wheaton, which had been a white, lower-middle class community, became more richly marbled, attracting increasing numbers of African American and then Asian and Latino residents in search of a quiet, inexpensive place to live with a relatively short commute to downtown Washington.
But as Wheaton developed, so did the sorts of urban troubles its residents had come here to escape: traffic jams, drugs, crime. "When I was growing up, Wheaton was, like, the best place you could ever want to live," says Ryan White. But by the early 1990s, he says, he noticed things were taking a turn for the worse. "It was, like: 'People get shot in Wheaton. People get hit by cars.' I started seeing things in Wheaton I didn't want to be around."
By the '90s, as Montgomery marshaled resources and courted businesses to breathe new life into neighboring Silver Spring, Wheaton's vitality continued to flag. In areas such as the Connecticut Avenue Estates tract, across Randolph Road from the pool, homeowners were moving out, adding their houses to Wheaton's declining rental market, which had bleak effects on the neighborhood. Membership in youth gangs climbed, particularly the notorious Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, began climbing, says Officer Robert Musser of the Montgomery police department's gang unit. Wheaton now has among the largest concentrations of gang members in the county.
But Montgomery is now training its revitalization efforts on Wheaton, "to stop the decline," says County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, "and get it moving in the right direction before it hit bottom the way Silver Spring did." Since 2001, Wheaton's redevelopment office has drummed up about $350 million from private investors; $100 million of the pot is funding a major expansion of Westfield Shoppingtown, which next year is expected to debut a Macy's along with a fleet of other stores. County agencies have been sprucing up unsightly storefronts, renovating the affordable housing stock and bringing in high-dollar development as well -- the new townhouses across from the Metro selling for upwards of $500,000. "The other part of it," Duncan says, "was thinking about the public facilities around Wheaton we could improve on, and the pool was clearly one of them." In 1999, the dilapidated old public pool was interred beneath a new athletic field for Wheaton High, and, at a cost of $3.1 million, the county built a new one a few hundred feet from the former site. It opened in 2001.
Wheaton-Glenmont is not so much a pool as a township-scale water park trimmed lavishly with amenities and natatorial diversions: artificial geysers, slides, cascades, aquatic obstacle courses and springboards. The pool is cherished by residents (over the course of an average summer, the pool receives as many as 60,000 visits), and admired by out-of-town guests. "It's beautiful," says Carlos Diaz, a visitor from East Harlem. "In New York, you wouldn't see anything like this, not in a million [expletive] years."
For Wheaton, the swimming pool represents, in a modest way, the attainment of the community's grander hopes for itself. And while its modern-day patrons might not give it much thought, the pool also embodies a simple sort of dream Grace Rosner and Harry C. Press were striving for when they showed up at the Wheaton Haven pool 36 years ago -- a place where all kinds of people can pass the summer in neighborly accord. It means something to the groups of young, beleaguered mothers who chat and sigh and pass the hours while their toddlers splash and stagger through the baby pool. It means a lot to the retirees who make up another clique of regulars, and who, in reading or dozing poolside in the sun's wavering glare, are quietly pursuing the leisure they spent their whole lives working to enjoy. It means something to Ryan White, who, after spending his last three summers here, looking out for skinned knees, bee stings and swimmers in distress, plans to leave the pool to begin his career, confronting dangers of a more momentous order. It also means something to kids like George Romero, who comes to Wheaton-Glenmont day in, day out, and for whom the joys, dangers and complexities of teenage summer will unfold at the pool.
THERE ARE FOUR POOLS AT WHEATON-GLENMONT. There is the "splash pool," which is a shallow receptacle for the giant slides. There is the "leisure pool," a curvilinear, thigh-deep concrete pond outfitted with several small water slides; a couple of tall, steel mushrooms with sheets of water cascading from their caps; and a steel armature laden with several upside-down, metal dunce caps that are perpetually filling with water and yawing over. There is the baby pool, and there is the large L-shaped main pool. Behind the diving boards is a concrete terrace with chairs, a blue canvas awning and a view of the rest of the complex. George Romero refers to the terrace as "the chilling spot, where the popular kids hang out."
From day to day, there is a rotating cast of popular kids, whose core members are George and his older brothers Josh and Chino. Josh is 18, with short, tidy hair and a pencil-thin mustache. Chino is an affable, hefty 16-year-old who sends up marvelous, explosive splashes when he jackknifes off the diving board. The rest of the crew is a fairly harmonious crowd of mostly Latino and African American teenagers.
