Monday, June 20, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 171: Cracking the Pool (Part One)

June, 1994

La Honda, the small town where I live, is managed by an unpaid Board of Directors.  I volunteered to become Recreation Director (though I ended up as President for a while).  The outgoing Recreation Director,
an energetic young mother, briefed me on my duties running the swimming pool, the tennis court, the Fourth of July picnic.  She warned me: "You will find yourself making decisions for which you are in no way qualified.  Nobody will help you but somebody has to do it, and then everybody will criticize you afterwards."

She was right.  I knew absolutely nothing about swimming pools.  I dealt with a series of incompetent, surly, downright criminal employees.  One was on the take, one drunk, and one turned out to be an arsonist who would set fires and then show up as a hero volunteer firefighter to put them out.  The arsonist, when discovered, was dealt with privately and severely.  Nobody called the law.  As one of the old-timers explained to me, "We dealt with him the La Honda way." 

Eventually, we found a good maintenance man. 

In summer the swimming pool was the social center of La Honda.  It was the only activity we provided for kids.  On hot days, it was also the best way to cool off.  Nobody had air conditioning.

La Honda pool (foreground, right) circa 1920's

The La Honda pool had been built in the 1920's.  Unheated, summer-only, it was an irregular five-sided shape, poorly cleansed by ancient wheezing pumps with failing sand filters that leaked dirty powder into the water.  The tank would turn green with algae requiring periodic closures and shock treatments.  Leaves and dead bugs accumulated on the surface.  Vacuums broke down.  Teenage lifeguards had bursts of libido.  Parents would drop off non-swimmer kids and leave them unsupervised all day.  A pervert started bothering little girls underwater and had to be dealt with.  Babies pooped.  At night teens would break in and have parties.  A few midnight skinnydips took place (nobody complained, though some came to watch).  One winter a mud slide filled the bottom with twelve inches of dirt.  The diving board broke in half.  When I bought a new expensive board, the entire diving structure ripped loose from the concrete base and tumbled into the water on top of the overweight man who had bounced on it.

All the while, a county health inspector named Joe Miluso would hand me an ever-expanding list of what was wrong with the old pool.  The code violations were only tolerated because we were "grandfathered" into the system and because Joe, a truly nice man, couldn't bear the thought of closing us down. 

After 3 years of deterioration, lack of funding, and ignored warnings, in exasperation Joe Miluso asked me, "What can I do to help you get this pool fixed up?"

I didn't even have to think about it.  "Shut us down," I said.

With enthusiasm the inspector wrote a list of problems on an official-looking ticket which said if the pool was not in compliance by next year, he would not allow us to open.  With a wink, he handed it to me.

I presented the ultimatum to the town.  The response was electric: SAVE OUR POOL!  We had a town meeting, and suddenly $30,000 was allocated by the same people who previously would ignore the problems or plead poverty.  It was my political epiphany: to accomplish anything in politics, you first must manufacture a crisis.

I put the pool remodel out to bid and got quotes of $50-60,000.

On the advice - and promises to help - of several people in town, I came up with a plan to do it ourselves by cutting a few corners and using volunteer labor.  I, of course, would be the primary volunteer with help from John Lindstrom, another contractor in town.

The basic tank would remain the same.  The plan was to replace all the plumbing pipes, adding new water inlets and a better side gutter.  A new pump and filter would complete the job.

We couldn't do the work during the winter.  A basic bit of folk wisdom, handed down from one Recreation Director to another, was that you must not drain the pool over the winter (which is our rainy season) or else the hydrostatic pressure of the water-soaked ground will press against the concrete walls of the tank and possibly cause them to collapse.  You need the water in the tank to press back against the wet ground.  Nobody had ever tested this theory.  After all, would you want to risk being known as the person who destroyed the town swimming pool?  You might then be dealt with in "the La Honda way."

(Continued here...)

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