Tuesday, April 1, 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.

The grounds of Hidden Hollow were unlike any other suburban swim club I have ever seen. Admittedly, I have only been to a handful community pools, but they all shared similar shapes and feels. Trust me when I say Hidden Hollow had a list things other pools (and insurance companies) feared.

And the 10-meter platform topped that list.

The crown jewel of Hidden Hollow Swim Club sat smack dab in the middle of the grounds; an L-shaped monstrosity of a pool that caused the staff’s most joy and heartache. The long part of the L consisted of a 50-meter Olympic-sized pool with a depth that gradually descended from four to five feet. An old, roughly sewn rope separated it from the small part of the L, or the diving well. This diving well (or “dives,” as the guards called it) had a depth of 20 feet at its deepest, to accommodate a 10-meter platform. Touching the bottom was a chore – one that I rarely did due to the pressure and the energy expended to make it down and back. Now, before setting foot in the thrifty confines of Hidden Hollow, I had always thought 10-meter platforms were relegated to fancy college diving programs and Olympic facilities. Obviously, I was wrong. Apparently, as long as you were the owner of an “orchard” in a Southeastern Pennsylvania suburban community, you could house a 10-meter platform.

Though scary and imposing, the 10-meter was only one of the many danger areas of the dives. There were countless other ways to seriously injure and/or kills there. The dives consisted of a one-meter concrete diving board, two one-meter springboards, a three-meter springboard, and the actual platform stanchion. This stanchion included a three, six and the aforementioned 10-meter platform. At any given time all of these pieces came into play –children and adults of various ages, weights, and swimming coordination all used the apparatus to hurl themselves into the over/under (but rarely correctly) chlorinated pool, while a doe-eyed lifeguard nervously twirled his whistle and surveyed this Chinese menu of potential death, counting the seconds until another guard relieved him.

Yes, all of it was always in play – except for the 10-meter platform.

The 10-meter platform was a special beast. Because it sat directly over the three-meter platform, it remained closed for much of the day (see picture). This rule probably saved thousands of lives. The only person with the authorization(?) to open it was the manager on duty for the day. You would think this was because the manager had special, extra lifesaving training and could respond much quicker to an emergency. Of course you would also be wrong.

This tale is not about the 10-meter platform though. This tale begins much deeper.

As I mentioned earlier, the diving well had a depth of 20 feet. At the very bottom was a small grate that housed… something important. I’m not going to pretend I understood the inner mechanics of the pools, save for the filters (I’m a filter ninja, but that’s another story). Regardless, I knew about the grate (it was about 2 by 3 feet in size, so you could see it from the side of the pool) but had no idea what it housed, hid or did.

One fine summer day though, that grate indirectly affected my life – and directly affected another’s. My manager, Mr. P (identity hidden for a host of reasons) stood in the office and proclaimed that the diving well had a leak – and something underneath the grate was the popular suspect. We couldn’t be sure, however, until someone swam down and tested it. This entailed taking a small bottle of dye and squeezing it near the grate. If the dye was sucked down, there was a problem.

He looked around the room for volunteers. No one raised a hand.

Now, let’s for a second ignore the fact that as lifeguards we were being paid slightly more than prisoners (less than minimum wage, actually. How? Apparently there is a little known Farmer’s Wage that could be implemented because the pool happened to be on “orchard” grounds – whatever that means). The water pressure at 20 feet, coupled with the fact that to reach the bottom, perform a Mr. Wizard-like science experiment, and return to surface took a decent amount of energy. And though most of the guards were in decent shape, none of us were trained Navy Seals.

Mr. P picked up on our collective level of disinterest/fear, and walked out without another word. We didn’t hear about the leak for the next few days and thought the matter would trickle away, much like the water level in the pool. But Mr. P was smarter than his scatter-brained, non-sequitur chatter implied. And while his actions wound up nearly killing him, in the end no one got seriously hurt and the event became legend.

Mr. P introduced SCUBA gear into the equation.

It began innocently enough. A few guards and myself were working hard through our daily routine of not doing anything when we saw Mr. P down on the deck of the diving well with an oxygen tank. In one sly move, he turned a somewhat risky job into an amusement park ride for us. We ran down to see if we could help - and to play Jacques Cousteau. Mr. P allowed us to take turns donning the tank and swimming around the bottom of the pool. My turn came, and while excited, once on the bottom I immediately began hyperventilating. Not wanting to be a pussy, I remained in a weird, anxiety-ridden state on the pool floor for a few minutes, wondering if I needed to be concerned about the bends if I surfaced too quickly (hey, I saw The Abyss).