The Romero brothers' parents are from El Salvador, and the family of seven children has lived in Wheaton for about 12 years, in Connecticut Avenue Estates. The neighborhood has a checkered history, and while it's been steadily improving over the last 10 years, it still has a reputation in the community as one of the rougher parts of Wheaton. Perhaps because their father is a pastor (and a maintenance worker at the Justice Department) or perhaps because they've seen horrors befall people who follow the wrong path, Josh and Chino put a lot of effort into being good citizens at the pool. They break up fights before the lifeguards know they're going on. They get on the cases of kids who curse. They are easygoing, pleasant kids, though their amiability is leavened with an awareness that, at a moment's notice, situations can tilt out of balance in some dangerous way.
Today, an overcast afternoon, Josh and Chino do "suicide" dives, a variation on the cannonball in which you grab your ankles and punch through the water's surface with your face; George is talking to a girl.
George has a kind of circuit of girls whom he regularly teases, flirts with and importunes, but he does not, per se, have a girlfriend. "I'm a player, man," he says. George is in the intermediate section of the main pool, where the water comes up to about his chin. He splashes a teenage girl. She yells and splashes him back. Then he puts his arm around her. She is a pretty 13-year-old, with long brown hair and braces. She wears a white bikini stenciled with crimson Playboy bunnies and a red shirt with white script reading, "Heartbreaker." "This is my girl," George says. However: "She's not my girlfriend. I just make out with her." She grins and blushes. "Shut up," she says, and then they fall into a frenzy of accusations and vituperative splashing.
The designations "boyfriend" and "girlfriend," among the early teenagers at the Wheaton-Glenmont Pool, seem to imply not so much an emotional association as a vaguely bureaucratic one -- not someone you necessarily choose to be with, but one to whom you are in some bewildering way assigned. When George's "girl" spots a boy who she says actually is her boyfriend, she regards him with a bitter familiarity. The boyfriend pauses and looks down at her with a dull, emotionless expression. She briefly dips her chin at him and then gazes off at the verdure on the far side of the pool. "Hey," the boy says. "I'm 'a call you." She doesn't answer. The boy shakes his head, "See, she ignoring me."
Then the sky darkens. A blue-gray fleece of ruptured storm clouds drifts in from the west, and a cool wind roughens the surface of the pool, carrying the scent of freshly moistened concrete. A disembodied voice announces over the guardhouse PA that "thunder has been heard." Patrons reluctantly clear the pools and trudge slowly back to the bathhouses.
Soon the rain is slanting down. According to pool regulations, no one is allowed near the water in the wake of a thunderclap. Everyone waits in a rambunctious crowd in front of the guardhouse. George and the girl stand out front. They decide they will go on a date. "Let's go to Popeyes," she suggests.
"Let's go to Hooters," George retorts. Then he goes over and tries to put his arm around one of the lifeguards, but she twists away from him. He backs off and holds his hands up apologetically. "Don't hate the player," he says. "Hate the game."
The weather clears. The pool reopens, and George heads back to the diving boards, the idea of the date having dissipated with the storm clouds.
Late afternoon, three kids, about age 13 or so, arrive. They're all dressed in black, exuding a contrived, pubescent menace. They are friends of the Romero boys, but they sit up in the chilling spot and watch the Romeros disdainfully. "Man, can you believe these [expletives] pay to get in here every day?" one of them says, reveling in the fact that they managed to slip past the guardhouse without shelling out the admission, which is $4 for teenagers.
Josh hops up onto the diving board, and catching the eye of the young woman sitting in the lifeguard's chair, he smiles and does a campy little dance before he dives. One of the boys snorts. "This dude needs to get a life."
"Hey, Chino!" calls another. "Gimme a dollar."
"Why?" Chino yells back from the diving board.
"For the bus!"
"You live right over there," Chino says.
"Aw, man, I'm not tryin' to go home!" the boy yells back.
Then the boys start taking off their shoes and shucking their baggy jeans. They've got swimsuits on underneath. At this point, George Koutsos, the assistant pool manager, shows up. "I thought you guys were just looking for somebody," he says.
"Yeah," says one of the kids, peeling off his sock.
