“When you figure it out, come and tell me,” said the attendant.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, August 1, 1942.

“Oh to be young,” sighed Jimmie Frise.

We were walking past the public swimming pool. The kids were like a swarm of bees, one vast high hum.

“God bless ’em,” I suggested. “They’re having a whale of a time, aren’t they?”

“One place in these parts,” muttered Jimmie, “that doesn’t know there’s a war on.”

“And I wouldn’t change it if I could.” I reflected.

We paused to watch.

“You know,” enunciated Jimmie, “those kids are spared all understanding of the world’s troubles. They haven’t a care in the world. To them, even the 20-year-olds among them, the awful mess the world is in is just normal. They don’t know how the world used to be, before the war.”

“Yet they’re in worse trouble than any of us,” I pointed out. “It’s to them we’re going to hand over the wreckage.”

“It’s only us older people,” went on Jim, “with our memories of how the world used to be in peace, who really suffer in war. Remember back 25 years, when we went to our war? We didn’t feel it much, if I recollect. We went off to war rather cheerfully. Even when our elders ranted and raved about the wickedness of the Hun, we had quite a time working up any excitement. We took our old war as part of the normal picture. These kids are the same now.”

“It’s a blessing they don’t comprehend it,” I declared.

“Gosh, isn’t it nice to watch them!” said Jim, sitting down on the grass along the boulevard. I relaxed down, too.

The treble roar of the hundreds of children in the pool filled the air with a never-ceasing sound. Their bright-clad little figures flashed and darted in the sun, arms flailed, legs sprang, they ducked and leaped and ran and dove with the incredible energy of the young.

“The strangest thing I saw in France,” I informed Jim, “in the retreat to Dunkirk, were the big farm wagons of Flanders, hauled by two or four Percherons, all lumbering along in endless procession. Leading the horses on foot would be the man of the family, his face like death. Up on the high front seat, the woman of the family, her eyes great sockets of terror and tragedy. And in the hay, amidst the vast baggage of the forsaken farm, the furniture, implements and all, were the children, playing games, laughing, singing. As you stood in speechless agony watching this endless procession of war’s victims, you would note the haggard face of the man, the indescribable pathos of the woman’s figure humped aloft. Then over the sides of the wagon would pop the merry faces of the youngsters and they would shout out rude and gay remarks at you…”

“And I suppose,” said Jimmie, “the bombers were coming over?”

“The bombers were smashing every town,” I said, “and sweeping the roads. All was murk and disaster. Yet, after one brief pause in their play, one quick, astonished look, back they would pounce in the hay, to their gambols.”

“Did you see none frightened or crying?” demanded Jim

“Yes, I spoke to one woman nursing a little boy in her arms and he was crying bitterly.” I related. “I spoke sympathetically to her and said how terrifying this was for the little ones. Was he wounded, perhaps? I inquired. No, said the woman, he has been stung by a bee.”

“Oh, get out,” scoffed Jim.

“I can tell you dozens of stories like that,” I commenced.

“Just let’s watch these kids,” preferred Jim. “It makes me feel good. It makes me forget the war for little, just to watch them.”

“You’d Look Ridiculous”

So we sat in silence, gazing blissfully at the colorful spectacle of the bathing pool, with its clamor and din, the constant flickering motion of hundreds of little human dynamos.

“Boy, it’s infections, isn’t it?” I admitted.

“I could sit here for hours,” said Jim, “and just soak up that glorious racket. It seems to heal me, inside.”

“It’s a pity they haven’t benches,” I said, feeling the hard earth, “for the benefit of us elders.”

“What I’d like to do,” said Jim, “is get right in among them. In a bathing suit.”

“You’d look ridiculous, Jim,” I smiled. “In among all those kids.”

“I just saw a guy with gray hair in there,” retorted Jimmie.

“Aw, some old sport,” I snorted. “What would people think if they saw us porpoising around among all those youngsters?”

“Look,” cried Jim, pointing. “There’s another. See that fat bird with the big bay window? Would we look as silly as that?”

“Ah, yes,” I said. “There are some older folk in there.”

“Come on,” cried Jim. “Let’s go in. We can rent bathing suits.”

