Friday, May 29, 2015

Water Was a Great Toy

With the return of summer, I am reminded of that fabulous childhood toy, WATER. As kids in the summer, we just couldn't get enough of that stuff.

Water all starts with bath time. If there is any better childhood enjoyment than the bath, or the supercharged enjoyment that is the bubble-bath, I want to know, because anything great enough to beat out bath time has to be a huge gap in my childhood experience. Bubble meant eating bubbles, putting bubbles on the walls, making bubbles, and watching all the bubbles go flat. No kid ever exited the bath before the bubble went flat if they could possibly help it.

Hoses were entirely filled with water. One of my earliest memories is of my sister chasing me with a hose, traumatizing me for life. I curse you, my sister, and I still vow my revenge. Hoses also meant washing cars, which meant more soap and bubbles, which meant more getting squirted. Washing the car was never a civilized affair in my family. The suds ran deep in the streets, and sometimes the cars got washed.

Sprinklers attach to hoses, giving yet another layer of summer fun. You didn't need parents around to play in the sprinkler. Set it and forget it until the kids came in. You also watered the lawn while you were at it. There were two main types of sprinklers, those that spun around, and those that watered back-and-forth. I'm sure that there are technical names for those. The practical effect was that those sprinklers that spun around were like getting attacked with a hose, while those that went back and forth were far more gentle and begged you to leap through them.

Then there were yard toys, things that attached to the hose on purpose, the most famous of which is the Slip'n'Slide. I remember sliding down them. Strangely, I don't remember that happening too often. As all cheap toys in the 70's, I am sure that we destroyed them post haste. There were also toys that flailed water about in crazy ways, but as sprinklers were already owned, doubled as lawn watering devices, and were honestly more fun to play with, the crazy sprinklers lost their luster pretty quick.

Water guns are to summer as summer is to water guns. They're the same thing! This has been scientifically tested. We didn't have super-soakers in our day. We had clear plastic guns with cheap triggers and lousy seals that delivered thin lines of liquid assault. I'm surprised that any one of them lasted more than a few days. That clear plastic was brittle.

Thunderstorms meant water rushing down the street. Near the bottom of the hill, as we were, the water picked up the heat from the host streets and  rushed down the gutters warm as bathwater. If you got out there right after a thunderstorm, you had a world of warm fun, usually in your clothes.

Summer rains also meant playing in the rain. There's nothing like getting wet and not caring about it. This never happened enough to be a reliable thing, so the moments always had to be seized. Too early in the season, and rains were just cold. Too late, and rains tended to be thunderstorms, and your mother wasn't letting you out in a thunderstorm. Those warm summer rains, where you actually got to enjoy them, happened only a few times a year.

The peak of summer water fun was always a pool. Summer started when pools opened and closed when pools closed. The two were intimately linked.

When I was tiny, we had a pool in the back yard, but for some reason we didn't keep it. (Money surely had something to do with it. My parents had five kids and one income.) My neighbors went for the new fashion of in-ground pools. So the two houses up the hill got pools, along with friends at the top of the hill, and an older family across the street, and one directly behind the house. (This make whiffle ball all that more challenging. Balls into pools were an instant out.) Another family behind us had a large, very nice, above ground pool. Under the deck, there were stones. In the hot summer days, I we would get into the shade and play among those stones.

The neighbors had to clean up their pools at the beginning of every years. After removing the covers, there was a base of green sludge in the basin and lots of mold, and that had to get cleaned. After cleaning, the hose got turned on and the pool filled over many days, each day bringing us to a larger brim of excitement. Traps were emptied and chlorine sticks put in. The water got tested with PH kits. (The use of these kits always counted as entertainment.) Gunk got removed with the skimmer. Eventually, that pool was ready.

The fun thing in pools was the water itself. As all kids, I was restricted to the shallow areas and I didn't like it. We had floating things that would carry us out. I believe that I wore a life vest when I was tiny. I recall being taken to the local private pool for swimming lessons. I only had one set, but that was enough to get me going. (If I recall correctly, I already knew a little swimming, so the lessons weren't entirely necessary, but I have to think that I learned something.) A few years after me, Water Wings hit the market, that horrible idea that would help kids swim, but actually didn't.

Then as today, things that floated in the water made for fun, usually rafts. There were always fights over who got to float on one, tests to see how many people could float on one, and general abuse heaped upon them. They never lasted long. (The only good rafts were those heavy duty ocean rafts for riding the surf.

One neighbor had a diving board. Although we dived off of it, we never achieved any proficiency with diving, although some boys did achieve proficiency in belly flopping. Their pool also had a light, so when you went swimming at night, the whole pool lit up. This was beyond cool.

Our next-door neighbor had a slide. You had to hook a hose to it in order to get water lubricating the slide, but once that happened, you were good. We usually did a good job of not landing on each other, as that bit was drilled into us by our parents, but collisions still happened. One kid broke an arm, but that only happened once. Considering our recklessness, there should have been death and dismemberment.

Underwater and holding your breath consisted of a whole different level of game. Most variations consisted of who could hold their breath the longest. In this contest, I was among the best, and sometimes the best by far. I don't know how that happened. It's a hidden skill that has provided me with no ego boost in my adult life. No sports valued holding your breath.

When we got older,  would would take our pants off in the water, then put them back on. That's as brave as we ever got towards skinny dipping. I'm sure that there are lots of folks out there who did, including my friends who didn't talk about it. You can feel safe. I don't know your secrets at all.

The preeminent underwater game was Marco Polo. In this watery version of Blind Man's Bluff, "It" closed his eyes and said "Marco," and everyone had to respond "Polo." From there, it was a matter of catching somebody. That one was always good for fun, extending well into your adult years. That's a game that nobody outgrew.

As for lakes and streams, we didn't have any nearby. When we did encounter them, they were a treat. Streams got splashed in, but lakes were more intimidating, and we either weren't allowed to swim or didn't dare. Mostly, lakes were for learning how to canoe.

As for the ocean, that's a whole topic on its own.

Of course, being wet brought its own issues. Being wet and sitting on the furniture was verboten. Being wet and entering somebody's sub-arctic air conditioned house could lead to hypothermia. The usual solution to a wet bottom was just to wrap your towel around yourself. Getting changes wasn't worth it as you often went back out to play in the water again. Sometimes you put your shirts back on, and sometimes you didn't. Strangely, I didn't feel exposed when wearing no shirt, but if I put on a tank-top, that was embarrassing because I was so skinny.

I do recall us siblings wanting to go to join the neighborhood pool. That always got nixed. I'm sure it was money. And yet, there was also this feeling among us that the kids who went to the private pool thought themselves "better," even though our houses had their own pools. I don't know why the kids who went to the public pool thought themselves better, but everyone knew that they did.