Friday, March 7, 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.
One day every summer, a quiet little swim club in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania is transformed from a kid-friendly watering hole for the 21st century into a violent cesspool of cutthroat lunacy. Neighbors turn on neighbors; kids plot their parents demise.
It is here where watermelon football is played...
There used to be a time when sports were played “for love of the game.” A time when it meant something
Every Summer, on the 4th of July, in a sleepy little corner of Southeastern Pennsylvania,
Before endorsement deals and color coordinating sneakers, sports were played “for love of the game.” Now players ham it up for each other to record on camcorders, and make sure they look pretty enough on the field to acquire their next deodorant commercial, making the competition, at best, second in importance. And unfortunately, that attitude seems to be trickling down into the lower levels of games. Sport used to be about competition. Gone are those days, except for a little town in southeastern Pennsylvania, at a swim club nestled in the woods like a bloated tick in the hair of a mangy dog. It is here where spirit and honor thrive.
Actually, it is not so much played as it just simply happens. “Play” is a loose term, used, perhaps mistakenly, to describe what goes on for about a half-hour each Fourth of July and Labor Day. There’s nothing playful about it. Victors dance festively; losers skulk back to their towels, stewing in the humiliation of defeat already looking forward to the next contest. The only thing predictable in these encounters is the date. For one day every summer, Hidden Hollow Swim Club is transformed from a fun, family hangout into a bitter, violent cesspool of cutthroat lunacy.
Welcome to war.
The Rules of the Game
The idea of rules in Watermelon Football is quite misleading, as there are none. There is an objective, and there is a specific area where it must be played, but after that the game is left to the imagination of the players. It starts like this: An unruly group of swim club patrons is divided into two teams. These two teams have always been divided to pit the paying members of the club versus the lifeguards of the pool. At first glance this may seem like an uneven division of talent, as the lifeguards undoubtedly should have an edge with their youthful vigor. However this is not the case. Upon closer examination, the “paying customers” in these contests are usually the adult males who rarely frequent the pool during the week due to their employment, but come out to enjoy the facility on the holidays. The average age of this team is probably around thirty-five; the average age of the guards is seventeen. Also, since no records exist of the proper number of players per side, the “paying customers” (AKA non-guards) always field much larger teams.
Each team finds itself on an opposing side of the pool; since the guards vs. non-guards rivalry started, the guards have always taken the west side of the pool. If they see this as an advantage they never speak of it, more likely the choice is based on tradition.
The pool is roughly 25 yards long by 20 yards across. The depth ranges from 13 feet, down to a slope of twenty feet. It is held in the diving well of the facility, which boasts a platform ten meters high, hence the drastic depth change. Rarely does the depth change come into play however, it is noted only for the fact that this game is done while treading and/or swimming. There is no chance to take a moment and catch your breath here.
The teams line up on their wall, carefully assigning teammates positions and responsibilities, all the while measuring up the competition. This is a crucial time in the game, a time when strategists and tacticians show their worth. This goes on for a few minutes, time which the guards have routinely complained it is unfair as it gives the non-guards a chance to size up their opponent and then go and reshape their team based on what they see facing them.
Now comes the watermelon. This is no ordinary watermelon. Because the swim club is situated on an orchard, this watermelon is an enormous bear of fruit, appearing ready to burst out of its green skin and splash everyone nearby with sticky-fruit goodness. Early in the morning the day of the contest the melon is liberally coated with Vaseline, and then propped in the window of the swim club’s office for all to admire/fear as they enter the facility.
The watermelon is ceremoniously walked down to the pool in its splendid cardboard box lid, and handed over to the manager of the pool, who has the unique honor of starting the game by throwing the melon into the water. Once the melon is poolside, the manager hoists it over his head and walks out onto one of the diving boards overhanging the pool. With a few seconds of silence, everyone stares up at the prize, eager to wrap his or her body around this hefty gift from nature. After a few feeble – and some say sarcastic – warnings to both sides to not kill anyone, the melon is heaved into the watery abyss, shooting a plume of water into the air, signifying the beginning of the mayhem.
