A Father's Day Memory
A few days ago, my younger son asked a strange question.
“Do you know how to level the ground?”
I was perplexed.
“I want to put in a small backyard pool. It’s made of PVC. But it needs to be level. Can you help me do that?” he asked.
My initial reaction was, “Of course.” Honestly, however, I didn’t have a clue. So, I did some research and, yes, I could figure it out and, yes, we can make it work.
My son is a new dad. My granddaughter is coming on ten months. She loves the water; her mother Megan dipping her in the small blow-up pool near their backyard patio is a joy to watch.
“I think it would be great to have something bigger for her as she grows up,” my son said. “And I’d love it, too.”
Backyard pools. They were part of my boyhood and it was my father who did the work of ground leveling, working hours—days—digging and measuring. And now, my son is doing the same, and I am about to help.
Generational connections come in many ways. And with Father’s Day here, it’s easy to feel the deep parent-child tug, how sometimes in such unusual ways fathers and son find themselves carrying the DNA of experience to the next generation of fathers and sons, parent and child bonding over blue water in a plastic pool.
I wrote about this in my memoir Any Road Will Take You There, a book about fathers and sons and a cross-country road trip to understand what it all meant. In it, I wrote about the small backyard plastic pool my father would assemble every season. And now, here I am considering the same with my son and granddaughter.
Below is an excerpt from the memoir on those summer days when the anticipation was overwhelming, and how my father, a man with a tough outside and a soft inside helped his son harness his youthful energy.
From: Any Road Will Take You There, Dream of Things Publishing, 2014, honored as a Book of the Year by the Chicago Writers Association.
Swimming was a big part of my growing up. A few times a summer, Mom would stuff the car with kids from the neighborhood and we’d head for an afternoon at the municipal pool. Boys and girls would be sitting on the car’s floor and on each other for the five-mile drive. There were no seatbelt laws, of course, and no one seemed to care that a four-door sedan was bulging with unbuckled little bodies. But what I remember most was when Dad would assemble our little backyard pool, spending hours on an early spring day to get it ready.
“Pull the hose around the tree and up close here,” Dad said. It was one of those unseasonably warm Sunday afternoons in mid-May we were sometimes blessed with in Pennsylvania.
I was eight-years old, impatient for summer, impatient for the pool. I was already in my royal blue bathing suit, my cherubic belly protruding over the white drawstring tied too tightly at the middle of my waist.
“When you get it up here, go back and turn the water on, but only when I tell you.” Dad tried to direct this project with simple commands.
The metal section of the pool had been rolled up and stored away in the garage for nearly nine months. It took two people to stretch out the thin, steel outside wall of the pool onto the backyard grass and wash it down with water from a hose.
I ran over the lawn and walkway, navigating my sensitive, shoeless feet around the cracks in the stone that lined the ground to the outside faucet. I was nearly shivering in anticipation of the first summer swim of the season. I put my hand on the knob and peeked around the corner of the house, poised for the next command from Dad.
“Hold on, get back here,” he said. “I still need you to help roll out the liner over the grass.”
How long is this going to take? I slumped back to Dad. It was now clear to me constructing our pool was not going to happen at the speed any young boy would have hoped.
The blue liner, nearly matching the color of my bathing suit, was a thick, heavy, flexible plastic or rubber of some kind. It, like the metal, had been put away for the winter and needed a bath. When we unfolded it, there were two or three spiders inside and a dead moth.
“We’re going to need a little soap on this,” Dad said. “Go ask your mother for a small cup of laundry detergent.”
Now he needs soap? The pool set-up was becoming a far more laborious job than I would have liked. This was not what I expected. Instead of getting closer to a swim, it seemed further away than ever. I took the long way into the house, stopped at the refrigerator for a drink of milk from the bottle, grabbed a cookie from the cupboard drawer, and paused to pet the dog, a six-year old Collie.
“Mom?” I yelled from the kitchen, kneeling on the floor, my hand still on the dog’s head between her ears.
My mother appeared from the basement stairs.
“Dad needs soap for the pool,” I told her, my eyes and hand fixed on the dog.
She reached under the sink and pulled out a large box of Tide and poured about two inches worth in a plastic cup. I gave the dog a few more pets, grabbed another cookie from the cupboard drawer, and walked the soap to the backyard.
“Where’ve you been, for God’s sake?” Dad stood near the blue liner with his hands on his hips, the hose hanging over his shoulder. “You want to swim or not?”
I didn’t say a thing as Dad snapped the cup out of my hands. “Did you bring a scrub brush?” he said.
“You want one?”
Dad rolled his eyes and slapped the palm of his hand on his forehead.