Koutsos asks why, then, does it look as though they're getting ready to take a swim? No one in the group cares to answer. Koutsos stands there, drumming his fingers on the steel railing, deciding what to do. Finally, he gives them five minutes to leave.
Chino comes up to dry off. "Lend me a dollar," the kid asks him again, and Chino does. The kid frowns. "Come on, man, lend me five."
Chino refuses and heads back for the diving board.
George Romero climbs out of the pool and ascends to the terrace. "Hey, man," says the kid who just touched Chino for a loan. "Lend me a dollar." George goes over and hands him a bill.
"M.S. was in here yesterday," George says. "The police came."
The boy is unimpressed. "I know who does all the killings in M.S.," he says. "I know who does all the drug-selling."
A few moments pass, and George goes back to the pool. The assistant manager returns. "I gave you five minutes," he says, with barely controlled anger. "It's been 10."
The guys say nothing.
"You gonna go?" Koutsos asks. "Or do you want me to call the police?"
The boys don't answer but mumble a few unintelligible phrases in a distinctly hostile register.
"Do you?" Koutsos asks. "You want me to call the police?"
"Yeah," one of the kids says. "Go ahead."
"Really?" Koutsos says.
"Yeah," the kid says.
One of the boys, who looks to be about 12, abandons the bluff. "Man, I'm leavin'," he says. And the boys troop toward the bathhouse, in a grumpy, shuffling gait.
George comes back up to the chilling spot to towel off. He looks down the back toward the road and sees a beige Maryland-National Capital Park Police cruiser nose out from behind an old brick clubhouse.
"Huh," he says. "What are the cops doing here?"
Moments later, George has vanished. Josh comes by. "Where's George?" he asks, his voice tinged with concern. His mother, who cleans houses part-time, and his father trust Josh and Chino to keep an eye on George and their other younger siblings at the pool, which isn't always easy. Josh glances down the hill and sees the police car. He looks around and finally spots George crossing the street. He's going over to a friend's house to pick up a video game. "It's all right," Josh says, watching his brother jog out of sight. "I just get nervous if I don't hear him say bye. I gotta look out for him, you know."
MONDAY AFTERNOON AFTER THE INDEPENDENCE DAY WEEKEND, the pool is crammed with a holiday crowd: A young father with a shaved head is trying to teach his two kids to swim, but they keep clinging to him -- one to his chest, one to his back -- a wriggling vest of children; a middle-aged couple dozes on the concrete peninsula in the center of the leisure pool, unperturbed by a nearby child howling, "Marco! Marco!" and lunging blindly after his friends. Nearby, a grandmother with her arm in a sling sits in the bleachers, watching her daughter and granddaughter swim. "I can't get in, and I'm mad," she says. It's partly cloudy, but every now and again, the harsh July sun breaks through a tatter in the cloud cover, glaring down on the pool with flashbulb intensity. A Latino family lunches at one of the shaded tables by the snack bar. The family talks in rapid Spanish, and the mother is searching for the word to describe something one of the kids is eating. The teenage daughter interrupts in unaccented English, "That's a corndog."
Past the leisure pool, beyond the shallow end of the main pool, opposite the Romeros' spot, sits another Wheaton-Glenmont regular, retired Lt. Col. Alfred Eisner. He is a short, sun-cured man of 72 whose poolgoing raiment invariably includes aviator-style glasses, an embroidered cap proclaiming his participation in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, knee-length shorts with "ARMY" stenciled on one leg, a gold chain, Hawaiian cowrie beads and a pair of dog tags that catch the reflected shimmer off the pool. On this crowded afternoon, Eisner sits with Frank Torchiano, 46, also an Army veteran, who sometimes comes to the pool on his days off -- one of the handful of acquaintances Eisner has made here.
Eisner is devoted to the pool. When he and his wife moved to Wheaton when they were in their late thirties, one of the selling points was that their new home was convenient to the pool. Eisner arrives each day with a large cargo of leisure equipment: towels, a small cooler, two radios, a newspaper and a police scanner, to which he listens to pass the time. He has so much stuff that he uses three chairs to accommodate it. He is somewhat put out because last week, "I had a little fanny pack I left sitting here, and some kid or somebody walked off with it," he says. The bag contained $4, a pair of prescription glasses, membership cards to the Military Officers Association of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Vietnam Veterans of America and a partial dental plate worth $800. "With the plate and the prescription glasses it's almost $1,000, but to the little stinkin' rat that took it, it's only worth $4, because he won't get any use out of the glasses, and he sure as hell won't get any use out of the teeth."