Simply put, the object of this game is to get the watermelon to the opposing side’s wall, and heave it up onto the deck of the pool. With such a simplistic goal, one would think the game is rather boring. But thoughts like that can lead a team down the road to mediocrity. The subtle complexities are what make this game a challenging endeavor. The first thing everyone must realize after the shock of jumping into the water after a piece of fruit is that the melon doesn’t necessarily float. It doesn’t sink to the bottom though either. It kind of just sits in the nether region of the pool, taunting people to swim down and tempt fate to bring a watermelon from the shadowy depths into a throng of nearly naked men, all after the same thing.
Because of the Vaseline, the watermelon is obviously not so easy to grab right up and swim with. That, coupled with the fact a mob is trying to do the same exact thing in the opposite direction, is what makes the strategy of the game so interesting. Lefty Johnson, HHSC guard ‘88-’92 put it best, after a particularly trying battle when he said, “The key to the game is controlling the wall.” Regarded as perhaps one of the greatest watermelon tacticians the county has seen, Johnson saw that while the non-guards obviously had an advantage in size and numbers, the guards knew the pool dimensions better than anyone. Realizing this, he developed the “Fed Ex Two Step” offense, a strategy still used occasionally to this day. He had three of the fastest guards dive in and go straight for the melon and two “couriers” hold back at the wall. The rest of the team swam hard to the middle of the pool to “mix it up” with the opponent. This was strictly a diversionary tactic. If the 3 advance guards were fast enough – and good – they would get to the melon first and then “deliver” it behind them underwater, beneath the grappling mass, to the 2 couriers. It was now the couriers responsibility to swim close to the edge of the pool, as inconspicuous as possible, to get the melon to the goal. Detection was inevitable, but if the plan worked, the guards would hold a distinct advantage of having possession and the side of the pool – a must as no one can flank you. While this offense had a good amount of success, there were times of complete failure - none so terrible as the “Great Swell of ’91,” when Milton Kuttard (‘90-’91), acting as one of the three guards assigned to get the melon, passed it right to a non-guard who happened to be swimming down there. It led to an immediate score and gloating victory for the non-guards, one that still is brought up in inspirational huddles at more recent bouts.
There are few accounts of what exactly transpires in the “big mess” that is the huge grappling of bodies in the middle of the pool during the contest. Perhaps no one cares to dwell on the demonic levels he/she must sink to during this aquatic orgy of fisticuffs. Witnessing such a tangled heap of violent bodies squaring off against one another cannot be good for the soul – neither the participants’ nor the viewers’. It is safe to say the wrestling in the middle of the pool consists of the most vile, evil “dirty pool” tactics seen this side of a bridesmaid scrum after a tossed wedding bouquet at the reception. It’s a wonder there’s never been a recorded death at any of these bouts. Actually, the modern era (85 – present) has been relatively injury free, save for the occasional bloody noggin or woozy feeling some complain of when getting out of the pool. No records have survived from before so we are left guessing as to the fate of some of the players of long ago.
It takes a special breed of person to enter the “big mess.” – and size has nothing to do with it. Nico “Balls” Dashawazinski, (HHSC 93-95) one of the better “middlemen” of the game, was hardly 5’2” in his prime yet he would fearlessly enter the barely controlled melee with no other concern than “making sure the watermelon didn’t break up in the pool – cause it’s a bitch to clean up.” To enter the pool for the sole purpose of fighting off the other team took little more than guts, attitude, and a bundle of insanity you could call on and have delivered to you in your darkest hour.
And what of the victory? Some silly players boast they don’t play for the win, but just to “bash some heads and get a work out.” But that is hardly the case. Officially, the prize to the winners is dibs on the soon to be cut up watermelon; unofficially it is of course the gloating rights that are freely dispersed for the rest of the day. Indeed, if the guards win, the club’s PA system is often used to remind everyone of the outcome, sometimes days after the actual contest. Never mind that few if any of the non-guards are physically there to hear it; they hear it from the chasms of their minds every second after the conflict.
Some uninitiated might ask why this war continues as it seems there is a bare minimum of organization, reward, or reason to participate. Veterans of the game hear this and smile. That is the exact type of attitude they want to keep out of the game. Sure watermelon football would rake in millions of dollars and ratings should it sell itself out for a lucrative TV contract. But that would taint the pureness of the game, something every player who has ever broken the surface of the pool in search of the elusive watermelon agrees would destroy the essence of the game. There is a reason these people leap deep into a pool and chase after slippery produce two times a year. And no amount of money will ever coax them to give it up.