Upper Perkiomen Pool!

A few months ago, I was speaking with my Dad via phone (My hometown is just north of Philadelphia, PA – East Greenville) and as we were chatting he mentioned something to the tune “So did you know they’re going to fill in the pool?” My heart sank… “THEY’RE GOING TO DO WHAT?” was my flat response. See, I grew up at our community pool. This was a hop, skip and a jump from my front door via 2nd street. A straight shot. My best friend lived across the street from me growing up. Kind of an ideal kind of childhood: Living in town, red brick homes, tree out in front of each home, school 1/2 mile walk from front door, corner deli for sandwich’s just an earshot away, postman knows your name, ball fields not too far away, open space just out of town to get lost, go fishing and raise hell. One of these hell raiser spots was the Upper Perk Pool. I’d say it was just over 4 blocks walk? Anyway, my best bud and I would usually start the day early. 7 am we’re outside playing baseball in his backyard. Or making stuff behind his dad’s tool shed.  Maybe a quick tear around the block on our bikes. But come lunchtime on a hot summers day? We’re keeping our eyes peeled on the clock to strike 1 pm to go line up to get into the Pool.

What is/was so special about this spot? Well for starters it was donated. The entire plot.   I can’t recall how much acreage there is, but it’s a good amount and was donated to the town by two residents who were heavily involved in the community: Dr. William “Bill” Kistler and Earnest Jones Bitting. They were truly ahead of their time and just donated it to the town for recreational purposes out of pure love and affection for the community. A rarity these days possibly. The plot stands on what was the Sweinheart Ice House and Sweinheart Ice Dam. When I worked there, part of the old foundation of the Ice House was still present behind the pool. Ice festivals were held in the winter here and my grandmother speaks of this fondly in her diary (mentioned soon below). The dam breast dammed the Macoby Creek, which still flows today and the old dam breast is still present. To build the pool and surrounding facility, money was raised from local organizations, businesses and I would imagine donations. A recreational council was formed and the pool was built. There was a spot where they attempted to build a skating rink but that didn’t work out so well. Later on, baseball fields were added (there are now, I want to say 4?) with two concession stands, an older basketball court I used to frequent and what used to be tennis courts was turned into a skate park.

Historically speaking, before all this was built, the area was a natural gathering spot. When my Dad’s mother passed (Marion Henry / Swenk – Aka Gram) we located her diary from 1940-ish on to when she met my grandfather (Thomas Peter Henry, Jr. AKA Poppy). What is interesting about this diary is it is extremely informative not only about her life and the time period during the 40’s, but it details and accounts events that happened day to day as she lived them. Stuff I’ve heard stories about? It’s in this diary. Some of which are clarified and rumors put to bed. (Pop did indeed jump into a swimming spot fully clothed, but it was not necessarily to show off – which we all joked about but he never came clean. He was retrieving a ring someone lost and who apparently had trouble in the water – hence his haste). What’s pretty cool is it speaks about what she was doing each day – she was a list maker in life and this diary reads like a list. The area that became the Upper Perkiomen Pool is mentioned here time and time again. There were winter ice carnivals, ice skating frequently occurs, they swam in the summer here by the old dam breast almost daily (which broke in ~1936 after speaking with my Dad), summer or fall walks are frequented back here, and this almost weekly occurrence that is referred to as “the Doggie Roast”. Basically, I gather they’d walk back after dark, start a fire and roast hot dogs. Her buddies are referred to as “The Gang” for the record. The walk from town is only a block or two from where Gram grew up, and this is only a block from where I grew up. Yeah, small town USA. So this spot was a natural gathering point for the community and hence when it was turned into the community pool, it was a perfectly fitting spot.