Wheaton, Eisner notes, is a very different place from quiet, village-like community he moved to 33 years ago. "When we first moved in here, you could leave the house and not lock the door," he says. "You don't lock your house or you don't lock the car, and they'll pilfer anything that isn't nailed down. But you get used to it. It doesn't affect me."
Torchiano is less pleased with the situation. He leans forward to look at a pair of muscle-bound, shaved-headed fellows sitting nearby who supposedly menaced a woman moments ago because she moved their chairs. "I thought I'd like the diversity of the place," Torchiano says. "But I don't. It's too diverse. It's rowdy. I'm watching these grown men fight with a lady because she moved their chair."
The park police arrive moments later. Eisner, who has been a full-time volunteer for the county police department during the seven years since his retirement, goes over to talk with the officers. "It's about that assault or fight or whatever over there," he says, easing back into his seat.
"Yeah," Torchiano says. "Something about somebody moving a chair."
When the whistle for adult swim blows, and all swimmers age 16 or younger have to leave the water, Eisner lowers himself into the pool and cruises the shallows. Even in the water, he wears his cap and, under that, a plastic visor emblazoned with a stars-and-stripes pattern and, under that, his sunglasses, which sometimes slip to his chin and make him look as though he has a second face.
Eisner says he began swimming when he was 6 years old, in lakes and rivers around the Sudetenland region of what was then western Czechoslovakia. Eisner's mother was Catholic. His father was Jewish and a partner in a successful import-export business trafficking mainly in children's toys. In 1938, when Adolph Hitler annexed the Sudetenland, Eisner's father was arrested by the Gestapo and then released with the warning that he and his family had 72 hours to abandon their home. The Eisners resettled in Prague, where they were told they had to register with the Gestapo and sew a Star of David onto their clothes. Because of Nazi anti-Jewish decrees regarding public schools, Eisner, who, according to Hitler's racist Nuremberg Laws was considered a mischling (someone of mixed race), was expelled from third grade. He was also prohibited from owning a bicycle, a radio or a record player, and from entering libraries, parks or museums, and from swimming in public pools.
In 1944, when Eisner was 12, he and his father were sent to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp north of Prague, where they were held until the camp was liberated by the Russian army in the spring of 1945. "You'd wake up in the morning, and the guy next to you would be dead, and you'd take the body outside for the cart to pick it up," Eisner says. "When I got out, I weighed 63 pounds. I had a touch of tuberculosis and dysentery. They sent me to Switzerland to get cured up." In Switzerland, Eisner says, he also got back into swimming. "They had a lake near the place where I was recuperating, and I'd be in that water every day."
In 1949, an American philanthropist arranged for the Eisners to emigrate to the United States. When U.S. immigration officials asked Eisner to state his religion, he decided that it was time for his affiliation with the Jewish faith to come to an end. "When I came over, I detected traces of anti-Semitism in America, too, and I decided I'd suffered enough. I wanted to go with a religion where no one could pick on me. I declared my religion as 'no preference.' "
After high school, Eisner began a 27-year career in the Army and completed tours of duty throughout Europe, Asia and, as a civilian consultant, in the Middle East. In his off-hours, his career gave him the opportunity to swim in a large number of lakes, oceans, pools and seas across the globe. "I've swum in every ocean in the world: the Atlantic, Pacific, the Red Sea and the Dead Sea," he says. "I swam on China Beach in Vietnam. In Korea, I'd go up to Cheju Island up toward Inchon . . . I was in Saudi Arabia for three years, and I'd get off work and go to the pool every day, and there's no winter over there." He also swims on the vacations to Hawaii and other warm climes he takes with his wife, to whom he's been married for 46 years but who doesn't often join him at the pool. "My wife's from Japan, but she doesn't like the water. She says, 'You must have been born a frogman or something.' " When Labor Day arrives, Eisner greets it with frustration, because it means he has to do his swimming at an indoor pool in Bethesda.
As adult swim wears on, Eisner completes a slow circuit of the shallow end, mostly walking along the bottom but occasionally floating into a gentle breaststroke. With the slow, careful stealth of an aged shark, he moves past young men splashing one another and couples embracing. Then he hauls himself out and resumes his spot in his chair.
