The Hidden Hollow Files is an attempt to recount the golden era (1991-1994) of Hidden Hollow Swim Club, a pool facility nestled in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
For previous Hidden Hollow Files, go here, here and here.
If the average person were asked to list the most dangerous jobs they could think of, lifeguarding probably falls near the bottom. After all, who thinks sitting out in the sun all day is wrought with peril? Aside from possibly falling off a lifeguard stand or the occasional bout of heatstroke (and you’d have to be really stupid to suffer that, since the nature of your job sits you in close proximity to a large body of water) there aren’t too many occupational hazards one could come up with.
And that’s why lifeguarding at Hidden Hollow was so different…
Danger lurked in many of the nooks and crannies at the swim club, making the job that much more interesting for teenagers who think they’re invincible. You either embraced the fact that you could die in a variety of different ways and went about your business, or you took a job picking strawberries in the fields with men that may or may not have seen the business end of a whip working plantations down in the south. Danger certainly kept you on your toes, and there were many a guard who couldn’t handle it.
Which is why it’s so strange that of all the things that happened to us at the pool, the closest I ever came to death (and it wasn’t mine) had nothing to do with faulty machinery, and everything to do with the evil that lives in the heart of man. To explain how it all went down however, takes a little background into how the pool operated, and how we worked that system to its fullest advantage…
Being a lifeguard at Hidden Hollow didn’t mean sitting in the sun all day and ogling bikini-clad nannies and moms who had treadmills in their basements. Off the stand, guards were expected to handle a variety of tasks that kept the pool operational. And as anyone who has worked behind the scenes of a public facility will tell you, one will find the underbelly of humanity doing those tasks. Apparently, the general public is a group that feels entitled – entitled to treat any place that isn’t theirs as a sewer. An involuntary witness to a variety of disgust and shame, Hidden Hollow could harden one like no other summer job could. As the movie 8mm told us, “There are some things you can’t unsee.”
Running the pool meant more than a sticking a few hoses in the pool to make sure they were chemically safe for people to enjoy. There were bathrooms to clean, trash to dispose of, trees to prune, picnic benches to move (don’t ask); basically a lot of general upkeep that people don’t think about and a lot of cleaning and disposal of things that people don’t want to think about. And since these jobs were less than glamorous, few people openly volunteered for them. Most guards happily slathered themselves up with baby oil and made a day of bronzing themselves out in the summer sun, paying lazy attention to the pools while getting paid. The boredom of a lifeguard stand seemed like a good option when faced with mucking out a bathroom.
Unfortunately, I could never truly enjoy the sun like my leather-skinned bound coworkers. Never mind that being a redhead forced me to see the sun as God’s assassin. Sitting alone for 8 hours a day twirling a whistle between my fingers just didn’t keep my brain occupied. And there were only so many 2-foot handball games I could umpire before the kids stomped out of the pool in protest of one of my calls. (2-foot handball games were great, don’t get me wrong. Being that the pool was octagonal in shape, it made for a perfect field. Throw a nerfball into the mix, and anywhere from 2 to possibly 20 (I’ve seen it) kids can have fun playing a crude game of baseball.) Seriously though, I can still feel the drips of sweat trickle down my back as I sat in those fiberglass chairs during high noon, trying to visually patrol a 50-meter long pool packed with summer vacation kids who made the extras from Escape from New York look like nuns. After awhile, my little remaining sanity begged me to look for alternatives.
Enter filter cleaning.
Hidden Hollow was made up of 3 large pools. One filter kept the 2 original pools of the swim club “cleanish;” later when a third pool was added, the owners realized the original system couldn’t handle everything so they built a second filter specifically for the new pool. Each filter sat within fifteen feet of one another, covered with huge heavy steel plates, to insure no hyperactive three year olds running through the grounds would plummet to their deaths. Too heavy for one person, they had to be removed one by one to get into the guts of the filters.
Without getting too technical (because I’m pretty sure no one knows the true technical side of it) pool water went into the filters, with all the leaves, dirt, food, trash, fecal matter, dead insects, plastic toys, sexual paraphernalia, rodents, etc. that landed or fell into a pool throughout a normal day, and after a rinse cycle of sorts through chemical-doused plates, would come back out, all clean and ready to face the day.
