It must be the pool. He wasn’t even in the dream, but pools and swimming always remind me of him, and I guess it only makes sense that a dream about a pool party would bring his memory sharply into focus.
I still didn’t know how to swim, the summer I was 10. Oh, I frolicked a lot in whatever swimming pool was available, and those weren’t hard to find in California in the 70s. I was a water baby, you just couldn’t keep me away. I had the chlorine-green blonde hair to prove it!
One place my mother and I lived, had a big rectangular pool right out front. That blue door in the center on the 2nd floor was my apartment for a year. It’s hard to see in the picture there, but just beyond that brick entry, was the pool. That’s where I learned to swim.
Tucked away, in the last bottom apartment on the right, lived a man, his wife, and their 17 year old son. The old man told everyone, even the kids, to call him Rick. “No Mr for me! I’m just old man Rick.” He was the 1st grown-up I was permitted to call by his first name. He spent his days sitting on a bench in front of his apartment, smoking and watching the kids swim. He reminded me a lot of Jackie Gleason.
I learned a lot about Rick that summer. He loved water, he loved kids, he’d been a diver in the Navy during the war (WWII) and his eardrum had burst during one of his dives. He’d worn one of those old diving suits with the big brass helmet. I had visions of him dressed up like an astronaut, only exploring the bottom of the sea for treasure, not space.
He was kind and he smiled a lot. He loved teaching the kids how to dive into the pool. “Bend your knees just a little! Keep your back straight! Relax!” Sometimes he’d throw the spare change from his pocket into the pool to encourage us to dive the 12’ in the unheated water to go get it. Our reward was getting to keep it. He taught me how to do the backstroke, and the butterfly, although I wasn’t very good. I grew to love that old man, although in retrospect he probably wasn’t as old as I thought. Not a gray hair on his head! He was probably in his 50s.
His son, Rick Jr, would dazzle us kids by climbing up on the railing in front of my apartment and jumping into the pool. Oh he made my little girl heart flutter with his daring and bravado!
Even after school began that fall, I’d come home and see Rick on his bench, smoking. I’d wave and he always waved back, ask how I was. The weather turned cooler in November and one day his bench was gone. Worried, I wanted to go check on him but my mother wouldn’t let me “bother” him. “He probably just puts his bench away for the winter,” she said.
Could a man go that long without stepping outside to smoke? I wondered. My heart was scared and I didn’t know why.
One day in January, we ran into Mrs Rick coming out of the laundry room. I grabbed my chance. “How is Rick? Is he alright? Did he quit smoking or something? I never see him anymore and his bench is gone!”
Her eyes clouded and I knew before she could say it. “Oh sweetie, I’m so sorry, I thought you knew … Rick died last November.”
I don’t recall how I responded to her, if I said anything at all. I do remember lying on my bed, weeping. His wife was a widow, his son was fatherless, and I had lost a friend. How was I supposed to get through this? Rick was still teaching me, only now it was about death and sorrow. Bend your knees a little! Keep your back straight! Relax! If you think about it, if you keep that in mind, you can pretty much handle anything. You can withstand the blows life will deliver, if you remember those things.
The aquamarine shimmer of a swimming pool will always stir my memories of old man Rick. So will the sunlit sparkle of coins under the water. Those memories of him are my own under-sea treasure.