Well, they’re going to fill it in apparently. As sad as that is, they have, with all due respect, created a new YMCA facility just across from the old dam breast behind the existing pool which sports both indoor and outdoor pool facilities. I hear it’s quite the complex. But from my own perspective, that piece of my childhood is getting plowed. Pretty much every day in the summer was spent there. From the day we got out of school, until the day we had to go back to school? Spent back at the pool. Sometimes it would get SO full there was literally standing room only in the pool. Then suddenly the guards would call an “adult swim” and you’d have to sit there baking by the poolside in agony waiting for their time to end… Summer nights often saw the swim team practice and compete. Championships were held back here yearly for swimming. I learned how to swim there when I was really little. Dropped off every morning for a week and I learned how to swim. Even got chucked off the high dive (well I chucked myself off…). Every one of my friends I knew growing up was there. Every day. Raising hell. Gossip. Flirting. Laughing. Pushing, shoving and chest beating. You get the idea… My favorite spot? The diving well! There were rules of course, but the older kids did not pay any attention to them. The “penalty bench” was often filled up most of the day. The game of course then became who could splash the kids on the bench or … if you had the brass, try and jump out far enough to get the lifeguard wet. Someone would yell BOMBING RAID and we’d jump off one after the other often times jumping on each other. The penalty bench often got too full and it was standing room only. I remember getting benched and my Mom saw this. I got an ear full… I spent hours upon hours repeatedly going off the dives to perfect my Hawaiian Suicides, Can Openers, Water Mellons, Cannon Balls and my personal favorite, which I want to say was actually a local invented specific splash: The formidable “RUSTY”. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that one anywhere else. I know if I’ve done it at other locations, people are confused and have never seen the said splash. Admittedly I’m out of practice, but if I get a few tries under the ol’belt, I’ll have it dialed back in! It’s an odd one to do but man if you can get high enough, and hit the water just right timing all your body English “just so”, it’s a crowd pleaser with a massive splash. Oh, the simple things in life!

So childhood goes into being a young teen and awkward days of pre-man keep me from going back there for a summer or two. Puberty does that… But in the 9th or 10th grade, I’d actually take Lifesaving in High School, then was certified in CPR and all that stuff and become certified to be a Lifeguard with the notion of being back at the pool. I remember my first day: I was the lowest on the pecking order and of course no one liked me (or so it seemed to me that first week of work). I was actually the only male guard there. But a good friend took me aside, showed me the ropes despite others attempting to give me all the jobs they disliked and bossing me around. But I held my own. Truthfully, I was kind of laughing inside. The job was a cake job. Get paid to sit and watch kids? Drag one out occasionally and deal with angry mothers who had lost their kid? All the while getting a tan and only having to wear a bathing suit? Come on! That’s not so bad. But I also got to pass along the favor and I took on the task each summer to help teach kids how to swim too. Naturally, I got all the kids who didn’t have the first clue about swimming (which for some reason, all the seasoned “vets” never wanted to teach – not slamming them, but it was pretty clear the low man on the totem pole apparently was given this job – again, not so bad!). No worries for me. This really then was introducing them to water, making them safe, aware and setting the stage to become better swimmers. Class sizes I think were about 10 kids and if I could get one of them to swim on their own it was an accomplishment since on the first day at 8 am, in cold water, with kids like 5 years old? Yeah, you know that’s not happening. So making it fun for them and getting them confident was a good step. I even had mothers approach me and thank me profusely because their son or daughter refused to get into the water until I showed them the ropes. I’ll take that compliment!

But Lifeguarding was a fun summer job, especially at a public pool. On any given day, I’d say we had 4-6 guards on duty? Keep in mind, these are all people I grew up with, so this was a special time I think. We knew that pool like the back of our hand. What made that team special, was that very fact that we were all friends, we knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and if/when disaster did strike, we all could go into action and prioritize what needed to be done. Like a well-oiled machine and that was something to take some pride in when it did happen. It wasn’t all that frequent or say as demanding as working as a Lifeguard at the ocean, but the routine was suddenly broken on occasion and I’ve saved my fair share of kids from drowning. We used to have a rotating game of chess going most days and one kid, Rob… was basically unbeatable. He was just too good. Local tall tale stuff. It became a joke of “who would beat him” and I think he took a lot of pride in that until one morning I arrived for my shift and saw a note tacked up on the guard rooms wall: “David Beat Rob, date-time”. We had some fun with that one… Soon others followed and his reign of supremacy was put into check.