Of course, all that debris stayed in the filter, creating a delicious, gooey soup. And that soup couldn’t be left to stew for too long, so the filters had to be cleaned out about once a week. A simple definition of cleaning of the filters meant two people had to shut them down, completely drain them, get down in the muck and scoop out the clutter and diatomaceous earth (I think it was put in to kill bacteria, and organisms before they could amass and destroy humanity) with dustpans, hose everything off, give the walls a scrub, and then refill and turn them back on.
And yet it was so much more than that.
Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t baking cakes down there. Cleaning filters had its degrees of suckiness. Aside from everything I previously mentioned (chemicals, mutant bacteria, filth) there was also the fiberglass issue. The older of the two filters was beyond the state of needing to be replaced. That it continued to work during my tenure should be turned into a Discovery Channel series. Decomposing metal dotted the rusty landscape. Occasionally someone from the orchard whose expertise was in fruit production management would come down and patch areas with strips of fiberglass cloth. I am not a pool technician so I wouldn’t know the first place to buy this stuff, but I can’t imagine any reputable dealer carried it. When wet it had a paste-like malleable form, and could be easily placed in the nooks and crannies of the filter until it dried into a miniature mountain range or razor-edged crags, ready to take off any of my toes if I looked at it with a questionable disposition. But the hazards of cleaning filters paid off in one major way – it kept us off the lifeguard stand.
My friend Mark and myself turned filter cleaning into an art form. Where many guards saw a job they least wanted to do, we saw opportunity. We cleaned the filters so often it became our unofficial job. We created the filter-cleaning schedule, and let managers know when it needed to be done. In fact, we put so much enjoyment into it, other guards slowly developed a weird sort of envy. I guess you could call it a sort of reverse Tom Sawyer phenomena. Seeing how much enjoyment we took in something made it the “in” thing to do. Envy though turned into a lightly veiled hatred when they began to realize how much time it took us. In all honesty, cleaning filters needed about an hour’s time for two people; I think at the peak of our filter run we clocked 5 hours. But we didn’t mind the acid-filled stares we got from some of the guards. Management knew our value down in the trenches, and as long as we had their buy-in, none of the guards were going to be able to do a thing. We were a tick on the soft underbelly of an overfed/under exercised dog; we were dug in, and nothing short of suffocating us with Vaseline would make us give up that gig.
That’s not to say the head guard never gave it the old college try.
Resentment slowly grew among some people at the pool every time they saw Mark and I pulling off the metal plates of the filters. Resentment that Mark and I not only gleefully ignored, but even occasionally, pointed out, with pithy comments yelled across the pool. Things like, “Ha ha, we’re about to take 5 hours to clean the filters,” and “Sucks to be you sitting on the stand all day while we goof off.” Playful jabs designed to lighten the mood.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, they had a slightly opposite effect. People got mad, people complained. As I said before, our managers realized the filters had to be cleaned, and if nothing else, we did our jobs and kept them running. The time spent down there was a minor inconvenience they could look past.
Our head guard, Mowenz, had a different opinion of our work ethic.
He saw our deliberate pace as nothing less than insubordination of his authority. And, full disclosure, it pretty much was. Yet, everything we did pretty much was an insubordination of his authority, and our argument to him was, we at least were getting something done at the pool. Our arguments did no good. But since management was on our side, there was little Mowenz could do officially. It was our mistake not to foresee that would lead him through unofficial channels…
The newer filter had no Malaysian Gate fiberglass quick fixes we had to worry about. It pumped and cleaned at a quick pace, as it only had to handle one pool. But being more efficient didn’t mean it was easier to clean. In fact, of the two, this was the tougher job.
