[Featured image courtesy of the Blountsville Pool, Blountsville, Alabama]
Forty years ago, in the summer of 1977, I was preoccupied with two important matters. The first was wondering who could possibly replace Farrah Fawcett, my absolutely favorite actress on my absolutely favorite television program, Charlie’s Angels, after she decided to quit the show. During those long summer months, I pored over all the latest issues of Tiger Beat, Teen Beat, and Rona Barrett’s Hollywood, trying to make sense of all the gossip related to Farrah’s successor and the breach of contract lawsuit against her. I feared it might be impossible for the show to continue after she left.
As it turns out, not much in this world is impossible. The show would go on (pretty successfully) for another four years. The only real impossibility facing me back then was replicating Farrah’s hairstyle with my fine, thin, stringy, ragamuffin hair.
I coveted Farrah’s hair with every fiber of my being. Despite the diplomatic appeals of Mary Lou at the beauty shop in my hometown, Blountsville, Alabama, I could not accept that the Farrah ‘do was a don’t in my case. I simply refused to believe that extreme curling iron and White Rain hairspray action wouldn’t produce the desired effect. On the left is my seventh-grade yearbook photo, which shows how successfully I mimicked the Farrah hairdo. Clearly, I nailed it.
“Honey, why don’t you get your hair cut like Dorothy’s?” Mary Lou gently suggested. Indeed, the Dorothy Hamill wedge was just as hot as Farrah’s cut in 1976-1977, after the figure skater won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. However, as much as I admired Dorothy, I just wasn’t enamored of her short hair.
On the bright side, at least some girls were realistic and chose the Hamill wedge and other age-appropriate styles. My two friends, Carla Gorham and Lisa Neel (the older girls in the photo on the left), had much better hair. Look how cute they were sporting the Dorothy Hamill coif.
The style was certainly functional for swimming, which brings me around to my second preoccupation: the Blountsville City Pool. As the girls illustrate in the photo, it was the place to be during those Alabama summers of my childhood.
The pool opened in 1976, a small town’s present to itself to celebrate the nation’s 200th birthday. Divided into three sections, the pool had a part where the water was about three feet deep. The middle section, four or five feet deep, sported a bright turquoise slide that once peeled the hide from the backs of my legs when I slid down while the water pump was off. (I suspect sabotage by several mischievous boys but won’t indulge in pool conspiracy theories at this stage in my life.) A blue and white rope cordoned off the deep end where the diving boards were. That part of the pool was twelve feet deep. A small, separate kiddie pool was located over by the “cage,” a covered, fenced-off area where sunburn sufferers could find shade or play a game of Foosball. (We didn’t think much about SPF or melanoma back then. The only strict requirement we had of suntan oils and lotions was that they reeked of coconut.)
A while back, I was having a Facebook conversation with Carla (see Dorothy Hamill haircut girl above), and we were arranging the VIPK (Very Important Pool Kids) around the pool’s perimeter, precisely where we remember them. A boy named Jeff Gibbs was usually climbing up one of the two diving boards to showcase a half-gainer or back flip. Two guys named Dennis Mills and Tim Quick goofed around in the cage playing pool and foosball. Sharon Phillips or Debbie Wright, two older cheerleaders, supervised the scene from high up in the lifeguard’s chair, ensuring that all Marco Polo pick-up games were safe and on the up and up. A group of girls (me included) lounged on beach towels, tanning. Our backs were against the chain-link fence facing the diving boards. It was a girls’ gauntlet of sorts, though plenty of pubescent boys were eager to run it if they thought they had a chance to use their wits and diving skills to impress the bikini-clad older girls.
As a sixth grader, I looked up to Judy Massey, a dark-haired cheerleader, and Sherry Hayes, her elegant cousin. Sherry was a city girl from Hunstville, which made her extremely sophisticated in my young estimation. She visited Judy regularly during the summers, and they were pool regulars. If any two girls had Charlie’s Angels hair, they did. Judy could have been a young Jaclyn Smith. Sherry, a blond, had perfect Farrah hair, even at the pool. When a girl can pull off the Farrah in that cursed Alabama humidity, she has earned some serious hair-styling cred.
The jukebox music playing in the background set the mood for those summer days. In 1976, the Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” christened the brand-new pool and saluted our old country’s big birthday. It didn’t matter that the song was about sex. The lyrics were sufficiently vague not to alarm parents or alert younger kids like me to the subject matter. Most of us simply focused on the chorus of the song and believed the lyrics were written about the Bicentennial.
Sky rockets in flight
Almost immediately after it opened, the pool became the hub of the town’s summertime activity. A lot of people believe that small towns are dull and uneventful, but I don’t remember Blountsville that way at all. There was always something going on, so when “Life in the Fast Lane” blared from the jukebox in 1977, in an odd way, the song actually seemed relevant to our lives. Now I’m not talking about the drugs referenced in the song (though I’m sure Blountsville had it share of drug abuse even back then). I’m just thinking about the pace of our lives. We were involved in school activities all year long (cheerleading, band practice, club meetings, doughnut sales, decorating for dances, parades, on and on). Even trips to the pool were big social events.
