I was trying to figure out why I haven’t blogged in so long (erm, THREE MONTHS) other than the usual excuses, most of them having to do with my undying admiration for what Nancy Nall manages to pull off nearly every weekday morning of the year — while also working her fingers to the bone on other paying gigs. My stuff here definitely remains in the slowest possibble slow-blogging category. And yes, that’s a thing, or once was.
On the upside, I guess, it’s just you and me now. No one comes here anymore.
The One-Man Book Club still exists and has much to discuss, and will soon. I also started and abandoned an epic entry on Newspaper Computer Publishing Systems I Have Known. (I want to finish that one, which is about the dozen or so different and increasingly arcane systems on which I’ve written and edited over the last two decades of newsroom employment — in other words, a rant about what the kids today call CMS. I started in on that entry with the hope that it would be as much fun as my nostalgia trip about newspaper layout. With some tweaking yet, perhaps it shall.)
The truth? Every time I come back here with the intent to update the blog, I see the lovely face of Barbara Kerr Page — and the nearly three dozen lovely comments people left on that item about her death — and I just want to keep her there, uppermost in thought and deed and display. I had a delayed reaction of deep sadness after returning from her memorial service in Albuquerque on May 21; a month-long funk that turned out to be more about me than about her.
But that’s crazy — Barb was a fan of this blog and urged me to file more often. So here we go again.
I’m writing this from Beverly Hills, where I’m learning everything there is to know about the new fall TV season at the annual Television Critics Association press tour. Today is day 10 of a 16-day stay. Tonight we went to the Fox lot to get a special screening of Ryan Murphy’s new horror show on FX. Followed by dinner. It’s a hard life.
While I contend with high temps in the low 80s, many friends and loved ones are on their sixth week of 100-plus temps in the American Elsewhere: Frisco, Texas, home of Tinsel — 110 today; Oklahoma City, der Stuever homeland — 111; Wichita, where my mom lives — 113!
Here in LA, it’s easy-breezy, cover girl. Not to gloat; I feel guilty about it. The other night, at a party the BBC threw on the roof of the London Hotel in West Hollywood, they brought out a troupe of Esther Williams-style bathing beauties in feathered swim caps, who performed a synchronized dance routine in the pool. The debt crisis raged on and yet up there, with LA twinkling below, everything felt (as usual) very fin de siecle.
Esther Williams got me thinking about a story I wrote eight summers ago, about the cultural (in)significance and consumer history of the above-ground pool. (Did you know Esther lent her name to a brand of above-ground pools?) That piece was one of my favorites — or rather, it’s one of my favorite KINDS of stories I used to do, but it’s also one I’d rework a little if I could have it back. It was a candidate for Off Ramp, but didn’t make the cut.
As a way for us all to cool off, I’m reprinting it here. Have a dip and dream of waves, palm trees, inflatable alligators, 7-Eleven Slurpees, or whatever floats your personal boat…
HEAVEN ON EARTH
By Hank Stuever | The Washington Post | Originally published on Aug. 3, 2003
THE ABOVE-GROUND swimming pool, and all that it is not: It is not the pool John Cheever had in mind in his 1964 short story “The Swimmer,” and it is none of the pools Burt Lancaster swam through in the movie version. Not the kind of pool beside which Truman Capote drank and loafed away his unwritten words. Not what David Hockney painted and not what Calvin Klein’s wife took pictures of for her coffee-table book about something so obvious as the beauty of pools. Not kidney-shaped, with no terra cotta tiles. Not what Herb Ritts put Cindy Crawford next to, and not where Dominick Dunne accepts telephone calls. Not the pool of the presidential family photo-op, and therefore not the Reagans, and therefore not California, at least not that part, not that style of California. Not the valley, not the dolls.