Roughly 12 feet by 20 feet, its trickiest dimension was its depth, which dropped to 12 feet below the ground. Acting like a bomb shelter, the plates were also considerably larger, and took up much more space. Cleaning them took nothing more than a hitting them with a hose from above ground. The hard part was taking care of the old muck. With the filter drained, it fell to the concrete floor, 12 feet below, beneath the filter plates. That meant one had to climb down, and then crawl underneath the plates, all the while scooping muck back toward the accessible ladder and into a bucket, that was then carried out. The major issue was that the clearance between floor and filter plates was about 18 inches – not a lot of breathing room. It meant crawling around a 240 square foot area on your stomach in filth, as water dripped on you from the plates above. Slow going and not the least bit appealing, even we dreaded heading down into this manmade pit to scoop muck out.
Yet it still had to get done, and we weren’t about to let some younger version of ourselves jump at the chance to out “us” us by taking a horrible job and turning around into an opportunity, so we routinely volunteered to clean this filter as well.
And that’s where we found ourselves one hot summer day… down in this pit, the steel plates off, the filters drained. Everything had been hosed off and we were taking turns scooping the pool’s gruel and bucketing it out. Like GI tunnel rats we belly-crawled through unmentionables, to reach into every corner with our dustpans.
Mark was underground. I watched him descend as I carried my bucket of slop to…well let’s not get into where things like this got disposed. It’s a boring part of the story and I’m not 100% sure the statute of limitations is up. Walking away I saw Mowenz approach the filters. Nothing out of the ordinary, as head guard he had to know how everything was going. Confident Mark would give him some bullshit excuse about why it was taking us hours to finish, I trudged on.
Coming back on the scene, I witnessed (a good, legal term apropos to the situation) something a little unusual. Mowenz, with a sly smirk, was climbing out of the “guts” which housed all the pumps, wheels and pipes that controlled the pool’s water flow. It sat right next to the filters, and that’s where we turned off the water so that filters would drain. I also heard the filters mechanically grind back on. I didn’t see Mark anywhere.
Curious, I quickened my pace to see what was going on. More annoyed than anything, I figured Mowenz didn’t buy any of our excuses and was forcing us to “wrap it up.”
I got back to the filters. Still no sign of Mark. Mowenz still had a grin on his face.
No response. Just a grin. A grin with a purpose. A grin with a mean streak. I didn’t need an answer. That grin told me everything I needed to know.
Mowenz, in some sort of psychopathic glee, had turned the water on while Mark was still down below, underneath the plates.
Before I could make any kind of decision (dive in? try to turn the water off? Run and pretend I wasn’t there? Work on my testimony?) Mark appeared, stumbling up the ladder and out. Luckily (for everyone, I stress), the filter didn’t fill rapidly enough to trap him and he scurried out before drowning. How he avoided the numerous metal bars and hanging pieces in his haste I will never know; all it would have taken was one blow to the head to slow him down and create a potential crime scene.
Mark tumbled into the grass, and the three of us just stood there in a weird, amateur Mexican standoff; Mowenz with the grin still painted on his face, Mark simultaneously trying desperately to catch his breath and piece together what just happened; and me, in a state of amazed confusion, wondering if I should make a citizens’ arrest.
I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen next. I don’t think Mowenz realized what his actions could have caused. I don’t think Mark realized how close he came to dying. An uneasy calm settled over the scene.
And that’s the way it would stay…an uneasy calm.
I certainly replayed the events not only in my head, but also to any guard that would listen. This wasn’t something you necessarily shrugged off and went back to work. But that’s exactly what happened. To his credit, or (whatever you want to describe it as), Mark semi—casually laughed everything off. Whether it was meant to be just a silly prank or some sort of darker message, I’ll never know. It certainly didn’t speed up our filter cleaning, but it did force us to keep a close eye on Mowenz whereabouts whenever we went about our task.
To this day the whole thing hasn’t truly sunk in to my collective. I’m still not clear on the consequences had Mark never made it out of that filter. While I almost died numerous times at the pool and witnessed countless more near deaths, this was action was different. Not that our teenaged minds figured that out at the time. By the next day the event had become part of our vernacular, and I’m sure a few of the guards were disappointed by the non-tragic outcome. And for me, I was just happy nothing changed. We continued to slack off during filter cleaning, guards still resented us, and Mowenz was still Mowenz. I wouldn’t have it any other way.