Tuesday, February 26, 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.
Boredom was the enemy.
My friends and I, realizing we had to start thinking about making money and other "grown up" responsibilities thought it would be a great idea to find jobs devoid of any physical labor whatsoever. Since we didn’t live close to any turnpikes where we could collect tolls, we turned our attention to the next best thing: lifeguarding. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize our choice would lead to some of the dullest moments in our lives. Daily excitement consisted of occasionally blowing our whistles to stop overexcited six-year-olds hopped up on pixie sticks and soda from running around like dehydrated ravers. Other than those brief moments, we were left to our own thoughts for hours on end, sitting, watching the pools, pondering mortality, dreaming of future success, debating the issues of the modern era, or in our case, trying to figure out how best to use the swim club facilities to hurt ourselves.
Perhaps there is some sort of psychoanalysis that explains why we were so eager to create new ways to experience pain, but at the time none of us could even spell psychoanalysis. We just looked for cheap thrills to break up the Sargasso Sea we called our day. And sometimes, when the sun is hot, and your sitting in a pool of your own sweat, genius can strike. Out of some forgotten guard’s crazed, sun-drenched delirium the game of 1 Foot/2 Foot Football was born.
The game was only played on rainy days when the pool closed early, due to the fact that it took over two entire pools at the club. And it was not the type of game that too many people would approve. Much like the fight club in the basement of your local church, it was spoken of in hushed tones and reverence. So every time the skies were a gray, flinty color and the heavens rained their displeasure down on us, someone would grab a ball and go about rustling up the few remaining guards still around.
The game played like a poorly thought out version of football, with two distinct differences. First, a volleyball was used instead of a football. I’m not sure how many people reading this have ever tried to catch a volleyball thrown at them but it’s not nearly as easy as it seems. Throwing one up in the air and catching it is one thing; catching one launched at you while sludging through at least a foot of water, in the rain is another beast altogether. The second difference was that it was played in a pool. In fact, 1 Foot/2Foot Football got its name from the venue where it was played.
The "field" consisted of two circle-shaped pools, separated by a crudely tiled, cement wall. The wall came to the same level as the water of both pools, which allowed a person to simply step over it to cross back and forth between them. One pool had a depth of one foot, the other, a depth of 2 feet. The wall acted as the 50-yard line.
Teams stood at opposite ends of the "field," to receive the kickoff. To score a goal, a team had four plays to get the ball over the 50-yard line wall and to the far end of the opposing pool. Naturally, the opponents tried to stop this. Being tackled in the 2 foot wasn’t too bad, because there was a lot of water to cushion the fall. Being tackled in the 1 foot was a different story. Being tackled when trying to clear the 50-yard line was time for someone to run to the office and call for an ambulance.
Playing 1 Foot/2 Foot Football felt like a prison riot, where rules took a backseat to survival. I played in a number of these games, starting when I was just a young, 15-year-old doe-eyed rookie guard. The first time I played I felt excited that the older guards accepted me into their fraternity. Every time I played after that I was happy i survived. Mixing water of different depths, a wall that took up vital real estate in the game, and lumbering teenagers with varying levels of coordination and motivation, concocted a recipe for tragedy. I look back on those times right now and can’t figure out how I never spent a summer day dressed in black staring over the grave of a fellow guard, or in a pine box myself. We had a string of uncanny luck with this game, and no one ever got seriously hurt.
Yet I remember one game vividly, played during an unusually strong, steady downpour, that may have been the pinnacle - and demise - of 1 Foot/2 Foot Football. It depends on who is reminiscing. I’ll never forget the day and the one instant where I thought I might actually have to use what little lifeguard training I had.
It involved two unique personalities that set up residence on the opposite ends of the social spectrum. Mark Klapchick, and Jack Mowenz. Mark Klapchick was the resident "worm-under-your-skin" guy; a chatty guard who took pleasure in annoying people. If you weren’t on the receiving end of his barbs, he was tolerable, if only for a few minutes. Worse yet, he knew he what he was doing, and enjoyed it. You couldn’t take him aside and tactfully tell him to shut up. You had to take him aside and beat him to get him to shut up. And even then there were no guarantees. He knew what buttons to push. It was a gift; a filthy, irritating gift born out of growing up with three sisters, which he cultivated into a sharp, bitter, constant attack.
