Janis Holcomb is scared of water. Pools, lakes, even slippy slides. Really, really, really, really afraid. Not because of an irrational aquaphobia, but because of what happened when she was young. And before you ask, it did not involve her father tossing her as a baby into the pool to “teach her how to swim.”
Janis grew up in the 70’s. Community pools were a big part of the social scene for the families living in the suburbs. Mothers were still more often than not stay at home moms and during the summer they would gather their children together with flip flops, hats, sunscreen, blankets and risqué romance novels to enjoy on the green grass while their children shrieked in the lined pool.
“Stay away from the deep end!”
“Tommy, stop splashing your sister!”
“You need to wait 30 minutes after eating before you can go back in the water.”
“T-W-E-E-T! Get off the ropes. I repeat, get OFF the ropes!”
The sounds of the pool waves lapping against the concrete walls comingled with low murmurings of gossip and the shrill screeching of thrilled children cooling themselves in the clear blue waves, tempered by the trill of the life guard’s whistle that warned rambunctious kids to calm down or calling the hourly 15 minute pool breaks.
Janis’s mother always hid a few quarters among the cut apples and peanut butter which the kids would scrounge for in order to go buy Mike & Ike’s and Janis’s favorite, red licorice whips. The kids would chomp happily on their treats while their mothers traded neighborhood scandals like baseball cards.
The pool was located in an industrial complex. Surrounded by pavement, one had to wear shoes – which were always getting lost and added to the mounting lost & found pile – to cross the steaming pavement. To become a member, a family had to pay $25 for up to 3 people for the summer. Each family member had a little laminated card that they would flash to the attendant who’d wave them through the turnstile. When times were tight, or kids wanted to bring in their friends who were not members and avoid the $3 one-time fee, they’d send the first three in, take the cards and come back out to give the others waiting outside the recycled passes.
“I loved going to the pool. I spent so many summers there. I took swimming lessons early on and passed the polywag class as one of the fastest kids ever to do so. I made whale and then tiger shark within two years. I took to the pool like, well, like fish to water!” Janis chuckles at her own joke but then her eyes go dark as she remembers.
The summer that ended Janis’s love affair with the water was one full of Midwestern thunderstorms and a high, long tornado season. Unseasonably cool, the pool that year was not the place to hang out – the shopping center took its surrogate place under grey skies and choppy winds. For a while it seemed as though they’d have to build an ark because the downpours were so strong.
Then just as everyone seemed ready to resign themselves just like the little girl in the Ray Bradbury Story “All In a Summer’s Day” on the planet that only saw the sun once every 7 years for only an hour, the sun burst through bringing with it a heat that tore its vengeance.
The pool was packed. Kids were jumping and splashing and even the adults forsook their lawn chairs to sit around the pool, sticking their legs in the cooling water, admonishing the “accidental” splashes while secretly blessing their cooling effect.
“As everyone seemed ready to resign themselves just like the little girl in the Ray Bradbury Story ‘All In a Summer’s Day’ on the planet that only saw the sun once every 7 years for only an hour, the sun burst through bringing with it a heat that tore its vengeance. The pool was packed.”
The pool provided its welcome relief from the unbearable heat, and when the whistle signaled closing time a collective groan went up and people had to be ordered out of the pool. Then a madhouse ensued when everyone returned to pack up their things – finding their stuff among the grass the encircled the pool took a while as people identified their belongings and trudged home.
Janis walked in the door and reached up to grasp her gold cross, given to her by her daddy for her First Communion, which she kissed for good luck every time she came home, and let out a piercing howl when she realized it was missing.
“What’s WRONG Janis?” Her mother look terrified and tried to coax out what was wrong with a wailing little girl while checking her body for bites or cuts.
Her mom packed them back in the station wagon where they returned to the pool. The sun had already drifted on its way down, throwing eerie shadows across the peaking waves. The pool had a much different feel than it did during the day – Janis felt a shiver cross her spine as her mother pleaded with the night cleaning crew to let them in to look for the necklace. Relenting, they let the shivering girl and her mother in to comb the grass looking for it.
The light was now fading fast and the night lights used during evening swim meets were turned on. The shadows deepened, and Janis felt like she had to lift every blade of grass in case she missed her pendant.
After 30 minutes of searching, Janis’s mother tried to console her that they’d get another one. Dejected, they started walking back towards the exit.
They were approaching the turnstile when all of a sudden an excited voice screamed “What is THAT?” and Janis and her mother simultaneously turned to see a spectacle of a gushing nasty brown water spewing into the pool. Disgusted, everyone gathered around to watch the stream of filth enter the pool, quickly turning it dark and sinister.
Suddenly a loud CRACK could be heard, and the entire wall along the deep end split in a large fracture and after a couple of POP POPs the entire wall gave way to a torrent of smelly water. The pool overflowed and for a second everyone stood perfectly still, as if stuck, as the water rose higher and higher at them. The stench was overwhelming and all at once everyone turned and ran as fast as they could, jumping the turnstile to get out of there. Too late, the grimy sludge came at them like a mini tsunami and covered them up to their knees in filth and muck.
Janis stood screaming at the top of her lungs, stuck with fear. Her mother pulled her arm and tried to drag her but Janis was dead weight. Tipped over, she fell face first into the slime and got up sputtering, ooze dripping from her mouth. Screaming again she pointed to a couple of dead animal carcasses floating by until her mother snatched her up and ran all the way to their car where they floored it out of there.
At home, Janis took a dozen baths but couldn’t get the mental stench out of her mind. She had nightmares for months afterwards that she was trapped in a swirling dirge of dirty water unable to escape, her screams silenced as the black water fills her up and she drowns. Even later they found out that the industrial complex had illegally and wrongly installed a sub-par sewage waste system and it had burst into the pool, but even knowing that was not enough to persuade Janis to ever return to the swimming pool. In fact, she never looked at a pool and its clear, welcoming, gentle waves the same way again. When her husband suggested they build an in-ground pool in their Arizona backyard, Janis’s look of horror was enough to consider the “conversation closed.”
"This is as close as I get to the water now!"
Thank you Janis, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Kristen Kuhns and Story of My Life®