“No Samuel,” I said as I caught his arm, “There’s too much glass in there. You might get hurt.”
Samuel looked at me and then looked at the empty blue wading pool with numerous shattered bottles. The collection of glass would have been a beautiful semblance if the individual pieces hadn’t been so sharp and jagged. Samuel sighed his six-year-old disgust and then hurried off to the swing set. I was his age when we played on this park’s wooden merry-go-round, metal twisty slides, and metal monkey bars. Samuel ran past the neon-orange plastic playset and sat on the closest swing he could find.
1980 summers included too few hours in the day, free playground lunches, and a complete disregard for time. The neighborhood kids used to leave their houses and ride bikes to Nordale park at about 9:30 a.m. My brother and I only had to ride about a block, so we usually waited until we saw others pass our house before we took off for the day. We grabbed flip-flops, a towel each, and Nick locked the door as we left. After putting the house key and chain around his neck, he tucked it into his shirt. He would remove it only to swim and then it dangled from the handlebars of his black BMX. Nick also carried my towel around his neck too. I had crashed a couple times trying to keep the towel on my neck while I rode my red banana-seat bike. So to keep from having to go back for bandages for my skinned-up knees and elbows, Nick decided it was just easier to carry my towel too. We sped along behind a few other kids on their bikes. We all travelled light, since we needed very little to enjoy those days. There was a green water fountain that operated by a pedal at the park, lunch provided by the city, and bathrooms in the shelter house, so there was nothing else we needed to worry about.
Normally, the teenage park attendant would start filling the pool around 10 a.m., so the pool would be filled by 11 a.m. It wasn’t a very large pool. In fact, the deepest section was only about three feet deep, but that didn’t matter to us. We still played tag if there were no little kids swimming. The two concrete spouts on the corners and the tall metal spout in the middle of the back wall were bases. I was it a lot, because I was younger and shorter than most of the other kids. Running from base to base was a labored effort for me as the water rose to almost my hips. The older kids generally took pity on me after about ten minutes of me trying to tag someone. One of them would get tagged by me, so they could attack each other.
Other times, we also would walk around the pool on our hands with our feet floating behind us like salamanders. Sometimes we would just sit on the sides of the pool with our feet in the water making water art on the hot concrete. The pictures dried so quickly that we could keep making new pictures as soon as the previous ones disappeared. We tried to guess each other’s pictures but rarely identified anything correctly. We generally spent more time appreciating each other’s work by laughing.
Nick and I’s parents worked during the day and since our grandparents’ house sat across the street from the park, grandma kept an eye on us while our parents were at work. However, I was told by my mom to check in on grandma to make sure she was okay. I was in high school before I realized mom did that to make keeping an eye on me easier.
I usually went to grandma’s house for lunch instead of eating cold chicken and drinking frozen grape juice from the plastic containers. As soon as I saw the large white truck turn onto the side street next to the park and everyone exited the pool for lunch, I waved at Nick and headed across the street.
Grandma would make me a salad with iceberg lettuce, torn up pieces of ham and turkey, cheese, and some sort of sweet red dressing that I could never identify. The weight of the fork made each bite a slow effort. Grandma would close her crossword puzzle book using her red pen’s eraser as a bookmark. Once that was aside, she sat, ate, and talked to me while I was there. Her house was air conditioned too which was a treat after being out in the summer heat all morning. Grandpa would be sitting out in the front room watching the same golf tournament grandma was watching in the kitchen. Every day as I was leaving, grandpa would ask me how I was and if I would help him pick up golf balls at the park later in the evening. I always said fine and sure, and then I left to go back to the park.
At 4 o’clock most of the kids were starting to get ready to leave and the pool had to be drained. To drain the pool, someone had to go below ground. There was a rusted, metal door behind the tall, water spout that had to be unlocked and opened. Then someone had to go down the ladder and open the drain. Everyone in the neighborhood had done this job except me. I was the last kid and every day everyone made fun of me, because I was too scared to descend into the depths of the underworld to turn the wheel.