Jack Mowenz on the other hand was a quiet, sullen, man. At least 3 years older and about 100 lbs. heavier than Klapchick, Mowenz was the head guard of the pool. Quiet and aloof, he walked about the swim club with a deliberate bouncy gait, head held low. He took his job seriously, and tried to manage using fear and intimidation tactics (perhaps the wrong approach when dealing with uncaring teenagers). He didn’t like his orders to be questioned, and he didn’t put up with much. Tiny things could set off his rage. Anger boiled beneath his skin. As head guard, he felt he should command respect.
He made the ideal target for Klapchick’s ribbing.
At first Mowenz tried to laugh off the insults, but his acting was just short of Oscar worthy. Klapchick was an expert; an amateur Rickles without the wit. Mowenz then shifted gears and tried retaliation in the form of simple, crude pranks, but never truly found complete, successful revenge. Worse yet, this opened the door for Klapchick’s own set of pranks, which usually bested Mowenz. The tension between the two grew.
So what better place to settle things than an arena where Death hovered over the proceedings like a hobo at an Old Country Buffet? A place where someone stood in the swim club's office with the 9 and 1 already dialed, finger poised over the last digit to expedite the ambulance’s arrival. That’s right – 1 Foot/2 Foot Football!
Mowenz lived for things like these; events where rules were little more than an afterthought and the tangle of male bodies was the norm. While I would give Klapchick the slight nod in intelligence (neither were banging at the door of the Mensa club) I would give Mowenz the distinct advantage in size. Mowenz probably outweighed each of us by a good 75 pounds. And he certainly used that to his advantage. In 1 Foot/2 Foot Football, big pretty much trumped brain. You didn’t need Bill Walsh’s offensive genius for this. When we entered the pool, we were in Mowenz country.
So they we were, with nothing else to do on this grey day, the 10 of us walking down to the pool to play. Of course, with his almost obsessive-compulsive notion to annoy, Klapchick could not stop babbling about his expertise at 1 Foot/2 Foot Football, and how he was about to dominate the game - as though it were even possible to do so. It was pretty much the same story whenever we did anything with Klapchick; we listened to him go on and on about his prowess about whatever, and then watched as he made a fool of himself. No one really put much stock in his boasts, and we barely threw an ear at his nonsense. However, a few of us could sense the air was heavy with more than humidity and foul weather. Mowenz was quieter than usual, and though not a man of many words to begin with, he usually at the very least cracked a smile and grabbed one of the younger guys to throw in the pool to get his juices running. But that day he appeared unusually focused, a strange emotion to carry into such a tattered concept of a game. Looking back, maybe we all missed this sign for what was to come. It’s unclear if the events leading up to the incident were coincidence, or a Machiavellian string of plans Mowenz set in motion to give him his chance for true, complete vengeance.
Klapchick and myself ended up on the same team, with Mowenz opposing us. The teams lined up facing one another, and we started. The usual roughhousing began and the game fell into a meaty, bruised rhythm. Tackles thundered with their usual ferociousness. Every game of 1 Foot/2Foot had a number of near drownings, and this one was no exception. For some players, watching someone claw to the surface and gasp for a breath after getting crushed in the stomach gave them reason to play.
The game went on; the score bounced back and forth. I think one or two people bled from scraped knees and elbows. With the day winding down, we suddenly found ourselves with the ball and a chance to extend our lead and possibly end the game. We were in the 1-foot, trying to make our way over the wall and through the 2 foot to score. We huddled, called some ridiculously intricate play that clearly had no shot of ever working, and trudged to the line. The quarterback hiked the ball, surveyed the scene, and slung a short pass out to Klapchick. He caught it, turned, and saw some open space. Only two things stood in his immediate way – the wall, and Mowenz. Any other time I would give the edge to Klapchick scoring at this point. He was quick and unusually wiry in the water, and squirrelly enough to out maneuver the larger Mowenz. But for this one play, ability got thrown out the window. All game Mowenz had been waiting for this opportunity, circling the peripheral of the rules, to land at this moment. He had made no questionable tackles throughout the game; highly unusual for him. Up until this moment none of us had thought too much about that, but as we watched this series unfold, everything seemed to click. We realized what was about to happen.
