Black & Gold, Personal Memoir


My summers as a child were spent surrounded by water. I was either cruising atop the waters of Lake St. Clair in my dad’s Bayliner, or doing underwater somersaults in my Grandparents pool. Chlorine and lake water took up permanent residence in my hair and my fingers highly resembled the prunes that floated in a jar in Grandma’s refrigerator.  I had two obsessions during those lazy summer days: water bugs and pennies.

The water bugs were black, hard shelled, and lived underneath the rug that kept the ladder sturdy in the pool. It was a rough, scratchy rug that didn’t gel with the smooth feeling of the cool water.  My best friend Lisa and I made it a point to never let our feet touch that rug. Because, the second our feet squished their underground home, the little creeps would come rushing out, as if in a Star Wars scene, ready for battle. If you are not familiar, a water bug looks like a small beetle that flies through water, and when they swim towards you, it’s quite traumatic.

With swimming goggles smashed onto our faces, we would float at the surface of the water and shake the ladder. Gluttons for punishment, we were egging them on, thinking we’d be prepared for the battle. But, we were always wrong. The minute their little legs and “wings” started swimming out from underneath their home base, our heads would jerk up out of the water, masks flailing, and the screaming would ensue. Even more tortuous was the mad scrabble to the ladder and fear of the rug beneath it. Don’t touch it, Don’t touch it, Don’t touch it.

Scared, but intrigued, we taunted them. They pretty much kept to themselves under the rug; we didn’t see them doing the backstroke in the middle of the pool much. But, when they were out from under their home, we would see them swimming underwater, gliding along. They were disgusting, yet peaceful. Now that I’ve scuba dived with turtles, looking back, the water bugs seem to move in the same way. After I spent all day in the pool, and it was getting to be dusk, being alone with them was an ominous feeling.

Obsession Number Two was not creepy or breathing. Grandma kept a jar filled with pennies for us to play with in the pool. Not sure why she never sprang for a few dimes or nickels, but maybe the Great Depression has something to do with it. She would throw a handful or two of the gold nuggets into the pool and we would dive after them maniacally.

There were endless and ridiculous games we played with those pennies. Many of them ended up outside of the pool and would later be dangerously picked up by the lawnmower.  When I look back and think about how we threw them at each other and the eyes and teeth we could have taken out, it’s amazing how different adult supervision is now. These days, I’m sure pennies are nowhere to be found in pools. Because, of course, there’s the choking, the dirtiness of money, and just your everyday hazard of being pummeled by a flying copper object. Ah, the good old days.

Endless games of “Marco Polo” were played; a game I now realize is short of taunting a blind person. I giggled under my breath as Lisa would approach so closely with her eyes closed. After trying to silently tiptoe around a pool (which is very difficult might I add) I couldn’t take it anymore. I would burst out laughing, her eyes would open and I’d go in for the dunk. It was about this time that we settled down for lunch with Grandma and some Archie & Betty comics to read on the hot cement patio.

Grandma made great polish food. She slaved for hours to painstakingly pack meat into neat little cabbage rolls and drench them in that great red sauce.

But on the days of reading Archie & Betty comic books and talking about boys, she was most famous for hot dogs wrapped in white bread. They weren’t fat Kowalski’s or “plump as you cook ‘em” Ball Parks, just wimpy, flaccid Meijer brand dogs. Put a little ketchup on that and you had a piece of bread trying to cling to this hot dog and stay put in its sad little soggy cocoon.

It didn’t matter; we grabbed those pathetic dogs with our water-pruned hands and wolfed them down every time.

One of my favorite sounds from those days came from inside the house through the screen door wall: My Grandpa listening to Ernie Harwell announcing another ball game on a perfect Saturday afternoon at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull on his transistor radio. The crack of the bat sends the crowd into a deafening roar as “Gibby” sends one over the right field fence.  Lisa and I had no interest in what was going on at Tiger Stadium, but it was a constant reminder that my grandpa was nearby and that everything was right in the world.

I find two things sad and interesting since those days. Shortly after my grandpa died, the Tigers finally went on to play in another world series in 2006. They had not won a World Series since 1984. He spent a lot of time cussing out the television, the radio and of course, the whole organization. It would have been great for him to see them win the American League Championship and go to the World Series. They did eventually lose to the Cardinals, but it was exciting to watch I know he would have enjoyed it.

The interesting thing I find is, as an adult, I can’t stand pennies. Strange, as they were such a happy symbol of my childhood. Now I find them annoying and there are always too many of them in my wallet. I always dump them in the “leave a penny, take a penny” plastic bowl at gas stations. I’ve even been known to thrown pennies right into the garbage. Grandma would curse me out in Polish if she was still alive.

As for the water bugs, their unfortunate little lives were taken when the pool was deconstructed back in 1988.

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