Guard Days

Another tale was early in the season, the water was ridiculously cold due to the fact that the source was a well (if I recall correctly). I’ve never been a morning person, but you have to do what you have to do sometimes. No one… and I mean NO one wanted to pull the lane lines and put up the divider for the deep end. You could do it without getting in the water, but it took longer and what’s the fun in that? One morning I had an idea and volunteered. The pool is “L” shaped. The deep end is on the leg and there is a concrete deck that surrounds the whole pool with depth markers and benches along with the 3-4 guard stands. Well, my idea was to start at the far end of the deck, and just run full tilt and launch myself off into a “race form” dive. Basically, force yourself to a point of no return. When you hit that water, it was like a wake-up call you’ve never experienced. Mouth dropping cold yes, but immediately knocks out the cobwebs and you are intensely awake. It was fun and of course, woke me up (which was the point). I found it actually refreshing in a way. Well, then others caught on and there would be a race and mad dash to see who could get to the line first. So it goes.

One last tale and this one goes down into the tall tale list was when we, or rather the pool, hosted the swim team’s championships. Each year teams from across the area would gather and compete for top marks and bragging rights. Most years I was not on duty for the night. One of my last years, I volunteered as I had never been or had seen the event. Why not! Now keep in mind, my Mom competed on this team, my uncle Hank swam here and competed. Heck, I just found out my Great, Great Grandfather, Willy Swenk was Zeus one year as they held a huge water pageant each year when my Dad was a kid! So fast forward and the last year I helped out at this event there was a scheduled guard race. Kind of a competition for bragging rights. They called in all the old team members, some of which were guards and some of which had gone to college on swimming scholarships. Well, they wanted to drag me into the mix. “Come on Kris, it’ll be fun!” No, I attempted to refuse. The night wore on and the poking continued. At the last minute, I gave in and said I’d do it. The race was just one of those down to the end mad dash. Winner takes all… Give everyone else the “stink eye” in an explosion of he-man strength or some other close facsimile. Keep in mind, these are all swimmers. Long, lean and used to competition in the water. Me? I was a running back and linebacker in H.S. and ran track (middle distance) to keep in shape for the next season. A certified land lubber by most accounts. I was twice the size of most of these cats. They pretty much figured they had me beat and I gathered any chance my peers could beat me in something, they took it.

Well, I’m not that bad of a swimmer actually and since my Mom and Uncle were pretty good in their day, let’s just say that well runs plenty deep in Clan Malasky (of which I have access to said gene pool). So we line up and jokes are flying until we’re commanded to get into the dive position for the race. That’s when things got serious. This is the type of moment of inner reflection when you say to yourself: “Buckle it up”. Muscles stiffen. Mind focused on the task at hand. Senses sharpened to razor precision. All poised for the word “GO”. AND we’re off! I swam as fast as I could. See, I figured when I reached the other end I’d be dead last. I’m up against kids who went to school for this. Well… If my memory serves me sharply, I reached the other end before everyone else did. Handily. Upon my return “victory walk” back to the starting line, the then head coach of the U.P. Swimming Team looks at me and says in jest something to the effect while shaking his head: “And this whole time you’ve been holding out on me?” So that goes.

Tall tales aside: I grew up at the Upper Perkiomen Pool. I learned how to swim there! I got into trouble and learned how to stay out of trouble back there. I met the best of friends. Shook hands with the worst of them. Earned my salt with my first job. I even met my first girlfriend there. My Dad spent summers back there. My Mom spent her summers back there. Both of my father’s parents (Gram and Pop) did too! Longtime memories that I still recall vividly and all of it was donated by two members of the community. Although I don’t live close by anymore, I am sorely sorry to hear and see it go. I know each time I’m home for Thanksgiving or Christmas I make a point of walking my dog back there, just because. Hopefully, the new spot becomes THE place to be for kids growing up in the Valley now too.