“No, Jim,” I demurred. “I’ve reached the age when I like to swim pretty much to myself. I like to ease myself in off a dock, into about two feet of water, with a bar of soap…”

“Aw,” complained Jim, “on a hot day like this? What could be better than a swim?”

“These pools.” I insisted, “are for the young. Let them be happy. Let them mix together in youthful abandon, free of the faded eye of their elders on them. I see some young ladies in there. They perhaps wouldn’t feel at ease with a couple of aged summer bachelors like us paddling around among them.”

“Puh,” said Jim. “don’t be so self-conscious. They wouldn’t even see you.”

“They could see me,” I retorted a little warmly, eyeing Jims lean shanks, “a lot easier than they could you – in a bathing suit.”

“Look,” said Jim. “It will cool us off. It will be bracing and refreshing. And most of all, it will let us forget the war for a little while, to be in the midst of all that joyous din.”

“Well,” I submitted, “for half an hour. Just a dip.”

“That’s all,” agreed Jim, leaping up.

The Teeming Tank

We walked along a little self-consciously, to see how you get into the pool. We stood and watched the ticket window for a moment, where streams of kids bought their tickets and stampeded in. Then we saw three middle-aged people like ourselves walk up brazenly and pay their fee.

“Come on,” said Jim, and we stepped up, bought our tickets and went through the turnstile.

Inside, a vast open air locker room spread far and wide. Its aisles were lettered. A. B. C. D and amid the aisles, people were dressing and undressing in shameless innocence.

Over to one side, a counter stood forth at which attendants rented out locker keys to all and bathing suits and towels to those who had not brought their own.

“Give me a snug one,” I requested of the absent-minded gent behind the counter. He was handing them out as though in his sleep. He tossed me a bathing suit and a towel. “One locker will do,” said Jim. “Give me a swim suit with short legs.”

He tossed Jim a suit and towel absently, and handed Jim the key.

“Which is our locker?” I inquired.

“Marked on key,” said the attendant, wearily.

We read the number off. P 69.

“No. 96 F.” corrected Jim.

“Here.” I suggested, “let me look.”

“It’s B 69,” said Jimmie…

“It’s 696,” I corrected.

“There’s a letter… here, kid,” I said, showing the key to a little nude boy walking past. “Where’s this?”

“Over here,” said the youngster, glancing at the key, and he led us along one aisle, down another, across another and presented us to our locker, which promptly opened to our key.

In a trice, we were stripped and into our bathing suits.

Jim’s hung down around his knees like crepe. Mine bulged tight around my middle and otherwise hung in dank folds around my legs.

“You look,” I began…

“It’s mutual,” replied Jim. promptly. And we slammed our crowded locker door, turned the key and Jim pinned it to a little pocket on the pinnie of his swim suit.

He leading, we dashed down the concrete floor to the showers where we bathed off the dust of the day, and then out into the golden blazing sand, deep and laborious, over which we walked to the great teeming tank.

Jim is not a swimmer. He doesn’t even scrunch down in the shallow water and make his arms go as if swimming. He just wades in, ducks to his neck, wades out and sits on the side of the tank. In about 10 minutes he wades in again, ducks to his neck, stands up and wades out again.

As for me, I learned to swim the hard way. That is, swam under water for the first four or five years and finally came to the top. But I love under water. The cool green light deep down is as lovely to me as any sensation I know. So I plunged in, trying to show Jimmie how underprivileged he is by seal diving, rolling and vanishing all around him. But Jimmie has long ago lost any power to be impressed by my performances, and he slowly ducked to his neck and then, waded out, to sit on the sides of the tank and watch the pandemonium all around him.

Losing the Locker Key

So I went variously from the shallow to the deep end, on top, under water, from one side of the tank to the other, amidst the shoals and schools of young fry. I got out and dove off the concrete side of the tank, having lost my shape as far as any higher diving is concerned. It is no fun doing a belly-whacker while carrying a watermelon.

The sun was sublime, the air was warm, the water was just right. And after a little while, I leisurely floundered and walloped my way back down the tank from the deep end to the shallow. And among the small kids infesting this end of the tank. I could see no sign of Jim.

