Druid Hill pool is oasis, crossroads

August 02, 2005|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

After work, the pool at Druid Hill Park belongs to adult lap swimmers like Pam McCurley. She etches a stately breast stroke across the surface of the water.

Inhale, stroke, kick ... her world is an underwater blue paced by the even whoosh whoosh whoosh of blood and breath. When she flips over on her back to frog kick, she folds into clouds, sky and the park's deep green curtain of trees.

McCurley has been coming here 20 years, putting in her laps through any number of life changes. Some days, when her car didn't work, she walked to the pool from her West Baltimore home. Although she looks forward to being with other lap swimmers, she reserves this precious time to get "closer to myself."

"It's my Bahamas," she says.

As summer wraps the city in a miserable haze, certain islands still offer escape. The Druid Hill pool is Baltimore's largest public outdoor pool - and one of its most striking. Measuring 25 yards by 75 yards, the main pool has a tiled shallow end and a columned arcade worthy of a Busby Berkeley movie. It is alluringly long and turquoise. A small pool for lap swimming and diving is a darker shade, a cold-pack blue you'd expect to soothe any soreness.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., this place belongs to adults - many of them lap swimmers. Over the years, the pool has formed its own kind of family, a community tied together by first names and good times.

Ronald Rinehart lowers himself slowly into the pool. He once swam the 400 individual medley for Northwestern High School when it had a swim team. Now he works the Northern District on the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift. Most mornings the 42-year-old police officer keeps in shape by running the 1 1/2 -mile loop around the reservoir at Druid Hill. Come summer, though, he returns to the pool and puts in his laps. He works to maintain each stroke he used to race: butterfly, back, breast, free - butterfly, back, breast, free.

"Walk now, walk!" pool manager Jimmie Hayes calls out to a group newly qualified as adult. To many at this pool, Hayes is as reassuring a summer sight as the Mister Softee truck. Sturdy and amiable, he brings order and continuity to this summer place. As he waves to a longtime buddy, a man who competed with him on Douglass High School's 1966 championship swim team, Hayes talks about his summers here.

A city firefighter for the past 25 years - and a part-time lifeguard for even longer - Hayes reckons he's saved as many as 50 folks at this particular pool. But he's also seen summer romances blossom into marriages. He has raised pool babies into lifeguards. And he has helped countless city folks - grown-ups as well as kids - conquer their fear of swimming.

As swimmers get older, the pools of summer seem to get deeper. After enough time, they hold a complicated mixture of memories: of youthful dreams, of killing time, of taking chances.

Lifeguard Alvin Williams remembers one afternoon, many years ago, when a sudden storm delivered relief from a miserably hot day. After thunder and lightning emptied the pool and sent the kids home, a handful of young lifeguards were left watching the rain come down.

Williams can't say who threw down the challenge: Dive into the small pool, swim across it, then dive into the big pool and swim all the way to the other end. The point was that if you did it, you were a shark. If you didn't, you were a guppy.

Everybody did it. Now he'd put his foot down on such foolishness - you don't mess around with thunder and lightning, Williams says as he sits in the high chair, trim and strong.

At some point before he goes home, the 51-year-old lifeguard plans to enter the pool he's so carefully watching. The water's a little chilly, he says, but your body moving along will warm you right up. Cold, cold water is good lapping water.

It's amazing, in fact, how much it can revive: vigor, friendship, peace of mind.

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