Page A3 / The Joan De Arc Crusader / Monday, December 25, 2023
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Return to Sunnyslope Pool

By J. Bueker

     As we effected our historic transition from Michigan to Arizona six long decades ago, one of the first things the Bueker family noticed was the curious and unmistakable uptick in the ambient temperature. Turns out Phoenix is a rather warmish place in July, and adjusting to significantly hotter conditions presented one of the foremost challenges of our new surroundings.
     Thankfully 3219 was equipped with an actual air conditioning unit when we arrived there and thus we were unencumbered by the infamously fickle swamp cooler device with which many Valley homes were burdened at the time. However we still faced unpleasantly warm conditions out-of-doors, and so my siblings and I of course promptly surveyed the alternatives for water-based recreation. We initially found few satisfying options.
     The first and simplest idea was merely to activate the backyard sprinkler and frolic through its tenuous spray. Clearly, optimal refreshment and heat relief was not to be obtained in this fashion, and the addition of the goofy Water Wiggle apparatus to the garden hose did little to enhance the experience except perhaps to render it even sillier.
     Ah, but surely the newfangled Wham-O Slip ‘N Slide™ toy would assuage our torrid summertime dilemma! Sadly, a few runs down the Slide were sufficient to convince us that this too was not the answer. Sure, you became somewhat wet and momentarily refreshed, but also peppered with numerous blades of grass as you skidded off the plastic surface and out onto the lawn. Truthfully, the best-case scenario here was the avoidance of serious back and neck injuries.
    When it finally became clear that nothing less than a swimming pool would placate their heat-traumatized offspring, our parents naturally turned to the absolutely cheapest possible option: a three-foot-high above-ground wading pool comprised of plastic and vinyl affixed to a corrugated blue metallic frame. Thus commenced the celebrated saga of the legendary Bueker garage pool.
     Enjoyment of the new pool was somewhat mitigated by our overly-cautious mother’s curious insistence on locating the thing within the shady confines of the garage at 3219, undoubtedly to shield us from the ravages of the unforgiving Phoenix summer sun. This decision resulted in some interesting consequences, not the least of which were the prodigious amounts of chlorine that Barbara felt obliged to pour into the water to prevent us from dying from flesh-eating bacteria or some similar catastrophic threat. The garage pool was somewhat fun and certainly quite memorable, but still not exactly what we had in mind.
     Yet there was one other swimming pool option available to the heat-afflicted Bueker kids: the City of Phoenix public pools. The nearest such facility resided about six miles distant adjoining Sunnyslope High School, and there we could access a spacious and well-maintained outdoor pool comprised of actual concrete. The only noticeable drawback was that the facility was open to the public and so loads of other people were bound to show up there as well.
     Sunnyslope Pool was originally opened in 1962 on Dunlap Ave. at the far west end of the Sunnyslope High campus, about a decade after the high school’s opening and exactly one year before the Buekers’ arrival in Phoenix. We would also visit the slightly more distant Washington High School pool a couple times, but Sunnyslope was a bit closer and our family had already developed a distinct fondness for the Sunnyslope area in general. So Sunnyslope Pool it was.
     For the nominal fee of twenty-five cents, we were granted admission to the Sunnyslope pool complex and directed to the appropriate dressing room where we excitedly changed into our bathing suits, depositing our clothing in a basket to be checked in before exiting the building for the pool area. The friendly attendant, typically a Sunnyslope High student, would issue us each a numbered metallic pin for later retrieval of our clothing, which we dutifully attached to our bathing suits. Swimmers were also encouraged to take a quick shower before entering the pool, although I think we usually skipped this irksome step. Now it was time to hit those luscious cool waters!
     There actually exist two pools at the Sunnyslope facility of course: the full-sized pool and a much smaller kiddie pool, which is the pool I used on my earliest visits. The maximum depth in the kiddie pool is just a few feet and so not nearly as intimidating as the big swim. It was a genuine rite of passage when I graduated to the big people’s pool at around the age of seven or eight.
     I distinctly remember the lifeguards at Sunnyslope Pool as being strictly no nonsense and in fact rather pitiless. Adorned in sunglasses, they vaguely reminded me of Walking Boss Godfrey in
Cool Hand Luke. Any discernable infraction of the rules, particularly rough horseplay or running on the pool deck, would instantly consign the offender to a “time out,” which amounted to sitting forlornly at the base of the lifeguard tower for an indeterminate length of time watching one’s colleagues having fun in the water. An additional stern reprimand was usually issued following the interminable period of detention before clearance was granted to return to the pool. I vividly recall being disciplined in this manner on several occasions alongside such partners in crime as Joan De Arc buddies Chris Dickey and Mark Wells.
     One of the more intimidating features of the Sunnyslope pool back in the day, at least for me, was the trio of diving boards positioned over the far deep end: two low dives and the lone, towering high dive. It took me years to work up the nerve to jump off just the low dives and I didn’t even think about making an attempt on the high dive until I was a teen, and only then because of the taunting of my pal Ricky Rose, who could actually make a proper head-first dive off the damn thing. It was all I could manage to meekly make my way out to the end of the board, close my eyes, jump, and hope for the best.
     However, the preeminent highlight of any trip to Sunnyslope Pool for this boy was a visit to the snack bar area, which was housed within a small room on the south end of the building. Here I first encountered the fabled Milk Shake candy bar, which quickly became my customary purchase whenever we visited the pool. No doubt this sweet treat was available in other locations, but Sunnyslope Pool seemed to be the only place I ever saw it. In any case, Milk Shake bars were remarkably yummy and in fact so inseparable from my overall Sunnyslope Pool experience that they merit here a brief digression.
