It was the first full day of summer vacation. School had ended at noon the day before. I was just finishing my Cheerios when Jimmy knocked on the back door. My mom let him in and he sat down across from me at the table. He looked very excited.
"Dave, the pool is open."
"I know, Jimmy. Want to go swimming?"
"We got a new lifeguard this year." I nodded as I crunched. That wasn't big news. Jimmy continued, "He's a hippie."
I looked at him with raised eyebrows. "This is the seventies, Jimmy," I countered after I swallowed.
"There's more," my friend continued excitedly. "He drives a van."
I finished the last spoonful of cereal and got up from the table. "Let's go see this."
"Dave." I turned to look at my mom. She pointed at the table. "Dishes."
"OK, Mom." I put my bowl and spoon in the dishwasher before we rode off on our bikes. Along the wide paved street that fronted our houses, and about halfway down the hill, was a neighborhood pool. It wasn't a public pool. It was owned by the neighborhood homeowners' association. All the families who used it paid for its upkeep as part of their association dues. The pool didn't open until school let out for summer, unlike the public pools which opened on Memorial Day. When the pool did open, Mrs. Pemberton (who was the president of the homeowners' association) hired someone to operate it. That person would arrive in the morning, unlock the rusty padlock on the chain around the fence, clean the pool and add chemicals. He also served as lifeguard while the pool was open and made sure that only members used the pool. At first, we had to sign in on a notebook. After a few days, the lifeguard usually recognized us and the notebook sat unused on a table near the gate.
As we coasted down the hill, I could see that the gate was open, and that an old van was parked in front. From a distance, a large peace sign could be seen painted on the side. When we got closer, I saw that letters were painted around the sign. They spelled "Cartwheel".
We were already wearing our bathing suits and carrying towels. That was the standard uniform for the first days of summer when the pool opened. We'd meet our friends here and spend every morning of the first few days in the water. We parked our bikes next to the gate and stared at the van - a real hippie van. We walked through the gate and saw him. He was just finishing the morning cleaning routine. He looked tall enough to be a grown-up, but he had long curly hair. He wore cut off blue jean shorts, bleached into a tie-dyed pattern. He looked like a hippie, all right. Until that moment, I had only seen hippies on TV.
"You boys belong to the pool club?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," I answered. "I'm Dave Albright. This is Jimmy Lerner."
He put down the long handled brush and walked over to the notebook. He found our names and held out a pen. "Cool, man. I'm Cartwheel."
I smiled and took the pen, writing my name on the sign-in page in the clumsy writing of a ten year old before handing the pen to Jimmy. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Cartwheel."
Cartwheel laughed. "No, definitely not Mr. Cartwheel. Just Cartwheel. That's what my friends call me."
Hesitantly, I said, "OK, Cartwheel." It still felt uncomfortable calling him that.
"The pool is ready. You're my first two customers of the season. Jump in and try it out." He turned his back to us and climbed up the ladder to his elevated seat.
I looked to Jimmy. He just shrugged. Then he yelled, "Cannonball!" and jumped into the water. I took a deep breath to steel myself, and followed. The water never gets warm this far north. By the middle of summer, the pool may not be as painful, but it is still cold. It's a nice respite from the warm muggy summers. Early in the season, it's downright cold. That's probably why the adults didn't start using the pool until July. We didn't care.
We were kids and it was a pool. It was our pool.
I hit the water and the shock of the cold was like knives sticking into my skin. It was very cold. I came to the surface and exclaimed, "Whew!"
"Cold?" It was Cartwheel speaking.
I tried to answer, but my teeth were starting to chatter. Cartwheel laughed. "Swim around some. You'll warm up." That's what my mother always said, too.
We swam a few laps and were just getting out when more people arrived - some of the girls in the neighborhood. Jimmy and I were drying off with our towels so we could warm up in the sun. Jimmy nudged me with a smile on his face. Two of the girls were older, teenagers. He always liked to watch when they got out of the pool because the cold made their nipples stand out. We were too young to have figured out what girls were good for yet, but Jimmy still liked to watch. I made a face at him, but turned to look at the girls anyway.
The girls were looking not at us but at Cartwheel. They were talking in whispers and giggling. Obediently, they signed the book without being asked. The two older ones walked over to say hi to him. He looked like he was enjoying talking with them, but he was also businesslike. He wasn't here just to have fun, after all. This was a job for him.
We turned back to the gate at the sound of our names. It was the rest of our gang. I hated when they called me Davey, and they knew it. That's why they did it. It was a game we played.
Tim asked, in a low whisper, "Who's the Flower Child?" as he pointed discreetly to Cartwheel.
"Isn't it cool?" Jimmy asked. "He's the new lifeguard."
"Is the water warm?" Billy asked.
"What do you think, man?" I said. Everyone laughed. It was the standing joke.
We spent the morning at the pool, alternating between swimming and warming up in the sun. The girls were on the other side of the pool, mostly trying to surreptitiously watch Cartwheel. When we got on our bikes to head home for lunch, Tim suggested meeting at the swing after lunch.
I rode up to Jimmy's house after a lunch of sandwiches at home. He was ready for me, now wearing a t-shirt with his bathing suit. We headed towards the next hill, away from the pool. We met up with Tim and Billy on the way. Just before the top of the hill, we turned right onto a dirt road cut through tall grass. As we turned off, I looked to the side and could see the pool off in the distance, with Cartwheel keeping watch from his platform.
We rode along the rutted road, leaving the homes behind us. A meadow was to the right, trees to the left. Birds were singing happily in the trees. Before long, we passed the burned out remains of a very old building. With the Bicentennial coming up in a few years, every old building suddenly had a story attached to it about the Revolutionary War. In our minds, the building had been an Inn, where George Washington had once slept during the war. The story went that there was an agreement. Soldiers from both sides had stayed there. It was like neutral territory where they didn't fight. In reality, the building was probably just an old barn. At ten years old, make believe was larger than life. When the Apollo astronauts had been collecting rocks on the moon that spring, we got library books and spent weekends trying to identify the shales and shists in our backyards. Tim's father worked for the government, doing something vaguely connected with NASA and he got us some really cool photographs of the astronauts. We even tried to concoct spacesuits to add realism to our play.
After the "Inn", the road turned to the left and entered the woods. There were two spots where the ground was lower that stayed muddy. Billy had fallen off his bike there once and had to ride home covered in mud. His mother washed him off in the yard with the hose. We rode slowly through that part. Next, the trees thinned out and we rode down a hill as the sound of a gurgling brook slowly became louder than the crunch of small twigs and other debris under our bicycle tires.
The stream ran through a valley between two hills. The hill on the other side was cleared of trees at one spot. Unknown kids long ago had climbed a really tall tree and hung a rope from a branch. If you grabbed on to the end of the rope and ran up the hill, when you reached as far as you could go and still hold on to the end of the rope, you could hang on the rope and swing. The swing would carry you across the stream, across the valley, almost to the trees on the other side, and back. You had to let go of the rope when you swung back to where you started. When the rope was slack, it hung about ten feet above the stream. We used a long tree branch to grab the rope and pull it to the hillside where we could grab onto it.
Jimmy got there first and dropped his bike alongside the stream. He liked the swing more than the rest of us. He always had to be first and last on the swing. I was right behind him, crossing the stream by stepping on the rocks and looked for the tree branch. We kept a really long one there at the edge of the clearing. I found it and went back to the stream to grab the loop at the end of the rope. Jimmy watched and smiled. The first ride of the day was going to be his again. I brought the rope to him and he started up the hill. The rest of us sat and watched.
.... There is more of this story ...