Not the Chateau Marmont and not even the Best Western. Not the country club, and not Club Med, and not seen in any of the vacation brochures. It is not the pool that Eddie comes to skim-clean every other Tuesday, taking his time to slowly drag the net across the deep end, only because he wants another look at the daughter who is home from college (and so it is not the pool in which her mother catches them together). Not the kind of pool that inspires you to buy festive new plastic tumblers in which to serve cocktails on the matching tray late in the afternoon. Not where you find cabana boys (or cabanas). Not the kind of pool decorated with candles that flicker on inflatable lily pads at the outdoor wedding reception, where the waiter slips and falls and takes the bride and the cake in with him.
Not the pool where Captain Kirk’s third wife was found floating, accidentally drowned, four summers ago. Not the pool that the Great Gatsby is found dead in, either, or William Holden in “Sunset Boulevard.” Not the pool of death and not the pool of the hereafter. Not the still turquoise rectangle ethereally half-framed by the shadow of a Richard Neutra house out in the desert. Not dreams, not fantasies, not transporting you to any psychic heaven. Not the pool you see in the movies. Not the pool you see on the news (“Toddler who wandered into family’s pool — “).
Not in-the-ground, not as expensive, not as permanent, not as pretty.
And not in this neighborhood, thank you, although the rules permit you to apply for a variance to the ban on above-ground pools. (Basketball hoops, driveway oil changes, parked campers, above-ground pools — we don’t go for that here in Regulated America, as per the homeowner covenants, if you’d please turn to Section 5, Item 3b. You understand — property values and such.) Above-ground pools almost escape the rude detection of cultural discernment, which keeps them far down the list of any possibly loaded statements about suburban class and lifestyles. They exist, except they don’t. Mostly you see them from the train, in all those sprawling back yards near the tracks, between Wilmington, Del., and Metuchen, N.J. To see one is to think of Tallahassee, or Lubbock, or Buffalo, or to recall the first family on your childhood street to get a divorce, before everyone else’s parents got divorced.
When the spirit did not gain easy access to the river of life, above-ground pools became fixtures in Pentecostal churches, for the purposes of baptizing souls.
You see above-ground pools making cameo appearances on reruns of “America’s Funniest Videos.”(Muffin’s climbed all the way up and got in the pool! She thinks she’s people!) (Or remember the one where the pool wall gives way and Momma and all the lawn chairs are swept toward the back fence in a torrent?!) Here is the one marvelous thing about the above-ground pool’s rise over four decades to partial respect and acceptance: It is the ultimate triumph of the have-nots over the haves.
You want a pool?
You can get a pool.
You can get a pool delivered, assembled and filled in a matter of days.
(You want to buy the custom deck to put around it? Let me spec that out for you.) It is the ultimate thing that is not . . . quite . . . the . . . real . . . thing. Of the 8 million or so residential swimming pools in the United States, perhaps as many as 40 percent are above-ground models, according to data from the National Spa and Pool Institute, and the market keeps growing. The more people buy them, the more the pools keep improving. They keep looking more and more like something Celine Dion might wish to own, with faux stone and marble walls and columns, fancier decks, nighttime mood lighting, sprinkling fountains, a halo of shrubs and flowers around the base.
And in each of them someone is having a moment of bliss. Someone is splashing around, and this is what matters most. Happiness, water, the smell of chlorine. This is the above-ground pool industry’s firmest claim: You can spend as little as $3,000 or as much as $50,000 for the pool that is not really a pool — it can be made more real — and it will be every bit as good as the pool of our wildest dreams. You just have to believe in it.
* * *
THEN, LAST MONTH, came the tantalizing notion that the remains of Jimmy Hoffa could possibly be buried deep beneath an above-ground pool in far suburban Detroit.
No. In fact, what the Oakland County, Mich., sheriff’s department was looking for was a briefcase, purported to contain a syringe, which, according to a hyperimaginative prison informant, was used in the Teamsters boss’s supposed murder. So backhoes were brought into the Hampton Township yard of what the Detroit Free Press flatly described as a “one-story brick home . . . in a middle-class, semirural neighborhood.”
