Chlorine & Dried Popsicles: A Memoir of Summertime in Madison, NJ.

I grew up in a town where I knew my neighbors, their kids and their grandkids. In this small suburb, we could feel free to knock on our neighbor’s door to borrow milk for pancakes when all the stores wereclosed on Thanksgiving morning. In fact, I don’t remember a time that we ever locked our doors or thought twice about striking up a conversation with a stranger passing by.

I grew up in Madison, and summertime always reminds me of its breezy, carefree days. My family knew both of our next-door neighbors well: coincidentally, they were both older Italian couples with husbands named Joe. On one side we had the Marano's and on the other side, the Romano's. Summer was as perfect as it could be. I woke up to the crack of a Little League bat hurling a ball onto one of the three baseball fields across the street from our home, since the windows were always wide open to let in the fresh air. Summer meant riding my pink bike with streamers on the handles up and down the driveway while my mom gardened in the front yard and my dad grilled hotdogs. But most importantly, summer meant the privilege of spending every sun-kissed day at the Madison Community Pool. As late morning approached, mom would call upstairs and see if I was ready to go. Are you kidding? Of course I was! I'd grab my already-prepared beach bag and jump into her '70s Camaro, ready for another day bathing in the sun, playing with friends, and anxiously awaiting the arrival of Herbie the Ice Cream Man.

We always drove the same route to the pool: past all the Italian homes on our street, left on Ridgedale past the historic homesteads, right on Fairview, down the hill to the corner of Central where the huge, ancient Victorian was poised majestically, across Central, around the curve, past the soccer field and...oh yes…

As we swerved into the parking lot, I could already hear the sound of the diving board flubbering on the metal supports as someone plunged into the diving tank and as the crickets sang from the thick woods on the other side of the pool fences. My nose caught the scent 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 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 a 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. To the left, there was the grassy picnic area next to the bike rack, worn with tire marks from the ice cream truck's daily pit-stop. Right in front of the entrance sat a grass island in the middle of the circle drive which was home to the flagpole and glimmering “three big rocks.” These three big rocks were not only boulders; they were daily visiting spots, gossiping points, and home bases for freeze tag. 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. My heart raced: which lifeguard would be at the entrance checking badges today? Would it be the cute senior guy from Madison High who I had a crush on at age 8? Regardless, all guards had the same demeanor at the entrance: feet propped up next to the cash register on the desk and whistle on a chord double-wrapped around the neck like a choker (which my friends and I thought was SO cool and would imitate as soon as we got home). Upon being asked to show my membership badge, I would proudly expose my upper left hip where my badge was pinned to my one-piece, then walk a few steps further under the portico and remove my sandals (if I hadn't forgotten them). Why did I always remove my sandals within a few steps of the entrance? "NO FOOTWEAR ON DECK." This sign was glaringly obvious, and everyone who ignored it was harkened by a guard and asked to remove their sandals promptly, or else.

The best time to arrive at the pool was when it opened at 10 am. The guards were just taking their stands, and the water was clear and unbroken. There were few people there, except for that one old lady with the leather skin whom, if I didn't know better, I would believe 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 we 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, and chatting with the guards. Yes, Mrs. Piccione was well-known in these parts, and dare you hurry her out of the pool when the last whistle blew at 7:30 pm, or you were in danger of receiving a really dirty look and being kicked off staff by the manager, Al.

Before I entered the water, I'd usually scan the pool from right to left, awed by its enormousness. So many possibilities! First there was the kiddie pool and tire playground with the tetherball and volleyball/badminton courts in the far distance, then the 2-ft. and 3-ft. areas with the small winding water slide, and the blue and white twisted rope which sectioned off the 4-ft. area where most of the “big kids” swam. It was so vast that I could yell across the pool to my friend, but she wouldn't hear me as she dove in to do another handstand! Past the 4-ft area was the real temptation for all little kids like myself: the exclusive "adult-badge-required" 5-ft. lap lanes where diving was allowed. Yes, it was a celebratory occasion of childhood when I passed my "deep water test" and was allowed to swim under the rough blue and white rope with the attached mini buoys to the adult badge area. I'll never forget my first time in those forbidden waters. It almost felt like snooping around my parents' bedroom when they weren't home.

