Friday, August 15, 2008
The Hidden Hollow Files
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, here and here.
The first two years I worked at the pool I enjoyed a blissful, ignorant existence. My two main responsibilities (as I saw them) were to make sure no one hurt themselves or died while I was on the stand, and to make sure I eluded all other responsibilities at the pool. The first was easy enough; – having trained to be a lifeguard I figured if the time came where I had to apply first aid and/or CPR, some synapse would fire up in a dark recess of my brain and the knowledge would course through my body. That left the second, and looking back, I’d say I handled that one fairly well. There were tricks that older guards taught me, and in a pinch I could always hide. I still know places in that swim club where no one could find me.
Anyway, going into my third year I felt pretty good. No longer a rookie, no longer a know-it-all second year guard, I looked forward to working with friends and enjoying the summer.
Unfortunately that level of complacency dissolved quickly soon after reporting for duty that first day.
The township hired a new safety inspector. And the consequences were drastic…
Technically, I’m not 100% sure there was an old safety inspector, I have no idea how safety inspections went down before this change. I can only speculate, and speculating can only get me in trouble. So if it did indeed involve bribes of hookers and lots of money to keep the swim clubs running, I would have no idea. All I know is that things changed with this new safety inspector.
Let’s call her Betty.
The first clue we knew Betty was different was when we first saw her. It was the first time any of us had seen a safety inspector. The second clue was when she first asked us to see our chlorine records. After a lot of hemming and hawing, many of us ran and hid, hoping she went away.
The process for chlorinating the pools before the arrival of Betty on the scene was simple. Two large tanks of chlorine were buried in a hill near the parking lot of the pool. Chlorine traveled down to our “chlorine house” situated on the swim club grounds. Basically, an old spring house, that’s where a number of dangerous things were stored for the swim club. Every night after the patrons left, we pulled a hose from the chlorine house and threw it in our large Olympic-sized pool for about 10 minutes or so There wasn’t really a scientific equation. The chlorine traveled into the filter and then spread out into the other pools, making things safe for everyone. The newer lap pool had it’s own automated system, which time released chlorine into the smaller, pool not connected to the network of others.
While not an ideal system, it had its rustic charm, and at the end of the day, chlorine found its way into all of the pools.
Unfortunately, Betty didn’t take to our rustic approach very well. She particularly didn’t like the hose part of our system, and really didn’t like that no one regulated the amount going into the pool. Her solution was to make the swim club get another automated system for the bigger network of pools, so chlorine would be cycled in around the clock. Efficient on paper…
The problems began when Betty “asked” us to keep a “chlorine record” for all the pools. Apparently, there are chlorine regulations for pools, and we may or may not have been reaching that standard. It all gets hazy here since heck, there were nights we left the chlorine hose in the pool for a half hour or so. Days after that unofficially became “goggle days” and nothing more came of it.
Apparently “goggle days” did not go over well with Betty; hence the implementation of the “chlorine record.” Every hour, a guard had to walk around with a kit and test the chlorine levels of all the pools and record the numbers in a binder. The kit consisted of a beaker with a gauge on the side, and a chemical that reacted with the chlorine in the pool. A nice bright yellow meant we were in good shape; weaker yellow meant less chlorine than desirable, orange meant possibly too much.
This chlorine record soon became a problem.
Not because no one wanted to test the pools for acceptable levels. That was far from the case. It was an easy job that got you out of other, harder jobs. The problem was the automated systems that were now regulating the pools’ chlorine levels simply couldn’t handle it. Levels rarely hit the acceptable numbers. And Betty more than once showed up and pulled people from the pools when she deemed the levels low. The swim club (and therefore the life guards) were in a bind as to what to do.
It’s amazing what the human spirit will come up with in unfair situations. Because it was unfair. We had a system in place before Betty showed up, and it worked. The system Betty demanded didn’t. The options were limited. Either somehow fix the automated system or…
(The following is a fictional account of what we could have done had the automated system never been fixed. In no way did any of us participate in any illegal activities. Think of it as a cheeky “what if.”)
…we could take matters into our own hands.
We knew, regardless of the prison pay, horrible conditions and long, boring hours, we had a good thing going at the swim club. And no high and mighty safety inspector with a God complex was going to wrestle that away from us.
Making sure the “chlorine record” was up to date was simple. We fudged the numbers. Having already collected a lot of data, we knew where the traditional peaks and valleys of the system would lie, and so we made sure our numbers always reflected that. Many of us became deft at taking measurements of the chlorine levels simply by dripping some of the solution into the pool. At least we told ourselves that.
The harder part of our subterfuge became maintaining an acceptable level of chlorine in the pools when Betty visited. We couldn’t make the automated system pump faster. Usually, on the days she was scheduled to come, we simply pulled the hose out, shocked the pool, and all was good. Bust that wasn’t an option the day she wandered down the hill, unannounced.
The response was quick, chaotic, extremely hazardous, Dirty-Dozenesque, and stupid.
Exactly the type of plan lifeguards like us were capable of pulling off.