The key word here is semirural. This is where you want to put your above-ground pool — someplace in the semirural. The entire uneventful history of above-ground pools occurs in that American elsewhere, where people who wanted to own a pool found a way to own a pool, and the above-ground pool took on a certain panache and permanence. It would also seem like a good place to stash Hoffa. Who looks for crime in something so nondescript, so benign, so long-lasting?
The home was purchased five years ago by Al and Linda Foote. They like it here, they say via a statement from their lawyer to the media, plan to stay — despite recent unpleasantness stemming from a “Dateline NBC” report that led to the discovery in March, in the crawl space under their house, of the body of Robert A. Woods, an autoworker missing since 1974.
Long story short? After eight hours of digging, the mythic former Teamsters boss wasn’t under there, nor was the briefcase. Nothing turned up because nothing ever does, when it comes to 28 years of looking for Hoffa.
A more pressing matter is that one family’s pool has been needlessly destroyed, here in the dead middle of summer: Oakland County promised to replace the Foote family oasis if it could not be repaired.
Paradise not lost. Surely the county could be compelled to throw in a newer, snazzier deck, a better filter pump, a sapphire-colored, terra-cotta-like vinyl liner and matching stepladder for the Footes’ troubles. (Let me spec that out for you . . . )
* * *
Peter and Margherite Mulcahy have six children, ages 3 to 20. They also have a back yard stretching toward the hilly forever, up and up I-270 into lushest Maryland, a sanctuary in the town of Boyds, beyond Germantown, where most of the rest of the world hasn’t caught up to them yet.
It’s a place where everyone got his or her own bedroom. They left behind a house in Montgomery Village three years ago, where they had easy access to a community pool. Peter, who runs an interior painting business with his wife, thought it a stroke of genius to move farther out here — all the land! a tractor! horses! — until he realized the kids didn’t have as much to do: “I felt bad,” he says, the way a dad feels bad about these things. “I was trying to make it nicer for them, make them happier. So I got this pool.” He bought a 10,000-gallon, oval, above-ground pool used from a guy in Virginia for “around $1,000.”
It wasn’t so easy to get the ground level beneath it.
The oldest son, Joe, 18, came home from football practice that first summer they had it, soaked for a while, got out, and noticed the water level looked slanted relative to the rim of the pool (relative, even, to the tilt of the earth; relative to the eye of God) and water was leaking out the bottom. Some more leveling followed, shoring up the sides with gravel. A new vinyl liner was put in. Then things were okay.
“Dad, did you tell him what happened to the pump?” asks Joe.
Yes, Peter sighs, the reporter has been told about the pump, but let’s go over it one more time: “I knew that you can let the water freeze in [the pool] over the winter, and that was kind of cool. The ice got real hard, and the kids could even get on it,” Peter explains. “But I forgot about water in the pump. Well, really, I kind of knew that. I knew I should get out there and empty it for the winter. But it was one of those things, you know that you keep telling yourself, oh I’ll do it tomorrow, I’ll do it tomorrow, and well, then it’s too late.” The water froze and the pump cracked.
So the Mulcahys had to buy a new pump this spring.
“So that’s it,” Peter says. “That’s our pool. Not a very exciting story, I guess.”
No, not at all. But you know what? The world has been too exciting lately. Let us now take a moment to slap at bugs and talk about the above-ground pool’s magnificent dullness. How it is both Dad and dada. How much about pure love it is — love that is not about a hole in the ground, love that knows no property values.
The Mulcahys have just finished the deck that juts into the knoll next to the pool. The neighbor kids over the next hill come over and use it. “I told Matt and what’s his little friend’s name, James? I said, ‘You guys can come over and use the pool whenever you want, but no drowning in my pool,’ ” Peter says. “That’s the last thing we need.” (Another plus: People have a hard time drowning in above-ground pools. The standard wall height is 52 inches, amounting to about four feet of water. Kids can’t easily climb into them, if the ladder is taken away.)
