August in Richmond makes some people miserable.
They complain about the humidity and the mosquitoes. Friday Cheers is long over. The tomato plants didn’t make it, thanks to the squirrels. Cutting the grass turns into a strategic maneuver against the sun. I understand these frustrations. Still, August delights me because it means something glorious.
Swim season is over.
I hate to dwell on the past, and how it used to be, but here goes. When I was a kid, swim meets were superb. We showed up as a family in one car without a tote, a cooler, or any chairs. My sister and I each brought a single towel that we spread out on the concrete pool deck. The wooden diving blocks gave us splinters and were so loose, one of the timers had to anchor it with his foot or else it would follow us into the pool. If we left our goggles at home, we borrowed a pair, or let our eyes burn. We had one coach and thirty-six people on our team. That was during our strongest weeks when no one was on vacation. In mismatched suits, we looked like the Bad News Bears. For a quarter, you could buy a plastic bag full of homemade brownies or Rice Krispies treats. We prepared for our races together as a team by playing Uno and listening to Van Halen or Glenn Frey from the team boombox. When the meet ended, there was still enough time left on the clock to go home and watch Benson, but instead, we all went to the McDonald’s on Broad Street and sat together with our McBLTs and complimentary Smurf glasses. On the latest of nights, I was in bed by ten o’clock.
The modern-day swim meet requires a special type of person. It’s a study in patience. On the morning of a home meet, I learned quickly that you must load up the folding chairs, towels, and accessory bag – with back-up goggles, swim-caps, and SPF – some time between breakfast and lunch to stake out your turf. I’ve never been the first one, even on that special morning when I arrived at seven-thirty. Others always beat me to the best real estate. The property decisions and invisible borders from perfectly laid striped towels look odd in the wee hours, but by six that evening, it all made sense.
These days, the quarter is long gone. In its place, corporate America has moved in with MobilePay and Square Reader. Would you like a snow cone? How about two scoops of ice cream or a Thai-iced tea popsicle for four bucks? At today’s swim meet, corn syrup and sugar fight chlorine for the lead chemical.
When we arrive, Atticus and Levon, my sons, stake out the arsenal of goods. For them, the pool part of the swim meet lives in the background. What’s so important about a 25-meter butterfly when you can have piña colada-flavored shaved ice? The main event is a carnival atmosphere of glow-sticks, soft-pretzels, and personal pizzas spread across the newest and lightest camping chairs and triple-insulated coolers. There’s often a theme for the evening, so tonight, there are several knights and princesses walking around. Anyone unfamiliar with the scene would think the opening band was about to take the stage and that the festival was about to begin.
On a perfect cloud, our boys would sit on their towels and play backgammon. In between their strategic game moves, they would listen carefully for their next event while keeping a tight grasp on their goggles. But no one is weaving friendship bracelets. Instead, Levon is on the playground, which is prohibited during meets, and Atticus is in the pool house, playing foosball. It doesn’t matter that I tattooed the boys’ events on their arms with a super-thick Sharpie. The numbers are quickly forgotten, which means I have to
chase them down.
“Where have you been? They are calling your event!”
We race to the clerk of course as I double-check to make sure they’ve got goggles. Looking at the army of boys who also must wait, I see faces full of mischief. Together, they look like a 1920s New York City gang, ready to beat up whoever crosses them. They chest bump one another and scream into each other’s ears. They tap on the boys’ shoulders in front of them and then turn away, pretending not to have done it. They punch, pinch, and laugh, giving high-fives. Their electricity ramps up as they move from bench to bench, closing in on the starting blocks. Adrenaline and nerves swirl together with heaps of sugar and mini-doses of testosterone.
Parents clog the arteries that lead closer to the pool. It’s all about photos, pep talks, and giving one more thumbs-up. I watch my boys take their places, jump in, and push themselves with tiny muscles and stamina.
When they are done, I hug them and say, “Great race!” The goggles are removed, leaving red marks under their eyes. Separately, each one of them says the same thing:
“Dad, can I have a snow cone?”
The swim meet obliterates the family evening routine. Dinner is out of a box or a bag. We come home missing a shoe and with an extra towel. Back at the house, groggy with wet heads, the boys ask, “Do we have to brush our teeth?” We skip books completely. Everyone has mosquito bites and smells like chlorine and tater-tots. As I tuck them in, I say, “I’m proud of you.”
But I’m also proud we survived another swim season.
Now, we can get to the pool when we want.