To this day, I am certain Mowenz felt he could kill Klapchick right there in the pool and get away with it, using "terrible accident" as his trial defense. Just as Klapchick began to cross into the 2 foot over the wall, we all saw what was about to happen. Instead of going for the dunk tackle, or sportingly (ha ha) allowing him to perhaps get over the wall before tackling him, Mowenz struck. Throwing himself out of the water, Mowenz launched his 250-pound body at Klapchick. It looked like an elephant’s corpse being shot out of a cannon. And the elephant corpse landed a direct hit. Klapchick had nowhere to go.
The sound wasn’t a crack, so we thought it was possible nothing instantly shattered. It was more of a hollow thump, the way a semi-inflated basketball sounds hitting the floor after being dropped from a considerable height. Mowenz hit Klapchick just as he was stepping over the wall, and his weight carried him right against it. I think what saved Klapchick’s life was the fact that he hit the wall more with his gut, and not with his chest, thus preventing shards of cracked ribcage to riddle his lungs and heart with holes.
It looked like it hurt.
Klapchick’s body crumpled against the wall, yet somehow he clung to consciousness. I’m not sure that was a good thing. There he lay, his body, half-dangling in the 2-foot pool, half splattered atop that 50-yard line wall. The ball of course came loose, and Mowenz tried to argue that it was a fumble. The other eight of us involved all looked around, trying to focus on anything else than the mass of skin and bone that was still Klapchick imprinted on the wall. It felt like a scene from a poorly constructed Lynch movie: A man closer to death than I’ve ever seen, another man holding a volleyball over his head and running through a pool with a maniacal grin on his face, and 8 guys standing around in the rain trying to look busy and disinterested enough so as not to be the one who ran to get medical help.
Somehow, Klapchick got up. He stumbled out of the pool and collapsed onto the concrete, desperately trying to catch his breath. No one really knew how to react; we all knew Klapchick had something like this coming to him, but also thought the violence of the attack may have been a tad excessive. Perhaps some of us were trying to commit the act to memory, so we could recall it on the witness stand should Klapchick not make it, which we all thought was inevitable. But Klapchick was tough, and he actually got up in a few minutes after the actual incident. Without a word – but a lot of wheezing – he slowly walked up to the office and sat there.
And I’m pretty sure that was the last time 1 Foot/2Foot was ever played.
Luckily, for all of us, and especially for Mowenz, Klapchick had no serious, visible injuries from the hit. Who knows, it may have caused massive internal trauma, but Klapchick seemed surprisingly ok about it. Oh sure, there was an eerie silence whenever the two happened run into one another for a few days after that, but eventually that came to pass. And Klapchick of course retaliated with some sort of prank, involving the gunk you find at the bottom of a trashcan and a personal item of Mowenz’s, but that was to be expected. In fact, I dare say the event gave them a certain amount of unspoken respect for each other. Mowenz found a way to defend his pride, and Klapchick didn’t press charges. The pranks with each other continued, but luckily the majority of them didn’t directly involve the intent to injure. And that was a good thing.
I think we all lost a little bit of our innocence that day, and there was no way to get it back. Some idiot tried moving the game to a 4-foot deep pool, but I never participated in that folly. Like it or not, I had become a 1 Foot/2 Foot veteran, and no goofy, toned down substitution was going to appease my appetite for the raw thrill of grabbing Death by the collar, shaking him and sticking my tongue in his face. As the summers went by occasionally there were murmurs about trying to revive the game, but by then it was more legend than anything, and to taint those memories would be disrespectful to all the players who stepped into the scrums. 1 Foot/2 Foot had played itself out, and slowly sunk to the bottom of our psyches, anchoring our souls to the memories of the times we shared in those pools together. Plus, it freed up the guards’ time to devote their attentions elsewhere, such as preparing for the onslaught that is called Bathroom Tennis.
Now that’s a good game.