A View From the Top

When I think back on my summer vacations as a kid, I remember that last day of school seeming like I’d just been sprung from jail. Ahead were months of long days when I could do whatever I wanted (as long as Mom said it was okay). I grew up outside Fulton, on the Chase Road, so there were plenty of woods to explore or I could have hung out with the Richardson boys on their farm across the way. But when I got old enough, my favorite summer activity was riding my bicycle to the West Side Pool in Fulton.

A trip to the pool at Recreation Park was an all-day event. My brother and I packed a few PB & J sandwiches, a towel, and a T-shirt for the evening ride home. Slipped into the tiny pocket in our swimsuits was one dime: the cost of admission to the pool. Not a bad price for a day of fun.

As soon as those summer mornings started heating up, my brother and I hopped on our bikes, getting an easy start on the gradual downhill slope that took us to the end of Chase Road and onto Hannibal Street. We really didn’t have to start pumping until we turned onto Broadway (now known as Route 3), which took us to the park. By the time we’d finish pedaling, we’d worked up a sweat.

After stuffing our lunch and gear into a locker in the always-chilly changing room, we headed into the pool area, which to ten-year-old me seemed like an entire amusement park. I looked for my friends, hoping to find some deck space near them to claim as my own. The pool itself had two sections: a shallow end for toddlers and non-swimmers, and the deep end for everyone else. It was a good day when I passed the swim test and slipped under the buoy rope that put me in the deep end. I was an official swimmer!

There was actually a third section to the West Side Pool, the diving area, and entering it was another rite of passage. As soon as I became a confident swimmer I spent lots of time on the low diving boards. They were fun and just enough of a challenge to make me feel like I was no longer a little kid. My brother and I had already ventured onto the diving boards at Fair Haven Beach’s channel, so I already knew the routine of waiting in line to step onto the board, walking to its end, jumping or—if I felt really brave—diving in, swimming to the ladder and getting back in line for the tenth, twentieth or fiftieth time.  

As happy as I was with my low-diving fun, something towered above me, a constant reminder that I still had mountains to climb and fears to overcome. It was the high dive board. As an adult, I know that board was probably fifteen or so feet above the water, but when I was a kid it looked like the top of the Empire State Building. I got dizzy just looking up at it. 

For years, I watched the older kids casually climb rung after rung of the high dive ladder, then confidently walk to its edge to launch themselves into the air—all as if were a walk in the park. From the safety of my place on the deck, I watched person after self-assured person, trying to imagine myself as one of them. Thinking about high diving didn’t end when I headed home on my bike. Lying in bed after a day at the pool, I’d fall asleep thinking about those brave divers, which often led to a recurring nightmare: me on the West Side Pool high dive, petrified. 

I was twelve years old when I finally convinced myself it was time to overcome my high altitude fears. Of course, I had a lot of help (if you want to call it help) from my friends who’d called me every name in the book for being afraid. One by one, they’d all taken their first plunge and if I didn’t want to be left behind, I’d need to take mine.

One sunny day, I decided it was time. I waited until there was a long line at the bottom of the ladder, which would give me plenty of wiggle room if I talked myself out of taking the plunge. When my turn came to ascend, I mimicked what I’d seen, assuredly grabbing each rung one at a time, pulling myself up. From down below, nobody could see that I was gripping those rungs so tight because my sweaty palms could have caused a fall to my death.

At the top, I stepped onto the board, trying to get a feel for what looked like too thin of a walkway. One step at a time, each followed by a pause to breathe, I inched my way to the end of the board. And froze. Guys on the ladder got impatient and yelled “C’mon! Whataya waiting for?” Finally, the catcalls became worse than my fears of a painful belly flop and I jumped. In the two seconds it took me to hit water, I saw my twelve-year-old life tragically end and my never-to-be future vanish.

But, amazingly, I rose to the water’s surface, all in one piece. I’d survived! As I swam to the ladder and stepped onto solid concrete, I felt some pride. But I also knew that once was enough. Accomplishing a daring feat was one thing; experiencing that queasy fear over and over again was another. I never set foot on the high dive again.

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