I’d say four of us took that “magical,” underwater journey, every one of us even checking and confirming the leak. And for us, the journey ended there. None of us could fix the leak, nor would the pool owners close the pool for the appropriate amount of time (Days? Weeks?) to fix it. We figured the pool would most likely be able to handle it until season’s end, as long as an eye was kept on it.

But Mr. P had other ideas. Or maybe someone ordered him to find a solution. Whatever the reason, the SCUBA gear remained at the pool. The next day, Mr. P was out there on the deck of the diving well, with the oxygen tank, strapping it on, getting ready to go down there himself. Since the leak was already confirmed, this dive obviously had more focused implications. It seemed the leak needed to be fixed.

He admitted as much in the jilted, rambling sounds that made up his speech pattern. Not knowing what else to do, the small crowd of guards wished him the best of luck, and stood around, using the guise of “assisting” him to get out of much more menial tasks. Mr. P, now strapped in, plunged to the depths below. Never mind that he didn’t have any tools with him; you didn’t question Mr. P. His manic, unorthodox, quick fixes around the swim club were legendary, and if he thought he could fix a small leak at the bottom of a 20-foot pool, with nothing but his hands and ingenuity, then we thought he could as well.

About five minutes had passed before we saw the first sign things weren’t going as planned – that being a small trickle of red liquid bubbling up to the surface. The trickle then turned into a stream.

The next image we saw was Mr P’s rapidly ascending body. Within a mixture of blood and bubbles, he shot out of the water and lunged for the side of the pool. In that moment, we saw the origin of the blood – Mr. P’s nose.

The story came together quick, with a lot of gurgling, nasal sounding rants and made up words accompanying it. Because the tank had been loaned to Mr. P by one of his son’s friends, and because none of us knew the first thing about dealing with oxygen tanks, (or SCUBA or fixing leaks at the bottom of a pool) no one realized that the tank had very little air in it to begin with. And so, due to our SCUBA trips the day before, the tank ran out of oxygen – right at the moment Mr. P began to lift the grate at the bottom of the pool. Stuck in precarious position, and gasping for air, something gave in Mr. P’s head and his nose began to bleed underwater. Yuck.

It would take a lot more than an empty oxygen tank to put Mr. P out of commission (I once saw him play tennis with a colostomy bag strapped to his leg a day after a bit of surgery.) A bloody nose wasn’t going to keep him down. He quickly returned to barking out nonsensical orders to the staff, and we promptly returned to doing nothing.

As for the leak, it is a mystery still to this day. I can only assume some unlicensed welder fixed it at season’s end, after the kids headed back to school and the pools were drained. But closure was a fickle thing when it came to Hidden Hollow. Employees… machines… procedure… everything had a sense of jerry-rigged inertia. Important things that kept the pool in business got done, and no one knew – or cared – how.


hendge said...

Butch would be very disappointed to be identified as merely "some unlicensed welder."

Goose said...

You say that now, but who knows what crimes he's running from? Anonymity might be exactly what he wants.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen HH lately. The snack bar ain't what it used to be. But I guess that is a good thing. By show of hands, who had to climb into the filters and clean them with a hose, while walking through god knows what.


Anonymous said...

I don't recall Dad ever mentioning the running out of air part. I'm sure he'd love to know he's famous, but he rarely bother's to check his email. B, I don't think you can walk through the filter any more, they replaced it a few years back. I think he's still working on that leak though.

Anonymous said...

Your stories are brilliant and capture the essence of good old Hidden Hollow, which I now refer to as the "Mecca" (an annual trip with my children is a practically a religious experience) and is not quite complete without a rousing water balloon toss, swedish fish, slide splash contest (pioneered by my my contemporaries), and the beloved (life threatening) water melon football! I was a guard during what is now being referred to as the "platinum years" (as well as 3 of my siblings) which includes some of the most hilarious stories we have to date!!! Thanks for sharing yours and by all means keep up the great work!!!

Unknown said...

I remember my first time jumping off the 10 meter platform when Hidden Hollow first opened.... what a thrill! Also remember my first swim meet as an 8 and under swimming in the lane closest to the diving area. Great memories of Hidden Hollow. Anne

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