I turned and ran to the door to the kitchen. “Mom?”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” My father said the Biblical names in a stiff, staccato beat, shaking his head and launching into a quiet laugh.
I rushed out of the kitchen to the outside, the screen door slamming behind me, hoping to ease Dad’s irritation with my lack of focus by quickly retrieving what he needed.
“Scrub brush, Dad,” I said, dutifully handing him what Mom had given me—the brush with the large handle and the worn, coarse bristles on the one end.
He took it, said nothing, and again shook his head.
I didn’t want to make him angry, so I waited a few more seconds before I asked the question.
“How long to do you think, Dad?”
“Oh for Christ sake,” he laughed. “Go turn on the hose.”
This time I didn’t hurry. It seemed that rushing wasn’t helping me get any closer to the cool waters of a backyard pool. I walked to the outside faucet as if I were walking to my school—a slow, meandering pace interrupted only for a second to kick an early season dandelion.
“Jesus, David, take your finger out of your ass!”
Finger out of my ass? It’s not IN my ass.
“I would like to get this done before August,” my father crackled, his voice unsympathetic and rougher than before.
I started half-running, a visceral response to avoid verbal punishment. And I felt my face flush. Did I have my finger up my ass? Why would I do that? I have never heard of someone with their finger up their ass?
I turned the faucet knob and waited for my father’s next command.
“Good,” he yelled from the yard. “Stay there until I tell you to turn it off.”
I stood alone, out of Dad’s sight, trying to figure out what in the world he meant.
Finger up my ass?
Obviously, the subtleties of understanding figurative language were still years away.
“Turn it off,” Dad yelled. “But don’t move.”
Should I ask him? I can’t ask him, can I?
“Okay, turn it back on.”
I heard the scrape of the brush on metal and the rush of water, and leaned against the aluminum siding of the house, still out of Dad’s sight.
Who would put their finger up their ass?
“Okay, turn it off. We’re done,” Dad shouted.
The clean-up was over and when I returned to the yard Dad was already shaping the metal walls of the pool into a circle, snapping the ends together to create a round shape two feet high and twenty feet around.
“Grab that end of the liner and help me lift it over the edges,” Dad ordered.
The pool was beginning to take form as Dad worked his way around the circle, connecting the long plastic rim that held the liner to the metal.
“How long will it take to fill it up?” I asked, hoping somehow my question would give what felt like a plodding, tedious timeline a bit of a boost.
“I don’t know. Couple hours?” Dad said, staying focused on his work and continuing to snap the plastic rim into place.
Couple hours? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I kicked another dandelion.
Eventually, Dad fell into a rhythm, snapping his way around the circle with a certain tempo. He even began to whistle.
“Dad?” I asked.
“What is it?” he said, suspending his version of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire just long enough to respond.
I can’t believe I’m actually going to ask this.
“What did you mean about—finger up the ass?”
“What?” Dad said, halting the job for a moment to look straight at me.
“What you said—finger in my ass—what do you mean?”
Dad stopped snapping and from a crouched position he turned and sat on the grass, put his arms on his knees, and asked, “You’re serious?”
My face flushed again, just as it did before. And again, Dad shook his head.
“It’s nothing, David,” he said, beginning to chuckle and return to the work of fastening the liner. “I just got a little frustrated, a little impatient. Forget I said that.”
I smiled not knowing exactly why.
“Well,” I said, “just so you know. I did not have my finger up my ass.”
His chuckle erupted into to a full, hearty laugh, as if someone just delivered the punch line to his favorite joke. I smiled. Again, not knowing exactly why. Then Dad wiped a few beads of sweat from his forehead with the back of his right hand.
“You really are something, David,” he said.
I thought for just a moment—I’m really something—what does that mean? But I quickly dismissed the question. In front of me was a nearly assembled pool and I finally began to truly believe the first summer swim was actually going to happen.
“Dad?” I asked. “You gonna swim with me later?”
Through his waning laughter, between the inhales and exhales, he said, “There isn’t anything that sounds better. Not a single thing.” He snapped the final foot of the liner rim in place. “Let her rip.”
I ran to the faucet, twisting my body so I could reach my hand behind me and yanked the bathing suit bottom out from between the cheeks of my buttocks. Is this what he means? Finger in my ass? I jumped over the walkway stones, keeping my bare feet from the uneven ground. I nearly fell down from my unbridled eagerness and had to grab hold of the faucet knob to keep my balance. I used both hands to turn it counterclockwise and immediately began to hear the rush of water inside the long green garden hose. Inch by inch, water made its way to the bottom of the blue liner, creating the sound of soft splashes in the late afternoon air.
Photo: Sunshine Design