Summer and the Simple Life in Madison, NJ

I'm trying to remember what it's like to live in a small town...a place where you know your neighbors and their kids, and you can knock on their open screen door to borrow milk for pancakes when all the stores are closed on Thanksgiving morning. A place where you can enjoy a night walk in the neighborhood by yourself and not worry about feeling safe.

I grew up in a place like this. In Madison, NJ, (pop. 16,000) I knew both of our next-door neighbors - coincidentally, both older Italian couples with husbands named Joe, on one side we had the Marano's and on the other side, the Romano's. In the spring, I woke up to the sound of a Little League bat hurling a ball onto one of the three baseball fields across the street from our house, and I heard these sounds through my bedroom windows, which were always wide open in the spring. Summers in Madison were as perfect as they could be. Summer meant going to the Madison Community Pool every single day. I'd wake up, eat some cereal, read a good book for an hour or so or watch cartoons, and then mom would call up the stairs and see if I was ready to go. I'd grab my beach bag and jump into the '70s Camaro, ready for another day swimming in the sun without a care in the world....and to see my friends and especially Herbie the Ice Cream Man.

We always drove the same route to the pool, up past all the Italian homes on my street, Myrtle Avenue, left on Ridgedale, past the historic homesteads with the wrap-around Victorian porches, right on Fairview, down the hill to the corner of Central Avenue, where the HUGE, ancient Victorian sat back majestically from the road, across Central, around the curve, past the soccer field and....oh yes....I can smell it and hear it now....

As we turned into the parking lot, I could hear the sound of the diving board flubbering on the metal supports as someone plunged into the diving tank...the crickets singing from the thick woods on the other side of the pool fences...the smell of chlorine mixed with dried popsicles, a smell that can only be characterized as the stickiness of summer.

To my chagrin, Mom always parallel-parked at the farthest possible spot away from all other cars so no one would hit her precious Camaro. So I had to stomp in the weeds as I shimmied out of the car with only my bathing suit, beach bag, and dry towel wrapped around my waist. Woe to the day I forgot my sandals and had to draw in my breath and run on barefoot tippy-toes across the burning asphalt in a race for the front entrance, my mom clomping behind me in her wooden Dr. Scholls.

The entrance to the pool was a monument to my childhood. First, there was the grass picnic area next to the bike rack, worn with tire marks from the ice cream truck's daily pitstop....and then the glimmering "3 big rocks" that sat on a grass island creating a circle drive at the pool entrance next to the flag pole. These "3 big rocks" were not only boulders; they were daily visiting spots, gossiping points, home bases for freeze tag, you name it. They also had the world's stickiest surface due to years and years of drips from Creamsicles and Toasted Almond Good Humor Pops.

So past the rocks, and in we'd go....who would be the lifeguard at the entrance checking badges today? Would it be the cute senior guy from Madison High that I had a crush on at age 8? Well, whoever it was, he/she inevitably had a whistle on a chord double-wrapped around his/her neck like a choker (which all of us little kids thought was SO cool and would imitate as soon as we got home), feet propped up on the desk that held the cash register, and then came the lazy phrase, "Hey...badges please." I would proudly expose my upper left hip where my badge was pinned to my one-piece, walk a few steps further under the portico, and remove my sandals (if I hadn't forgotten them). Why? "NO FOOTWEAR ON THE DECK." This sign was glaringly obvious as you went through the entrance, and anyone who ignored it was whistled at by a guard (not in a good way) and asked to remove their sandals promptly or else.

The best time of day to arrive was when it opened at 10 am. The guards were just taking their stands, and the water was crystal clear and unbroken. I'd usually scan the place from right to left....kiddie pool and tire playground with the tether ball and volleyball/badminton courts in the far distance, then the 2 and 3 feet area with the small water slide, under the blue and white rope to the 4 feet section, the main swimming area. It was huge. You could yell across the pool to your friend, but she wouldn't hear you as she dove in to do another handstand. Past the 4 feet to dun-dun-duh.....the exclusive "adult-badge-required" area: the 5 feet lap lanes. Yes, it was a celebratory occasion during childhood when you passed your "deep water test" and could then swim under the rough blue and white rope with the attached mini buoys to the adult swim area. I'll never forget my first time over there after I passed the test. It almost felt like snooping around in my parents' bedroom when they weren't home. I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually allowed to be there now. But past the adult lap lanes was something greater and more important still...the glorious crown jewel of the Madison Community Pool: the diving tank.

You must really understand the diving tank in order to appreciate it. 12 feet deep and shaped like a colossal punch bowl when you opened your eyes underwater, this section was definitely for the brave and big kids. I started on the low dive, then the medium dive, but it was the pinnacle of summer the day I first jumped off the beautiful, towering high dive. I remember jumping off so many times in a row that the bottoms of my feet hurt were red from the impact when I went home that night. And the sweet victorious day when I actually did a DIVE off the high-dive. Put your hands together in a fist over your head....stand on the edge....keep your arms straight and strong...then slowly tip your body forward and let it go over the edge head-first. The first impact was like diving straight onto concrete....but I did it! And after the first time, I couldn't stop myself from doing it again and again.

One of the best games to play with friends in the diving tank was to yell out a question right as the other person jumped, and the person jumping had to answer it before their face went underwater. I'd wait in line at the medium dive, trying to anticipate what question I might be asked and planning out how I was going to jump high enough to have time to answer it. But no matter how much planning anyone did, it seemed that you were never able to finish your answer in time, which of course is what made the game so hilarious. "Say your full name and address!!" "Christine Piccione! 43 Myrtle Abbbbbbbbbbbbblllllllll......" One big splash and everyone starts giggling until you pop your head up gasping for air, climb back out, flatten the stomach on your one-piece to get out the big air/water bubble, and go to the back of the medium dive line for another round. Classic.