     A man by the name of Frank Martoccio created the Milk Shake bar in 1927 for his new Hollywood candies line, a chocolate nougat bar to which he added malt flavoring to simulate the taste of a chocolate malted shake. The Hollywood Candy Co. would also become notable for the Payday and Zero bars, which survive to the present day. However, for some unfathomable reason, the luscious and popular Milk Shake bar was discontinued when the Hollywood candy line was acquired by Hershey’s in 1996, never to be heard of again. Would that some enterprising confectioner would revive this bygone chocolatey treat – I looked forward to feasting on that Milk Shake bar during our trips to the pool every bit as much as I did floating in the cool, refreshing water.
     And so, over the years, I’ve often reminisced about the old Sunnyslope Pool, naturally more so during the summer months, and I have from time to time entertained the idea of actually going back for an epically nostalgic visit and swim. In June of 2019, I finally decided to (yes, I’m going to say it and you can’t stop me) take the plunge.
     My wife agreed to accompany me to the pool on that momentous day for two crucially important purposes:  one, to take photos documenting the historic event; and two, to make sure I didn’t drown. My plan was to visit on a weekday to minimize the number of fellow swimmers, if possible, which turned out to be a pretty good plan. The pool was relatively sparsely attended on the appointed day, which mercifully shielded an optimal number of people from the sight of me sporting a bathing suit.
The first thing I noticed upon arrival at the pool is that the adult entrance fee has ballooned from twenty-five cents to three whole dollars in these fifty years of my absence. Fortunately, my allowance has more or less kept pace with inflation over the years. Another notable change was that the convention of entering the gender-correct dressing room and changing into your suit is no longer observed at the pool – sadly, I would be deprived of the nostalgic ritual of attaching a numbered metallic pin to my swim trunks this day. Swimmers are now expected to look after their own clothing and belongings out on the pool deck.
Before entering the pool, I took a moment to stroll down to the far end of the building for a visit to the historic room that originally contained the pool’s snack bar area all those many years ago. Much to my delight the door to the room was wide open, enabling me to survey the purposes for which the space is being utilized in the twenty-first century. What I found was a moderately disordered storage room containing chairs, tables, ice chests and other assorted random items strewn about the place. A bit saddened at the seemingly careless disarray, I murmured a brief prayer of thankful remembrance for my beloved Milk Shake candy bar and then turned and headed out for the water.
     As I entered Sunnyslope Pool for the first time since 1972, the unique chlorine smell of the water filled me with an immediate and undeniable sense of déjà vu. I don’t know what it is about the treatment of public pool water, but it consistently presents a very distinctive bouquet that I was surprised and delighted to once again experience all these years later.
     The high-dive board at the deep end of the pool is long gone, doubtlessly a victim of legal liability concerns that for some reason did not pertain for the first forty years of the pool’s existence. However, the two low diving boards are happily still intact, and after some length of time I did manage to muster the courage to take an awkward hop off of one that my wife dutifully recorded on video for posterity. Ironically, this was almost as scary for me as the high dive had been a half century earlier. The wife closely monitored this event in case paramedics were required in its aftermath.
     I spent much of my time in the water observing other swimmers to get a sense of what sorts of activities are popular in public pools these days. I espied a basketball hoop and backboard situated poolside that was keeping a fairly large contingent of kids preoccupied, and the diving boards were definitely being utilized. I had wistful hopes of witnessing a classic swimming pool game from my childhood such as “Marco Polo” taking place, but sadly I saw no such activity in evidence.
     I did notice that the pool lifeguards are now almost exclusively female and they seemed a tad mellower than the stern authoritarian guards of my childhood recollection. Fortunately on this visit I was able to summon the restraint to avoid running on the pool deck or roughhousing with other swimmers, thus avoiding the lifeguards’ wrath, whatever its intensity and the ensuing consequences might be these days. After approximately an hour of swimming and reminiscing, I reluctantly exited the water and we departed Sunnyslope Pool.
     One year in the early 1970’s, my parents apparently felt a sudden tinge of guilt for not having taken their kids anywhere for a summer vacation in quite some time, and so they generously formulated a remedy of sorts. The solution was to treat my brother and myself to a grand visit to Sunnyslope Pool followed by a sumptuous meal at McDonald’s. I remember Charles and I both thinking at the time that this was better than nothing, but just barely.
     And so, irredeemable sentimentalist that I am, I insisted after my 2019 swim on visiting a nearby Mickey D’s to complete my monumentally nostalgic return to Sunnyslope Pool. As I sat munching on my Big Mac (which incidentally didn’t seem nearly as Big as the Mac of the 1970’s), I carefully assessed my triumphant reappearance at the public swimming pool of my youth. This had been a rather rewarding adventure.
     One can never go home to be sure, but I was rather struck that so much about the Sunnyslope Pool facility and overall swimming experience seemed remarkably unchanged from fifty years ago, a rare happenstance in ever-changing Phoenix. The only significant components that seemed missing were the numbered metallic pin, perilous old high dive, and mouth-watering Milk Shake candy bar. Otherwise, this nostalgic extravaganza went quite swimmingly.
     Sorry. Bad puns are in my DNA. Blame my father.


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