For a couple of magical years when I was very young, we had a house with a pool in Florida. I remember clear blue water and palm trees. My older sisters practiced diving off the board while I made up mermaid games in the shallow end and my toddler brother tried his hardest to drown. My father spent hours in the summer bobbing along the perimeter, sometimes in a mask and snorkel, scrubbing algae off the concrete sides. The family’s oasis, to him, was a chore-inducing money pit and he couldn’t wait to move.
After we changed addresses, summer in the mid-70’s meant casting our lot with the unwashed masses in the public pool where someone else was responsible for algae patrol. The older sisters still practiced diving, but now they sashayed to the board with groups of friends, laughing and glancing at the lifeguards. They most certainly did not want to entertain younger siblings and made sure to remain in the unapproachable deep end, beyond the dividing rope.
Mermaid games did not go as smoothly when strange kids were doing cannonballs right next to you or knocking you in the face with their water wings. Occasionally, my father would let my brother and me stand on his shoulders as a prelude to launching us airborne for a few breathless seconds as we screamed at mom “watch me! watch me!” He lured us into peeking inside his cupped hand to see a caught crab, before squeezing his palms shut and jetting water into our surprised faces. He’d tolerate us clambering on him like baby monkeys, clinging to his back and head, shrieking with laughter and trying to push one another off until one of us got hurt and went crying to mom.
Relaxing poolside did not come naturally to my father, who could not rid himself of the mental to-do list that went undone while time frittered away. He took his work and responsibilities with a seriousness that clung to him even on days off. Which is why the summer of his high dive remains clear as a bell.
My mother must have tired of his nail biting and glancing at the giant clock by the concession stand. She’d managed to finagle all five of us into swimsuits and sunscreen, pack all manner of snacks, shoes, towels, and toys into the station wagon, and park us in chairs strategically located near the restrooms. She was not about to leave early with her tired, hungry brood just because he needed to organize the garage. She must have sent him out to the deep end with exasperation to have some fun for crying out loud so she could read in peace.
Like my sisters, everyone at the pool watched the older boys jump off the high dive, trying to outdo each other with bravado. After a particularly fancy flip or an unfortunate slap of a belly landing, an audible gasp or appreciative “oooh” could be heard from the lounge chairs. This of course only egged them on. My father swam long, smooth laps in the deep end, his thin 6’1 frame cutting a handsome swath through the lane. Not so many years ago he would have been leading similar shenanigans with his friends, grinning at the girls in bikinis as he clowned and performed.
I watched as he pulled himself out of the pool by the metal ladder, made scalding hot by the summer sun. He adjusted his trunks and strolled casually towards the steps of the high dive. He glanced at my mother. Her head was bent over the latest Michener novel and her large dark glasses masked any indication that she was aware of his intent.
The crowd of teenage boys parted like the Red Sea as he approached, some fifteen years their senior. A couple of them snickered behind his back as he started the climb. Some kid kept dunking and retrieving his ball in front of my face until I finally grabbed it and threw it out onto the concrete. I searched for my trio of sisters, who had stopped giggling and stood aghast with their friends, eyes on the high dive.
He’d reached the top. The high dive was no man’s land for me. I was a good swimmer but could not abide the stares and comments from the gaping audience of the public pool. I was skinny and flat-chested and at that awkward stage where my face hadn’t yet caught up with my teeth. The limelight was off limits. I’d never seen my father up there before.
He took his time. The boys waiting at the bottom were all elbows and ribs, flipping their wet hair and breathing hard while my father stood at the edge of the board, his toes barely hanging off. Then he turned around. A back flip? Instead, he walked a few paces towards the ladder, and my heart sank. He’d chickened out and was heading for the exit. More snickers from the youth below.
He stopped and sat, his back to the water, and scooted backwards with his legs straight out in front of him until his backside just brushed the edge of the board. Carefully, he rose, making sure his feet remained stationary. Now he was standing with his back to the water, about halfway between the ladder and the board’s edge. He glanced backwards a few times, straightening and adjusting his feet.
My mother had raised her head. Michener’s pages lay in her lap, the edges soaking up the baby oil she used for tanning.
One of the older boys below grasped the ladder and goaded, “Come on!” Even from that height I could see the smirk on my father’s face as he let himself fall backwards. He landed squarely on his backside, his legs straight and flat on the board. The board dipped with the force of his weight and he tipped backwards off the edge, flipping in a perfect 360-V before hitting the water.
He resurfaced to whoops and cheers from the chairs. A ’10’ for originality! The boys at the foot of the ladder cheered the loudest and he gave them a casual salute while he tread water. They’d been shown up by someone’s dad. Astonished, my mouth hung open. When he ducked under the dividing rope, I latched onto him with the siren song of childhood: do it again, Dad! Do it again!
He shook his head and swam to the side with me hanging off his shoulders. My mother had taken off her glasses and looked at him in that way that I knew meant we would be having an early bedtime after dinner, blaming it on a “long day at the pool.” Already, boys had ascended the ladder and were attempting to copy my father’s feat, arguing with each other over how to do it right. A few of them were talking to my sisters, who were now famous by association.
It wasn’t until years later that I discovered my father’s fear of heights. Why, then, did he climb the ladder that summer? Maybe to prove to himself he could still compete with the young bucks. Maybe to show off for his bride, who couldn’t resist his big wet grin. Whatever his motivation, the result was that we were the family with that guy for the rest of the summer at the public pool. It gave us all a little boost.
And in the eyes of an awkward, shy little girl who wished she could be a mermaid, it proved that superheroes could fly. Or at least do amazing feats off the high dive.