When I was a kid growing up in Troy, NY, my older sister, two brothers, assorted friends and I would hike from our apartment in the Griswold Heights housing project to Prospect Park. Troy had almost two dozen neighborhood parks, but Prospect Park was unique because it was home to a public swimming pool. It was a huge pool with concrete steps leading to 3 feet of water at one end. At the opposite end was a long springy diving board that in our childhood fantasies became Captain Hook’s infamous plank and we took turns walking the plank as dramatically as possible before stepping off into 8 feet of water and our demise. In my memory the Prospect Park pool was large enough to accommodate every kid in Troy and on a few of those sweltering summer afternoons it sure felt like every Troy kid was in that pool.
Of course, we didn’t walk the three or four miles from our home to Prospect Park following the city streets, we walked the “as the crow flies” route; from home, down a sloping hill covered with tall grass and underbrush to Spring Avenue. From there we’d hike up a steeper hill following what remained of an old grass covered dirt road until we reached the top of Prospect Park hill. Often when we reached the top of that hill we’d drop down on the grass to catch our breath and look out at the 20 mile panoramic views until the stiff, dry, just-mowed summer grass began to prick at our bare legs and prod us on. At the end of the day, after spending the whole afternoon in the pool, we’d drag our sunburned and weary little bodies’ up and down those hills all over again, this time anxious to get home.
The reason I’m writing about Prospect Park Pool today is because Esther Williams died yesterday. She was 91 years old which means many of you reading this may not know who she was. Esther Williams was a competitive swimmer, winning three gold medals at the national swimming championships in 1939 and a place on the 1940 US Olympic swim team. Unfortunately, because of the onset of WW2, the 1940 Olympic Games were canceled. As a consolation prize (her words) she became a movie star. Because she was a beautiful woman and a talented athlete a whole new movie genre grew around her … the water extravaganza, filled with scenes of synchronized swimming and death defying high dives. Her neck was broken during one of those dives but she recovered and continued on with her career, becoming known as The Million Dollar Mermaid.
Now, back to Prospect Park Pool. As a child I loved to watch the old Esther Williams’ movies. My friends and I would sit in the parlor and watch them on our black and white TV. We’d roll around on the floor mimicking the synchronized swimming routines, confident we could easily recreate them once we got to … you guessed it … Prospect Park Pool. It wasn’t as if we didn’t try. I can’t even guess at how many gallons of chlorine laced water we swallowed as we slowly sank to the bottom of the pool still holding our perfect synchronized form. Or how many times our graceful and perfect dives off the Prospect Park pool diving board ended in perfect belly flops.
Esther made it look so easy.