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By The Californian
By Steve Flores
Canals and the Union Avenue Plunge: That was our southeast neighborhood's primary refuge from the San Joaquin Valley's oppressive summer heat during the 1960s. We shared the canals with crawdads, broken beer bottles and other unknown sources of refuse. Disgusting, I know, but it was almost a rite of youthful passage back in the day. It also helped us get through the 110-degree Bakersfield summers.
Other than the Union Avenue Plunge, which was a one-mile bike ride away from our Watts Drive home, the only pool we knew of in southeast Bakersfield belonged to my friend Dick Cook, who lived across the way from Casa Loma Street.
So it was with great surprise and amazement that my dad announced he was going to buy a Sears, Roebuck & Co. above-ground Doughboy pool for our home. And it wasn't going to be a small Doughboy pool. It was a big dog one.
My dad wisely insisted all our neighborhood friends who would eventually swim in our new pool had to come over and help us build it. That was your ticket to get in. You had to come over, pick up a shovel, screwdriver or rake and help dig the hole and build what was to eventually become a community pool.
I can still remember my dad sitting in his worn lawn chair drinking a cold one while directing the assembled crew of our friends. Like characters from "A Bronx Tale," we had our friends the Hernandez boys, Big Al, Flash, Logo, JB, Duck and Squirrel at one point or another, coming over to help my dad watch us work. Some eventually would help us dig and build.
The pool was built just in time for summer. Watching the pool fill with our backyard water hose was an event for our many friends. Like watching a world premiere movie, we would sit in our backyard patio, with our swim trunks on, towels at ready and spend the next few days watching the water slowly raise, inch by inch.
We had it all planned out. Who was going to jump in first, who was going to hold their breath the longest and who would be the fastest swimming laps?
It painfully took several days, but my dad finally gave the OK to jump in. The coldest water I had ever swum in before was in the Merced River in Yosemite National Park. The pool that summer day was nearly as cold. But it mattered not to any of the 20 or so excited swimmers.
We already knew the one ladder we had to use to get in and out of the pool just wasn't going to be enough to sustain the amount of swimmer traffic we predicted.
My dad, still in his lawn chair, watched as my older brother Willie became the foreman for our neighborhood construction crew as the Watts Drive diving and tanning tower was built with scavenged two-by-fours.
Each time we climbed the nearly 6-foot tower it swayed gently back and forth. And when you dove in, it seemed like there was always a chance the tower would collapse or topple over. It never did. But it surely added excitement to our flying squirrels, water cannons and swan dives.
We eventually added outdoor speakers to our patio that my brothers Andy and Ralph had wired into our eight-track tape player. It's funny, but I can still see the music playing in our backyard with everyone swimming.
The pool, remarkably, lasted for about five summers. And although it literally collapsed from use, my cousins and neighborhood friends recount those summers as though it happened yesterday.
Thank goodness, I never see kids swimming in canals any more. I sometimes wonder how we never became sick, diseased or sutured after swimming in their cool but certainly contaminated waters.
The only swimming I do now is at my gym. I know I don't look it, but I try to swim five days a week. Each time I dive in, I think back to those Watts Drive summers, my friends and family and the Sears pool my dad watched us build.
I really miss those days.
Steve Flores is a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are his opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.