In the sweet, sweltering summers of my youth, there was an oasis in Oakmont known as "The Willows."
The Willows was a public swimming pool situated at the bottom of Washington Avenue, two blocks over and 10 blocks down from our house on Tenth Street. My sister Angela and I loved that walk down, especially when we were allowed to go by ourselves. The trip back home, however, was uphill the entire way, and it was hot.
Sometimes, when our younger siblings woke up from their naps, Mom would bring them to the Willows, and then Angela and I would splash in the shallow end with Barbie, Joseph and Donna. But best of all was when Mom would pack supper in the brown wicker basket and my dad would join us after work.
That's when the Willows took on a different feel, as the cool breezes from the Allegheny River wafted toward us. On those summer evenings, I was drawn to the sound of Bobby Darin's recording of "Beyond the Sea," as the older teens danced, damp bathing suit to damp bathing suit, in the old wooden pavilion.
Still, the days when Angela and I went alone were definitely the most interesting. That's when, as young teenagers, we applied lipstick ---- forbidden by our father until we were 16 -- knowing the evidence would be gone long before we got home. And just like the other teenage girls, we swam out to the wooden float in the deep end and waited for the boys to come push us off.
Upon arriving at the Willows, we entered the large front doors and had our season passes stamped. Next we climbed the rickety stairs to the women's changing rooms, a vast area that smelled of musty, damp wood.
After putting on our bathing suits, we'd hand our clothes to someone behind the counter, who would put them in a wire basket and give us an elastic bracelet with a metal tag. I felt very grown up wearing that bracelet. Then we descended the outdoor stairs, and that's when the excitement of the Willows opened up.
The entire property was huge. There was the smell of chlorine and the sight of people jumping, splashing and laughing. Angela and I would run on the hot concrete, past the shallow end to the grassy area near the deep end, to meet our friends. We were fairly good swimmers, and, besides, there were plenty of lifeguards stationed everywhere around the pool.
At the far end, two low diving boards flanked the most amazing high dive I have ever seen. It taunted us to climb its steep steps and prove we had the courage to jump.
I dived off that high board only once, when I took the advanced swimming lessons and wouldn't pass if I didn't dive. But after that, I preferred to climb the ladder, take a deep breath, run, hold my nose, squeeze my eyes shut and jump! The greatest humiliation a person could suffer was to turn around and try to climb back down that ladder. I finally learned to jump without holding my nose, but leaping into that cold water never really got easier, and kicking my way back up to the surface was always a palpable relief.
The Willows smelled not only of wet wood and chlorine but also of french fries. Because a small portion cost 75 cents, it was a rare treat, bought with my baby-sitting money. I would breathe in the salty, oily aroma of fried potatoes, burned to a crisp on the outside but soft and warm inside. Drenched in Heinz ketchup, this was the best food of the summer.
Long after I moved away from Oakmont, the owners sold the Willows and the property became home to an apartment complex. No longer can two young sisters walk down the hill for an afternoon of swimming; no longer can mothers bring toddlers to splash in the shallow end and get a respite from their hot summer lives; no longer can families enjoy a picnic and swim with friends and strangers alike.
And never again can a teenage boy threaten to pick up the girl he has a crush on and throw her into the water, a threat so real she shrieks and jumps up to run from him, knowing he'll chase her and catch her, will lift her up and toss her high enough and far enough, so that she will always land safely in the cool, caressing water.
Linda Lascola Balestracci of Guilford, Conn., a retired language arts teacher, can be reached at LLBCT115@aol.com.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Warm Nostalgia" submissions about favorite summer memories, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.