No sign of him, anywhere. And then, getting out of the tank and looking back towards the pavilion, I saw him. He was slowly walking along the sand, his head bent, looking for something.

“The key,” he said. “I can’t find the key.”

“I should have known,” I stated fiercely, “not to let you mind the key.”

“The safety pin,” replied Jim, “would not have held any better on your bathing suit than it did on mine.”

“Where did you miss it?” I demanded.

“I decided to come in and get my cigarettes,” said Jim. “I was sitting on the side of the pool, and I casually felt down for the key…”

“You lost it in the pool?” I inquired.

“I couldn’t see it in the pool,” said Jim, “so I came along here, thinking maybe…”

“Well,” I said, bleakly, “let’s go in and see about it. The attendant will have a master key, no doubt.”

So we left the sunshine and the resounding roar of the pool and walked back through the shower and made our way to the counter, where the attendant was still dishing out suits and towels.

“We’ve lost our key,” I informed him, by way of opener.

He went right on dealing out suits and taking others in, since the bend of the afternoon was past and some of the youngsters were already departing.

“We’ve lost our key,” I repeated.

Without any waste conversation, he came over the counter and reached in his pocket. “What was your number?” he said sadly.

“B 69,” I said, “or… ah…”

“It was F 96,” corrected Jim.

“It was either 696 or L 69,” I assured him. He halted and looked at us sadly.

“It was F 69,” declared Jimmie with sudden and happy assurance.

“Well, which way did you go?” demanded the attendant. “That way or this.”

“We went this way,” I stated, leading off.

“No. no,” cried Jimmie, “don’t you remember? A little boy showed us. He led us this way.”

“This way,” I stated sharply. “I have a sense of direction.”

“I can’t do nothing without your key number,” said the attendant, after having listened patiently, without any sign or emotion. “If it was B 69 it was over here. If it was P 96 it will be away over there.”

“Well, but what do we do?” I demanded indignantly.

“What do you say?” countered the attendant. “You lost your key. Now you can’t remember the number. And you can’t remember which way you went. And anyway. I got to get back to my counter. When you figure it out, come and tell me.”

And he left us.

“Well, Jim?” I uttered bitterly.

“Let’s have a look,” said he grimly.

So we went up this aisle and down that aisle. But 500 locked lockers all look alike. We went to B 96 and it was open, empty. We found P 69 and it was locked, but sounded hollow to our pounding. We tried F 69 and 96, L. 60 and 69 and 96. All were locked. All looked strange. We could not remember having stood just in this position to any of them.

“Jim,” I demanded anxiously, “what, do we do? Do we sit around here all afternoon and evening until the last swimmer goes home? What do we do for supper? Our money is in our pockets, inside that locker.”

“We could borrow some money, maybe, from the attendant,” said Jim, “and have at hot dog for supper.”

“A nice fix we’re in,” I muttered. “You and your escape from war consciousness!”

“Well, we can’t wander up and down these gloomy aisles forever, ” declared Jim. “Let’s go back and have another duck.”

“Duck my neck,” I stated flatly. “I don’t ever want to swim in a tank again. Ever.”

“Well, let’s go and sit out in the sand, where it’s warm,” suggested Jimmie.

“And get all over sand?” I snorted.

“Well, what do you want to do?” bellowed Jim.

And then a little boy passed by. Even though he was in his bathing suit, I knew him.

“Hey, kid.” I cried, grabbing him. “Didn’t you show us where our locker was, a while back?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Where is it?” we both shouted.

“Right there,” he said, “You’re standing in front of it.”

“Yah,” I said to Jim, “didn’t I…”

“You said that way.” shouted Jim.

Which I had, unfortunately. The number was B 69. We went and got the attendant. He opened. And lo, there were all our clothes.

And we dressed hurriedly. And went home without one backward look toward the tank, so gay, so lively, so full of din.

Editor’s Note: An example of an older swimming pool can be found in this article on the Sunnyside Pool. It might have been the one, as the pool they were at was outdoors and had sand nearby. From the illustration, it was also implied that the changing area was outdoors.