He talks for a while with Torchiano. Their discussions tend toward military topics, and today's conversation turns to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When Torchiano decides to go home, he puts on a black T-shirt that reads "Bada Bing!" He gathers his towel and other belongings and gives Eisner a casual salute. "Colonel," he says, "as you were."
WHEN THE DOORS OPEN FOR TEEN NIGHT, George Romero is the first one at the gate. One of the plainclothes officers calls him over and subjects him to a vigorous pat-down, which causes George to wince and giggle. He walks past the tables by the snack bar, arrayed with decks of cards, Scrabble and checkers, games that are still in their cellophane and will stay that way all night.
The kids lined up at the door are many of the same kids who show up during the day, though for the boys at least, the tropical motley of bathing costume hues has dimmed mostly to black T-shirts and pants. Josh comes through the line wearing a dark shirt and dark jeans, whose cuffs he'd arranged to sit perfectly on the tops of his butter-colored boots, until the frisking messed them up. "Come on," he says to George, and the two of them and about a dozen other kids go over to a set of bleachers and watch the people filing in.
No one here is dressed to swim. In fact, everyone ignores the pool, as though it's an uncomfortable reminder that they're not at a nightclub or some other grown-up event.
"What are we doing?" one kid asks after a good 10 minutes of uneventful sitting.
"We're waiting for the girls," someone answers.
"I don't wait for girls," says a pudgy youth. "The girls wait for me."
When the girls don't immediately materialize, Chino goes over to a volleyball net set up behind the bleachers, and a few guys begin an impromptu game. But the game ends quickly when, early on, someone knocks the ball over the fence. Everyone turns and notices a police officer stationed in the weeds on the other side. The officer watches the ball bounce off into the underbrush. Someone voices the first syllable of a request for the officer to go get the ball but then thinks better of it.
At length, one teen gets restless and strips to his bathing suit. He goes over to the diving board and begins a series of suicide dives. Soon the others join in, leaving Chino and Josh on the bleachers.
Josh will be finishing up his high school coursework this fall, after which he hopes to win a scholarship to college. Someday, he says, he'd like to be a music producer or an engineer, or to run his own barbershop. In any case, this will probably be his last summer of daily visits to the pool. He watches the younger kids diving with an expression of both approval and regret. "Man," he says ruefully. "I should have brought my suit." After a while, the last and most reluctant of the Romeros' companions decides to give up the bench. "All right, I'm about to get my black ass in the water," he says. "Gonna get in, Chino?"
"Maybe later," Chino says.
Ryan White strolls past. "Hey, Ryan," Chino says. Chino is always solicitous with Ryan because he wants a job lifeguarding here next summer. Ryan nods and continues on his rounds.
Ryan is planning to take his entrance exam for the Secret Service a month from now. Already, he seems to have a knack for taking in his surroundings with wide-angle surveillance, simultaneously watching the fences, the bleachers and the water. He says his ambition for law enforcement took hold during the 2002 sniper attacks, four of which happened within a few miles of the pool. "I found myself mapping out the places they'd hit, thinking up these profiles of who it might be. It just sort of piqued my interest in doing something with intelligence or law enforcement."
Ryan is a focused young man who has respect for people who, as he puts it, "do what they're supposed to do." Under Ryan's recreation department polo shirt, at the top of his spine, he has a tattoo of a Superman logo, whom Ryan admires "because he's strong; he's smart; he does what he's supposed to do."
Suddenly, there's a commotion over by the bench where the Romeros were sitting, and Ryan walks over quickly.
Josh intercepts Ryan. "It's squashed," Josh says. "It's killed." A disagreement, evidently, between a couple of guys over a girl. "I know both of them," Josh says. "I got between them. I didn't want them to fight."
Moments later, there's a hubbub on the far side of the pool, 30 or so kids standing in a huddle. Staffers jog over worriedly, apparently expecting to see a fight. George stands at the center of the crowd. In fact, it's not a fight. It's a dance battle between a couple of kids, whom George is cheering on. A tall, muscular boy does a Dance of the Seven Veils with a pair of soggy towels. The girl he's dancing against does a boogieing robot sequence, leading up to a move where she pretends to peer down the boy's trousers and then makes a dismissive face. The looking-down-the-pants stunt is too much for the staff, who immediately break up the dance battle.
