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Michael J. Olsen, Fargo, Published June 30 2012

It was the Fargo pool of my youth

The Fourth of July, back in the day. No barbecuing on the deck of some freshwater lake cabin down Highway 10 for us. Every Fourth, it was pool time at Island Park. Not the interloper that sits there now, mind you, but the Island Park Pool – a place for chlorine, laps, lessons and being cool. Cool at the pool. Nothing like it before; nothing like it since.

Designed in 1939 as a federal government Works Progress Administration project, it was once billed as the largest outdoor pool between Chicago and Seattle. Basically, that meant Minneapolis had lakes to swim in, and Montana, well, Montana is full of fly fishers, and trout do all the swimming.

Remnants of my pool are still over there on Seventh Street, but it’s a shadow of its former self. Tennis courts, or some such, where once a well-placed cannonball would soak the lifeguard and probably get you booted. Unless the lifeguard was blond and in a two-piece suit. Then the cannonball gave way to a perfect jackknife. Like that was going to impress her. Get in line.

But a boy could dream. Nothing like a touch of skin at the pool to get a young man’s heart a-poundin’. My heart pounded a lot back then. The action started in what is now a funeral home parking lot, but once housed the world’s greatest Dairy Queen. And across the street, a Dairy Whirl. What a combo! But I was a Dairy Queen man. The reasons were obvious, and stood behind the counter. Brigid, Mary, Judy, Jill. Jill would mix me a special kind of malt I cleverly titled “The Jill.” Two cherries on top, saved for a special treat just after the final slurp.

Opening day at the pool was a line a mile long outside the front doors. Two lines, actually – one on the boys’ side and the other on the girls’. Charlie R. and his brother Jimmie used to bring sleeping bags the night before and camp in front of the entrance to be the first ones there, rewarded by a photo in the next day’s Fargo Forum.

Once in, it was soap showers without your suit. Or so the sign said. Sure. Splash a little water on and get upstairs. And make sure the elastic band and tag that went to your clothesbasket was on securely but try not to cut off the circulation.

Up from the locker room, you made the rounds a few times to check things out before getting really wet. Cruising the lifeguard chairs; strolling past the sun deck to see what and who there was to see. Watch your step, be cool. But never get caught looking. Of course, they knew that you were looking. Hoped that you were looking.

Then, it was into the pool. Size dictated your territory once in the water. “Tea parties” in the two-feet for the little kids (although, friend Sandy and I did a party or two well past our prime). A few more years put you at the hole in the wall where the water came in. You’d blow up your suit and float away. Older still sent you on to the deep end for diving boards high and low.

The ultimate cool was a double off the high dive. The ultimate in pool uncool – barfing in the water.

Swimming lessons were also cool. Girls there; boys over here. To pass Beginners, you had to “dog paddle” across the nine-feet. Beginners, Advanced Beginners, Swimmers, Junior Life. Ah, yes, there were girls in Junior Life. Try to get one for a partner. You “saved” each other for practice, you know.

If you weren’t due home, get dressed quickly at the end of the afternoon and hit the bleachers. Huge bleachers – they were the nerve center of The Pool. Up against the fence, talking with the girls. Some never swam. Being cool, they just had the bleacher thing down pat. If no one was watching, it was fun, not cool but fun, to go to the top of the bleachers, get a good gob up and spit over the edge. Tossing a wet towel was cleaner but not nearly as “tough.” Look out below.

While I remember getting my driver’s license the summer I was 16 (’63 Ford Fairlane station wagon, three on the tree), and cruising down to the DQ for my maiden voyage, it was the summer I was 15 and my jet black Schwinn named Trigger I remember most (careful not to call it Trigger in front of my friends). Not a boy, not quite a man, that summer brought Trigger, the DQ and me together, together for something truly grand – a three-day teenage romance. She was a friend’s cousin from out of town and had me working harder than I’d ever worked at being cool at The Pool – as cool as you could be on two wheels instead of four. But the fun was in the trying, and, thankfully, she didn’t seem to mind the bike.

Take a quick trip to the DQ, then back to the pool. You and a malt and the girl, up in the bleachers for the big water show. Heaven. The shows were packed. Synchronized swimming, clown dives, exotic themes. “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Spotlights there and there. Afterward, walking her home in the still-setting sun. You wheeling Trigger with one hand; holding her hand with the other. Then catching it big time from Dad as you strolled through the door long overdue. But worth it. So worth it.

The Fourth of July. These days, it’s a trip down Highway 10 for barbecuing on the deck at the cabin. Nice, real nice. But no Island Park, no cannonball in the deep end, and no special “Jill” malted milk shake with two cherries on top. Oh, and no cool at The Pool. If only.


Olsen is a corporate communications professional, and occasional contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages. Email michaelolsen1@gmail.com