I don’t ever remember feeling bored back then. We were simply too busy. In fact, I was probably busier and more productive in those days than I am now. These days, I’m usually in traffic, struggling to get someplace to do something rather than actually doing it. By the time I get where I’m going, I’m exhausted and ready to go home.
Like “Afternoon Delight” and “Life in the Fast Lane,” the hit songs of those late 1970s summers always seemed to capture the town’s zeitgeist, whether we were happy or struggling as a community. In April of 1979, Robert John released “Sad Eyes,” about the same time Blountsville experienced a shocking tragedy. On April 24 that year, one of the town’s most promising young people, Judy Massey (the same Judy I spoke of earlier), died as a result of injuries she suffered in an automobile accident. She had just turned sixteen the month before. Beautiful and popular, Judy’s death rocked the town like nothing before.
Her passing impacted me particularly because we lived in the same community about five miles outside of town and attended the same church. Our parents had grown up together, and our fathers had been best friends as boys. After she died, I realized that I had imagined her as one of Charlie’s Angels, and now she was an angel. In the months following the accident, her mother even wrote a song about her called “Don’t Grieve Too Much for Me” and alluded to her as an angel.
Robert John’s song “Sad Eyes” is about the breakup of a romantic relationship, but we kids swimming at the pool during the summer of 1979 couldn’t help thinking of Judy’s leaving us when we heard it. It took us a while to get used to not seeing her at the pool. A lot of us were tearing up, and not from the chlorine, when these lines rang from the jukebox:
Looks like it’s over.
You knew I couldn’t stay…
Try to remember the magic that we shared
In time your broken heart will mend.
When Hillary Clinton published her book, It Takes a Village, in the 1990s, a lot of people criticized her for minimizing the role of the family in childrearing in favor of the community’s responsibility to children. She wasn’t necessarily wrong (just pompous and condescending), as life at the swimming pool in the 1970s demonstrated. The pool in Blountsville was a prime illustration of how the “village” looked after the community’s children. A lot of the prominent people in town (teachers, parents) embraced that idea and served informally in a quasi-parental fashion for the kids whose parents worked and dropped them off for weekday swims.
The pool was like an inexpensive sitter service, because there were always responsible adults around who could step up and manage a crisis. But the role of the adults in our lives was dramatically different than it is for kids now. To us, the adults seemed more like the teacher in the Peanuts comic strip–inconspicuous in the background, there to maintain order and take kids to Dr. Sutton’s office if they konked their heads on the diving board and needed stitches. At the pool, we interacted with the grownups, but it wasn’t the “Mommy, look at me!” variety of communication. We didn’t seek adult affirmation for every cannonball or perfectly executed dive. We did our thing, and the adults talked among themselves. They gave us our space to play and just made sure we didn’t kill ourselves. Sure, once in a while, we had to run to Mrs. Johns, who staffed the concession stand, and implore her to use the net to fish out some creepy bug the size of a tabby cat that had flown into the deep end, but otherwise, the adults were not intrusive.
During my senior year, my interest in going to the city pool began to wane. As is customary with seniors, we were looking forward toward our futures and trying to put our childhoods behind us. But we still had a private pool party or two, at the home of Mrs. Marie Crumbley, the only local who had her own pool.
Here I am in Mrs. Crumbley’s pool with my good friend Marshall Johnson. We all believed he was a dead ringer for a young Tom Cruise. An humble, kind boy, Marshall disliked being compared to the movie star, but the resemblance was striking. Just about all of us girls had crushes on him, but Carla (again, see Dorothy Hamill haircut girl) was his steady girlfriend during a good part of senior high. (In addition to her incredible red hair, she had a warm, unpretentious personality that made all the boys fall in love with her.)
Our pool party at Mrs. Crumbley’s occurred on May 26, 1983, the day before high school graduation. I’m not sure what music was playing in the background, but “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor was probably on the playlist sometime that afternoon. Talk about a group of kids who felt fate had smiled on our graduating class. It was immensely satisfying to be seniors at a school where the mascot was a tiger, at the same time a triumphant hit song called “Eye of the Tiger” topped the charts. The song was such a big deal in 1982-1983 that a gold record with the single’s name adorns the front of our senior yearbook.
Don’t lose your grip
on the dreams of the past
You must fight just to keep
The city pool is still fully operational and was completely remodeled in 2010. I’m sure plenty of young people are still making memories there and have their own playlist of significant songs. When I go back to Alabama every summer, I’m always tempted to pack a swimsuit and visit the pool or crash a water aerobics class. Maybe I will one of these days.
When I’m old and senile and can’t recall a thing, I hope someone will play me “Afternoon Delight,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Sad Eyes,” and all the other songs my mind connects to those long-ago days at the Blountsville Pool. Then I’ll remember…..Everything.