However, beyond the adult lap lanes was something even greater still...the glorious crown jewel of Madison Community Pool: the diving tank.

 You must really understand the diving tank in order to appreciate it. Being 12-ft. deep, this colossal chlorinated punch bowl was only for the brave. I started on the low dive, then the medium dive, but it was the pinnacle of summer the day I first jumped off the towering high dive. I remember jumping off so many times in a row that the bottoms of my feet were blazing from the impact later that night. And then there was the sweet victorious day when I actually did a dive off the high-dive. Deep breath…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 doing it again and again.

[The above picture is how the diving tank looks today...sadly, they've removed some of the diving boards :(...]

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 jumper had to answer it before her face went underwater. This was best played on the medium dive. I'd wait in line for my turn, trying to anticipate what question I might be asked and plan out how I was going to jump high enough to have time to answer it. But no matter how much planning any of us did, it seemed we could never finish our answers in time, which of course made the game even more hilarious!

The Other Girls: "Say your full name and address!!"
Me: (Jumping as high as possible in a cheerleader-like split) "Christine Piccione! 43 Myrtle Avebbbbbbbbbbbbblllllllll......"

One big SPLASH! Everyone would then start giggling until I popped my head up gasping for air. I would climb out of the now-turbulent waters, flatten the stomach on my one-piece to release the big air/water bubble, and head to the back of the line for another round.

One event that kids at MCP could count on every single day was 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 in an effort to be the first one in line to see Herbie (I learned the hard way to secure my ice cream money ahead of time so I didn’t have to waste time fumbling in my mom's purse as other kids trampled me in the mass exodus). Once I got to the truck, I was surrounded by wet hair, wet towels, the scent of runny suntan lotion, and often, wet bottoms brushing the sides of my hips, as I pondered what I was going to order that day.

Herbie had a very endearing stutter and was always wearing a buttoned-up white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, even in the dead of summer. He remembered our names, even when he saw one of us outside of the pool environment at a town baseball game or on the side of the street in one of our neighborhoods. He seemed to have an affinity for Cherry Bombs and always suggested those to the indecisive kids. Herbie was someone you could count on, growing up in Madison in the ‘80s.

After we'd received our selections from our beloved Herbie, my friends and I would head to the three 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, I would 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 hitting 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, treats that day. If I was the winner, I would head victoriously back to Herbie's truck and order another (perhaps a Chocolate Eclair this time)...and always pretend it was my first in case my mom happened to see me!

After ice cream, I'd return to the pool area and relax on my towel for a little while. 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 launches across the pool by my brother (which I secretly loved even though I screamed when he did it).

By 7 in the evening, I was finally tired of swimming, my lips were purple, and the sun was sulking lower in the sky. At this point, I would retire to our "camp" and sprawl out on mom's lawn chair, eating snacks like sesame sticks, carrots, and golden raisins that had been hiding deep in her pool bag. My hair would dry knotty and curly and chlorine-filled as I reveled in another day of carefree summer life.

At 7:15 pm, the guards started making their rounds and cleaning the deck. I loved to lie back on the lawn chair, close my eyes, and listen to the swishing sounds. They always had a system for cleaning the deck: 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 soaked into the grass. Sometimes I'd follow them all the way around the pool and dance on the edge of the grass, trying not to let the water touch my toes. At 7:30 pm, the loudspeaker clicked on and the announcement came, "Attention: The Madison Pool is now closed. 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 headed home in our damp bathing suits…all except for my mom who kept her trusty navy blue sweatshirt in the bowels of her pool bag to wear over her suit. Blue sweatshirt, swimsuit, and Dr. Scholls...nothing else on the bottom.

Fast-forward to 2006, and the Madison Community Pool is thriving more than ever, attracting more and more families each year. My mom is the Social Chair on the Board of Trustees, planning parties and family events for the summer season. Although I live in Texas now and don't have a community pool, I still leave part of myself there each summer. 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 Madison Community Pool "Moonlight Swim" or other family event. Each poster is my contribution to a place that characterized my whimsical summers.