So at this time of day, the pool was pretty much empty, except for that one old lady with the leather skin who, if I didn't know better, I would think had actually taken up residence in the women's locker room so she could be the first and last one there every day. The first important decision of the day was where you would "set up camp." We always sat on the parking lot side. Mom would set up her lawn chair, I would lay my towel on the grass next to her, and we'd both set off for the water. Once my mom stuck her first toe in the water, you were not getting the lady out unless she absolutely HAD to go to the bathroom or occasionally, for a badminton match. The "mer-woman" could swim for almost 8 hours straight, filling her time with laps, jogging in the water as her side ponytail swung from side to side, talking to the guards, you name it. Yes, Mrs. Piccione was well-known in these parts, and dare you make her hurry to get out of the pool when the last whistle blew at 7:30pm, and you were in danger of receiving a really dirty look and being kicked off staff by the manager, Al.

My pool activities were always different. Sometimes I would enter the pool at the 4 feet stairs in the corner, swing like a monkey on the aluminum pole for a little while, and then do some handstands. I'd venture across the 4 feet and see if any of my friends were camped out yet on the other side. Sometimes I'd practice dives off the edge of the 4 feet as my mom watched and rated them. But the day always held one unforgettable highlight: a visit from Herbie the Ice Cream Man. As soon as we heard the jingling bell signaling the Good Humor truck's arrival in the parking lot, utter anarchy broke out as children of every age jumped out of the pool, grabbed their towels, abandoned tether ball courts, mowed down their parents, and left the swimming area in swarms to try to be the first one in line to see Herbie. (Hint: Secure your ice cream money ahead of time so you don't have to waste time fumbling in your mom's purse as other kids are trampling you in the mass exodus. I learned this the hard way.) Once I got to the truck, even though surrounded by wet hair, wet towels, the scent of runny suntan lotion, and often, wet butts brushing the sides of my hips, I liked to stand in line for a little while so I could put some thought into what I was going to order that day.

After we'd received our selections from skinny Herbie with no teeth (and come to think of it, very suspicious sores on his hands and face) my friends and I would head to the "3 big rocks" with our sugary delicacies, our towels wrapped around our waists, or, if we were feeling naughty, twisted into a painful wet whip. We'd spread our towels on the burning rocks as to not singe our buns in the midday heat. Then, we'd slowly open the paper wrapping and take that first delicious bite into the crumbly goodness of the Toasted Almond. My favorite bites were those beginning ones before you hit the stick. Even though hitting the stick was special in this case, because that meant you were that much closer to your potential prize....a stick that contained the magical words, "One free Good Humor pop." What a joyous occasion this was....because it meant not one, but TWO, ice cream treats that day. The winner would head victoriously back to Herbie's truck and order another (perhaps a Chocolate Eclair this time)....and you would always pretend it was your first in case your mom happened to see you :).

After ice cream break, I'd usually go back in to the pool area and lay on my towel for a little while longer. If I wanted to play badminton, my mom would get her pruny self out of the pool and join me. Sometimes as the day got later, around 4 pm or so, my dad and brother would come by. I remember my heart jumping when I saw them walking across the parking lot, because this meant that I could get piggybacks in the water from my dad and get launched across the pool by my brother (which I secretly loved even though I screamed when he did it). Later in the day was a special time at the pool. The midday crowd started to thin out, and it was a different crowd of professionals coming by after work and a few other families who pretty much lived there all day like we did. Around 7 pm, I was finally tired of swimming, my lips were purple, and the sun was getting lower in the sky. I'd always head back over to our "camp" but this time I'd lay on my mom's lawn chair and watch her finish her exercises for the next 30 minutes. My time on the lawn chair was special and reflective. Mom always packed snacks like sesame sticks, carrots, and golden raisins deep in her pool bag. I'd dig those out and munch on them as I let my hair dry knotty and curly and chlorine-filled and revel in the carefree life of a kid in the summer. At about 7:15, the guards started making their rounds and cleaning the deck. I loved to lay back on the lawn chair, close my eyes, and listen to the sounds. This was their system: one guard had a big bucket and would scoop up water from the pool and pour it on the deck. The other guard then took a big push-broom and swept the water all over the deck to the edge until it went into the grass. This is how they "cleaned" the deck. Sometimes I'd follow them all around the pool and dance on the edge of the grass, trying not to let the water touch my toes. At 7:30, the loudspeaker clicked on and the announcement came, "Attention: The Madison Pool is now closed. Will lifeguards please clear the pool." The guards could not stand up quickly enough and blow their whistles in unison to signal that it was now time for everyone to get out of the water so they could go home and party the summer night away with their high school friends.

After a day at the pool, we always went home in our wet bathingsuits, and my mom had this one navy blue sweatshirt she would always keep in her pool bag to wear over her suit. Blue sweatshirt, swimsuit, and Dr. Scholls...nothing else on the bottom. Classic.

Well, the Madison Pool is still alive and well, and my mom is the social chair, planning parties and family events for the summer season. Even though I live in Texas now and don't have a community pool, I still leave part of myself there each summer season. Walk through the lobby on any given day and look for a colorful posterboard sign decorated with markered mini pineapples, hula girls, or music notes advertising the next "Moonlight Swim." Each poster is a DreamMore original and my contribution to a place that characterized my whimsical summers.