Some girls regroup up on the terrace and start a big synchronized dance. The girls are so confident with the dance, and so deeply ensconced in their mutual groove, that the boys who try to join them can handle it for only a second or two before scampering off abashedly. Then George joins in. He turns out to be a pretty magnificent dancer, stepping along with the girls, grinning a wide, white grin. But George and the dancing girls seem to vex an older boy, a raucous parodist who keeps jumping between the dancers and doing a violent parody of the dance until the whole choreography falls apart. When the dancers scatter, George looks lost and wounded, but moments later he finds a couple of other girls to dance with.
Then a voice comes over the PA, announcing that teen night is over. The music stops. George goes to find his brothers. Kids hoist themselves reluctantly from the pool, trailing wet footprints toward the gate.
It's 11 p.m. Ryan has been here since 9 a.m.; he'll be back tomorrow morning at 7:30. He stands by the leisure pool, watching the kids mill toward the parking lot. He appears nearly drunk with exhaustion and relief.
EACH DAY AFTER THE POOL CLOSES, when the frolicsome daytime crowds are gone and the water is serene and dusky, the staff lingers a while to clean up, and also, on some evenings, to hold swimming lessons. One night four students are attending a class for adults who never learned to swim. It is chilly for a summer night, and the water is cold enough to raise goose flesh. The students, who do not seem pleased to be in the water to begin with, stand against the wall in the shallow end, rubbing their arms against the cold.
Lifeguard Adriana Burgos, 19, stands before the group and hands each student a kickboard. Lenoria Maxwell of Takoma Park, a woman in her mid-twenties, looks at the kickboard and frowns. "I don't think this is going to keep me up," she says.
Burgos smiles, and her tongue stud, adorned with a small chartreuse bead, glimmers in the half-light. "It will," she says. "I promise."
"You could give her two kickboards," suggests another student, Jaswant Matheru, 49, a civil engineer who lives in Rockville. Matheru, who grew up in New Delhi, is a member of the Sikh faith, and he wears a bathing cap in place of his customary turban. He explains that during his childhood, New Delhi was short on public pools, and he never had a chance to learn to swim.
Maxwell says she's learning to swim because her son, a boy of about 6 who sits impatiently on a nearby bench, is already an able swimmer, and she wants to be able to keep up with him. The trouble is, she's suffered all her life from hydrophobia ("I used to get so nervous in the shower I'd start to hyperventilate"), exacerbated, she says, by people who used to toss her into the pool.
Next, the group tries some swimming unassisted by kickboards. Comparatively speaking, swimming does not come easily to human beings. Of the creatures that choose to swim, we are among the world's worst swimmers. "Only one animal that swims at all is less efficient at it: the mink," writes Thomas A.P. vanLeeuwen, author of The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool. Children, nevertheless, learn swimming the way they learn language, effortlessly. Adults learn swimming the way native English speakers learn Latin or Chinese: laboriously.
Matheru takes a crack at the breaststroke. His swimming style consists mainly of walking -- a few vigorous kicks and strokes before settling on the simpler strategy of strolling along on his feet. A third student is an emigre from Ivory Coast. His swimming style consists mainly of sinking. He pushes off from the wall, descending steadily toward the pool floor as his propulsion expends itself, like someone paddling a dinghy with the bottom cut out.
Maxwell has started swimming on her own. But when it comes time to stop, she sinks and comes up sputtering. "How do you stop and not sink?" she says. No one has an answer for her.
IT'S SATURDAY MORNING, and a swim meet is underway, the Glenmont Gators versus a team from Potomac Glen, also the Gators. Kids in caps and goggles strive heartily through the lap lanes. Parents and coaches stand by the water, shouting boisterous encouragement. A few minutes into the meet, George Romero arrives, fully clad, regardless of the fact that he was supposed to be swimming in the meet today. "George," says one of the coaches, "we didn't know if you were gonna show up," and then explains that the coaches had to scratch him from the competitors' roster. George, who isn't among the team's fastest swimmers, doesn't appear to mind.
After an hour or so, George tires of the swim meet and goes back to his house, about a minute walk from the pool. The house is a well-kept brick ranch with a carefully landscaped yard. The living room holds a vase with silk flowers, a comfortable new lounge chair that George sometimes puts his feet on, irritating his mother, and a matching sofa facing a multitiered shelf with studio portraits of George, his five brothers and his sister in large, shiny frames.