The above-ground pool’s invention coincides, roughly, with the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s. Of course it does. It comes with all the potentially tacky things that set off the alarms of snooty tastemakers. It comes with the pop-up camper, the metal patio chairs, the plastic coolers.
Get in one and you’ve got nowhere to go. You can only float, and look at the sky. Here is the beginning of a path to bliss.
“A pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable,” Joan Didion wrote in the ’70s, perhaps during one of her famous Santa Ana migraines. “A pool is water, made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the Western eye.”
Bets are pretty certain that Didion was not ever transfixed by an above-ground pool, but let’s hold out hope that one day she will be. Her point is the same, anyhow: Kept water — any kind of pool — is a passport to a calmer state of being.
All Peter Mulcahy wanted was a more satisfied family. This is what these pools do. They please.
* * *
TOWN OF ISLIP, N.Y., Zoning Board of Appeals, Agenda Item, Thursday, March 23, 2003
Oakdale: Vito and Glynnis Gaeta seek permission to retain a one-story addition to dwelling with side yard and to retain an above-ground pool with insufficient side yard on the west side of Wichard Drive. — Newsday
In a world micromanaged by various zoning boards of appeal, shouldn’t it be the Vitos and Glynnises and their desires for above-ground pools whom we should exalt as modern folk heroes?
Why all the hassle?
Why so many rules?
Why not just fun fun fun fun fun?
* * *
They also had a teenager or two, who always used to drag the trampoline nearer to the pool, for stunts. You could use swear words at this house. They were the first people you ever knew who wired stereo speakers to the outside patio, over which were broadcast songs by the Steve Miller Band or Kenny Rogers. They discovered, and held onto, the elusive idea that the inside and the outside were interchangeable in summer, and therefore had very few rules about shoes or Popsicles or shouting. They were the best family on the block, the best house to go to, if you could deal with the unpredictability of their lives, the sudden shifts to Family DefCon 4, the crisis moments, the screaming, the slamming of the sliding-glass door.
To hang out with the people who owned the above-ground pool (and the monkey bars with the trapeze, and the motorboat that never went anywhere) was both a privilege and a reason to get your tetanus shot.
To the kids in the neighborhood, this home was a fancy-seeming wonderland of thrills and glamour. In the collective doldrums of any cul-de-sac, it was the equivalent of Florida: a buggy, leafy Shangri-La; a slightly lawless realm, with kids addicted to powdered Lik-m-Aid instead of cocaine. It was good so long as you didn’t ask where (or if) the dad worked, or what he did, specifically, to provide such capital bounty. Your mother never wanted you to go over there, which is why you always went over there, to swim in their above-ground pool, to soak in their exotic brew. If enough people climbed in the above-ground pool, and all jogged in the same direction, you could create a swirling, whirlpool effect. This was mesmerizing fun, and lingers in the memory in slow motion, a blissful moment framed with a gauzy, peach-colored sunset. Up and until a fight broke out and everyone was sent home.
* * *
ESTHER WILLIAMS! THE bathing beauty of MGM, surrounded by all her synchronized angels. She lent her name to some of the first mass-produced above-ground swimming pools in the late 1950s, and it may have been her shrewdest business decision. She lives in Beverly Hills and will be 81 in August, and the pools that bear her name are now an industry leader.
Williams has no part in the manufacturing or marketing end of the business, says Ilene Fink, the marketing director of the Delair Group Inc., which makes Esther Williams (and Johnny Weissmuller) pools at its factory in Delair, N.J. “She just allowed them to use her name, and it was a really good way to market them,” Fink says. “At first, people knew who she was, the older generation really responded to it. Now, consumers know ‘Esther Williams’ as a really good swimming pool.”
Here, Fink launches into a reverie on above-ground pools, from the days when “people just thought they were a real eyesore,” to the present aesthetic, the 60-year warranty, the carpet to put on the deck that matches the mosaic liner, and all the many, many customers who can’t brag enough about their aluminum above-ground swimming pools. She has a sales video that she swears leaves people breathless with wonder.