I’m not sure who saw her first. It didn’t matter. The manager on duty at the time had the unenviable task of shuffling her from pool to pool, and trying to convince her that the level was a 1.2 and not a .8.
Luckily, today the job fell to Mr. P.
Mr. P knew the insides of that pool like no other and also knew what needed to be done to ensure pool activity for the paying members did not get suspended. Barking orders like a cigar-chomping colonel on the battlefield, (we maybe understood every fourth word) a rough plan of defense was formed.
I sprinted to the chlorine house, grabbing two five gallon buckets along the way. I needed to get a lot of chlorine into a pool very quickly, and no automated system could help me. I was going off the grid, and into a grey area of legality.
It’s one thing to fudge a number here or there in a record book – or maybe go back and fill in some numbers for a time you missed; it’s another to actively deceive someone who may or may not have the authority to close down a facility due to safety violations. Yet here I found myself actively participating in this event, not only willingly, but gleefully. Perhaps I missed my calling as a bagman for the mob.
Buckets full, I now found myself facing the unenviable task of swimming the chlorine through the pool. It couldn’t just be dumped, because it wouldn’t circulate fast enough for an “accurate” acceptable reading. I jumped in and swam the buckets around, the fumes slowly falling over my exposed face, my body knifing through the warm, slippery chemical as it lazily drifted out of the buckets to meet with the water. I felt the pungent, yellow liquid slither over my body, warm as urine. I didn’t feel great about my immune system at that moment.
The lap pool an easy fix, I finished up a little before I saw Mr. P. ambling down the path with Betty, as slowly as he possibly could go without arousing suspicion. Unfortunately getting chlorine in the rest of the pools was not going to be as easy as my trip. Because the lap pool had few swimmers in the early afternoon hours (the infamous lappers came after work and tortured guards by staying until the last possible second the pool stayed open) swimming through it with buckets of a highly toxic chemical posed little problem; the other pools posed more of a challenge.
We couldn’t swim through the other pools with chlorine. Too many people would ask too many questions, and we couldn’t chance it. Enter the “Chemist.”
The Chemist was a guard who, over the months of checking the chlorine levels, had gained a sort sixth sense for being able to give you an accurate reading using nothing more than guile, a couple drops of chemical, and possibly luck. He never really spoke of this gift, and no one really cared. It was enough that he pretty much took over the chlorine records and allowing us to hang out in the snack bar and play more Ms. Pac Man on our down time.
Because of his extensive pool knowledge, he also knew the best places in the pool to get a record a higher chlorine level. So as Betty walked around the lap pool, occasionally dunking the beaker in the water, quibbling with Mr. P about what a .8 looked like, the Chemist was directing a fire line of guards with buckets of chlorine, telling them the exactly where to dump them.
Once finished with the lap pool, Betty moved on to the rest of the grounds, now walking with the Chemist. It was up to him to subtly direct her to the hot spots in the pool, and ensure her readings came up satisfactorily. Few of us had any worries though, once in the hands of the Chemist, we felt relatively safe. Besides the hard work of delivering the chlorine was finished.
It’s here where we got greedy.
Looking back, Betty was simply doing a job she was hired to do. She held no malice in her heart, nor did she take pleasure in closing down the pools. It’s possible that some of this chicanery and “negotiation tactics” that the swim club employed wore her down a bit and hardened her during later visits, but should she be blamed for any of that? And why should we guards feel so impassioned about keeping the pool open with so many visible safety violations? We owed the club nothing, and in fact, many of us felt just the opposite; that the pool owed us.
If I had to guess, and psychoanalyze myself and my friends, I would say, a lot of us felt a weird sense of pride in keeping the swim club functional. We hated the menial tasks of picking trash and mowing grass, but give us the responsibility of ensuring the pools had enough water to swim in, and we jumped at the opportunity. Any operational responsibilities were lapped up, giving us (at least in our heads) a sense of worth that many of the other guards didn’t have. That value fueled our desire, despite our constant complaining and moaning of terrible pay and work conditions. It was that uneasy paradox that maintained success for the pool for all my years working there.
Now, I’m not 100% sure whose idea it was to break into Betty’s car. Under the guise of wanting to find out where to live, but surely just for the sake of being able to later say, “yeah, we broke into the township’s safety inspector’s car,” we skulked up to the parking lot. Breaking in consisted of opening up the passenger side door while found herself entangled in the Chemist’s half-truths, runarounds and charm still down on the pool grounds.
We came back with nothing, save a receipt we found in a cupholder and an index card with information clearly useless for any plan we thought we were going to execute. The only thing the car break-in could have helped with was our immediate firing and probable arrests. Luckily neither happened and Betty (to my knowledge) was none the wiser.
And the surprise inspection? Satisfactory to Betty’s chagrin. Regardless of how she felt about her job, I’m certain her visit was made in hopes of catching us doing something sketchy. That she didn’t, proved our worth and allegiance to the swim club. We saw less and less of her after that visit, and I don’t think she ever returned after that year. I have no idea why, and I asked no questions. I was just glad we didn’t have to deal with the safety inspector again. Things finally went back to normal.
For better or worse.