The darkness was real and consuming. I fought back tears the days Nick said he wanted to turn the wheel. I feared he would never return. I also knew with full certainty that if I climbed down that ladder, there would be no ascension into the sunshine. The door would close. I would be forever trapped below the park with all of the spiders, ghouls, and demons that inhabit that enclosure.
“Come on Mariana,” Brandon teased gently.
Brandon was Nick’s best friend and the most glorious boy on the planet. His dark skin and beautifully white smile could persuade me to do or believe almost anything. This was the only exception. I absolutely would not go down that ladder.
“You can do it. I believe in you,” Brandon said again as he put one arm over my shoulder.
Before I could say anything, I was standing in front of the open rusted door with five of the neighborhood kids and the teen park attendant staring at me.
“Come on girl,” the attendant said annoyed, “I have a date tonight. I don’t have all day.”
I looked down and saw the blackness. I felt my breathing start to get faster, and my stomach lurched violently. No. I couldn’t do this. I looked up and saw Brandon smiling at me and so I walked to the ladder. I felt my flip flop bend as I stepped onto the first rung. Then I climbed down about five more rungs. Then, I realized I had no idea what I was supposed to do down here.
“What do I do?” I asked as bravely as my shaky voice would allow.
“Do you see the big wheel and the small wheel?” The angry teen said.
In the dark, I could barely make out my hands, but then the wheels came into focus directly in front of me.
“Turn the small wheel to the right.”
I pulled the small wheel, but it wouldn’t budge. My heart was pounding and any second I knew that the metal door was going to slam overhead. I kept pulling and finally with a rusty squeak the wheel gave way. I turned it solidly to the right.
“Okay. Now wait until I tell you and then turn it back to the left.”
I had to stay down here? I felt the tears swell and fall. I just wanted to climb the ladder and be warmed by the sun. It was cold and damp down here. I closed my eyes to avoid seeing anything that would make me scream, cry, or shout in terror. The time passed agonizingly slowly. After an eon, I heard it.
“Turn the wheel back to the left.”
Surprisingly, the wheel was much easier to turn left, and I only slipped once as I made my way back to the living. When I came out, everyone was gone except the park attendant. He padlocked the door shut and walked away toward his Yugo. The car sputtered several times and then he drove away as fast as that tiny car could take him. I was on my bike and at the curb before he sped away.
I rode home alone. I was proud, but I also didn’t want to tell anyone about what I had done. All I could think about was being glad that I would never have to do that again. I laughed gently.
“What’s so funny, Mom?”
I looked away from the pool and back at Samuel.
“I was just thinking about when I was a kid here…” I said, but before I could continue Samuel interrupted me.
“Can you push me on the swings?” He asked with all of the eagerness of childhood.
“Of course,” I said and sighed gently. The memories were for me anyway. No one would be interested in the reminiscing of a middle-aged woman thinking back to her childhood park. A park where I won my only beauty pageant, cut my foot and had to have eight stitches, won a scavenger hunt by being the only kid able to spot a four-leaf clover, and kissed a boy for the first time on the brown twisty slide. I swung my head in the direction of where the slide used to be. Our initials were up there until it was torn down. I would have taken a picture, but that was way before cell phone with cameras.
“Come on, Mom!”
“I’m coming…I’m coming.”
I jogged over to the swings and assumed my motherly position. I pushed until Samuel was able to pump his legs on his own. I felt mildly sorry for him. He and I had wonderful times together at this park when we visited my parents, but he will never know the summer joys of my Nordale. We filled days being pushed so fast on the wooden merry-go-round that we had to hold on for our lives, making sure our legs were in exactly the right spots so we didn’t rip our shorts on the straight metal slide, and knowing exactly when to let go of our bikes with our legs as we grabbed onto the monkey bars as we passed underneath them. We lived reckless childhoods that parents today probably would have fainted over. Now, the world is full of plastic precautions. The balance between adventure and safety is blurred by liability.
I am so thankful for my Nordale Park days, broken glass and all.