Not far from his house is a patch of woods where George and his friends sometimes hang out. It is an especially exciting place to George, he says, because rumor has it that a few years ago, some gang members killed someone and hid the body there. With another hour or so until the pool opens, George asks me, "You wanna go try to find the body?" I say okay. We drive through his neighborhood, past many houses that, according to George, harbor criminal secrets. "That's a Crip house," he says, pointing out a small, cozy cottage. "They always be stealing people's bikes." A little later he nods at a house where weeds are growing up in the yard. "Crackheads live there" -- information George says he's gotten more through neighborhood rumors than verifiable fact.
According to Musser of Wheaton's gang unit, although police are seeing "significant" numbers of MS-13 members, there's no evidence of "groups like the Crips or the Bloods moving into the area," and, Musser points out, Wheaton hasn't had a single gang-related homicide. Nevertheless, George's preoccupation with gang violence is not the stuff of pure fantasy. This spring, as George and a couple of female friends were walking through a service alley behind a CVS drugstore downtown, the boy says, they ran afoul of two gang members who waved a knife in his face and robbed him of a pair of sneakers. "I thought the girls were going to get raped, so I told the girls to run," George says, his voice growing quiet. "Then he held [the knife] up to my neck, but instead of stabbing me, he looked at me for 10 seconds. He just looked at me, when he could have stabbed me and left me to die. I don't know why he didn't."
We pull over near a stretch of forest, and George slips down a bank where a shallow, gravy-colored stream feeds into a pair of graffiti-covered culverts. George says some of it is gang graffiti, and also that somewhere in there he and his brothers wrote "Romeros," but so many people have visited with spray cans to distinguish themselves on the culvert that hardly any words or names are readable.
Then George bolts up the path, into the spacious interior of the tall, hardwood forest. Shouts and laughter from the swim meet across the road echo off the tree trunks. George knows the trails well. In today's quest for the body, he jogs through the underbrush energized by the mystery of his search, as though he's discovering this place for the first time in his life. He is on the lookout for a tree and a rock, which are the supposed landmarks identifying the grave. He finds a fallen tree and walks carefully along the trunk, which is slippery with cool moss. "Where is it?" he says to himself with consternation. "It's supposed to be around here somewhere."
The police haven't found a body back here either, or even had a reason to look for one. But George's hazy conviction that the body is in fact "around here somewhere" appears unshaken by the fact that he can't turn it up. Perhaps he believes the story of the body because he knows something the police don't. Or perhaps it's that even though there may not be a dead body in these woods, in George's world, at age 13, the idea that there could be resonates with just enough credibility to capture his imagination.
George brushes past vines and leafy branches. He comes across the shopping cart that he and his friends use to play "Jackass," a show on MTV in which guys do things like ride in shopping carts while someone rams them into a tree. He shows me a runneled path he and his friends like to ride their bikes along. And for now, having exhausted the secrets of the forest, the dead body seemingly forgotten, George ambles down the shady path into the full light of day. After the swim meet, George will head back to catch up with his brothers and his friends, who are convening at the chilling spot to pass another afternoon. "Without the pool," he says, "what's the point of summer?"
IT'S A CLEAR, HOT WEEKEND DAY, a good day for swimming. Ryan White is spending the afternoon trying to eradicate the yellowjackets still lurking under the water slides and also beneath the bleachers. The staff has laid out yellow signs that read "BEES!!!" with multiple underscores. Despite the warnings, by midday, Ryan has another sting victim to attend to. It's George. "I disobeyed Ryan," he tells me. "I stomped on the bleachers."
"The ones with the signs that say, 'Do not sit! BEES!!!'?" I ask.
"Yeah," he says. "Those."
Ryan sighs and leads him into the guardhouse. With a pair of needlenose tweezers, he extracts the stinger from the back of George's hand. George watches unflinchingly, his expression more one of curiosity than pain or apprehension. After careful work, Ryan holds the stinger up to George, who stares at it. Then he glances down at the little pale welt beginning to grow between his knuckles. He looks up at Ryan, and a giant grin spreads over his face. "Hey, man," he says with mock gratitude, "you just saved my life."
Wells Tower is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Tuesday on washingtonpost.com/liveonline.