Frank J. O’Connor Sr. owns Hawaiian Pools and Spas on Richmond Highway in Alexandria. (It’s the place next to the Cedar Lodge motel, with the giant above-ground pools and decks kept behind tall chain-link fences topped with barbed wire.) O’Connor is one of Ilene Fink’s favorite Esther Williams dealers. If someone in Wyoming needs to custom order an Esther Williams, Ilene sends him to Frank.
Locally, it’s been a little slower this year than Frank would like — he usually sells around 50 pools in a season. There’s been all this rain. There are too many neighborhoods in Northern Virginia where an above-ground pool breaks all the rules.
* * *
Q: WHAT WILL MY pool look like when I am finished?
A: That is the beauty of the Medallion Above-Ground Pool. It is so versatile we leave it up to you. . . . You can put it partially in ground with a decorative wood deck. And of course, you can install your pool completely above ground and use a wood or vinyl siding to match your house. — Medallion Pools Web site
So much did John Mazza love his children that he dug them a square hole in the ground, 20 by 20, and lined it with cinder blocks a few feet deep. That was the family’s first swimming pool, and his son, John Jr., reckons this would been the summer of 1958.
“That first pool leaked like a sieve,” Mazza says, “I was about 8 years old. You had to keep the garden hose running in it to keep any water in it. But my dad kept trying.”
The elder Mazza saw an ad for potential franchisers with the E-Z Do Pool Co. in a magazine a few years later — “Life or Look, I’m not sure,” Mazza Jr. says — and so the family piled into their ’58 Buick and drove up to Long Island for a look. That’s how the Mazzas started their Medallion Pools company, and how Mazza’s father continued his quest to perfect the above-ground pool, experimenting with steel and other materials, Mazza Jr. recalls. “Till finally we built one that a backhoe couldn’t destroy. We figured that would be a good pool to have.”
Mazza Sr. died in 1990, but Mazza Jr. and his sister still run the business, in Matoaca, south of Richmond, with about 60 employees.
Mazza remembers when above-ground pools were ugly. “I think finally the people in the swimming pool industry realized that [above-ground] was a part of this industry, it wasn’t going anywhere and it was time to start treating them like real swimming pools. I hate putting it this way, but for a long time they made people react a certain way, like it gave you the impression of trailer parks.”
And here he gets a bit Didionesque: “When you enjoy the pool the most, you walk down into it, sit on the stairs, just float. If it’s a good pool, with the right things, if you have an automatic chlorinator, if you have a pump and a filter, it’s a great thing. If you spend more than five minutes a week working on that pool then you’re doing something wrong. That’s not a salesman talking, either; that’s the facts of life.”
* * *
RAMIE HOOKS IS the manager at Playtime Pools & Spas, which sits on a small bluff overlooking Jeff Davis Highway in Woodbridge. There’s a collection of premium Vogue and Strong brand above-ground swimming pools assembled and sparkling blue in the yard next to the store. A sprinkly fountain has been rigged up in the center of one. It could be a resort up here, a pool garden, with views of the Super China Buffet and the Knock On Wood furniture store, the nail salons, multiple 7-Elevens and a place called Mattress For You!
Oh, to be able to swim in the tempting Coliseum, or the Impact, or the Zenith.
Hooks, who is tanned and friendly and spends his days in a store that smells gloriously of pool chemicals and new vinyl, says he used to own an above-ground pool. “The dog liked it more than anything.”
There’s a vacant circle on the lot as well, larger in diameter than the other display pools; the earth beneath it is a light, dead shade of brown. That was the Lexel.
The Lexel is gone, Hooks says. A man just bought it the other day.
It’s the kind of circle that aliens might leave behind, and it inspires yet another summertime fantasy about above-ground pools. Only this time they fly.