The pool at the “Old Y” was, let’s say, “vintage”.
Hell, the whole building was to be honest. It was built in1938, included a swimming pool with a one-meter diving board, a gymnasium and meeting rooms upstairs.
I started going there when I was in maybe in second grade, for swim team. It started when my sister Georgia’s friend Jim who was a co-captain of the swim team took me there to watch an afternoon practice.
I remember it was cold outside, big snow piles were mounded on the sides of the road, and Jim’s car heater fan motor rattled loudly when he turned it up to defrost the windshield. He picked me up at home and drove me downtown, it was early, still before dinner, but getting that early, grey wintertime dark.
I remember that the building was echoey, all the floors covered in ceramic tile and the walls with plaster, painted ceiling white, with framed photos and sayings on the walls. Big hand painted letters with the proclamation of “Young Men’s Christian Association” and “I am Third”.
I found out later that “I Am Third” meant that first was God, second came family and community, and that you kid, are third in the cosmic pecking order.
Yes, that is correct my young friend. According to this organization, you put the needs of God, everyone in your family and our beloved town before yourself.
It would take years of counseling to make me aware of and believe that this was a swimming pool full of poppycock.
But I digress.
We went up the steps while the sounds of our footfalls and all the voices in the lobby bounced off the walls and floor looking for someplace to stick. Then, through wood framed doors that had multiple panes of glass set in a grid, with no door handles, you pushed on a flat brass rectangle that was worn shiny in the middle and kind of smudgy green around the edges. This led us to the front desk where one bespectacled dude stood looking down at a sign-in book like when you register at a hotel.
He looked up at us, smiled, and said, “Hello Jimmy, who’s this young man?”
Jimmy replied, “A new recruit here for a tour!” and we kept walking to the right side of the desk toward a heavy, dark green painted door.It had a pebbled and frosted glass window in the upper third, and it looked like chicken wire was embedded into it. In all capitol letters it said “LockerRoom”.
Just when I thought we were going to run into it the man reached under the desk and I heard a buzzing sound, followed by a loud “click”, and then Jim pushed the door open.
That was the first time I smelled chlorine.
It was like walking into a restaurant and being greeted by the aroma of the fryers or the cooking line with balsamic vinegar and garlic.To this day when I walk into a YMCA or a hotel with a pool and am greeted with that smell it takes me back there and I feel at home.
We made our way through the steamy locker room and into the stands at the shallow end of the pool. We watched the Cadets and Preps practice and he explained to me what swim team was, how all the different strokes worked, how you all compete for the best time, and the importance of the craft of your strokes and starts off the blocks.
This was my “Aha!” moment. Even at that age I knew that football was not something that I was suited for. I was always the smallest in my class and running fast and trying to decimate another person with head down and malicious intent was not really of interest to me.
But I felt at home here, like I could compete and maybe even have a chance to win. So, without hesitation I joined the team.
And to this very day it lights me up.
There were usually 6 swimmers per heat, each in their own lane, doing whatever stroke was their best competing for the fastest time. The top three places earning points for their team. I became a breast stroker in the individual race and in the Medley Relay.
At the meets I would climb up on the starting block and go through my mental prep much like in baseball when a batter sets up in the box. I shook my arms out and rolled my neck and shoulders like I saw Mark Spitz do on television, and then the starter would say “Swimmers take your mark…”
That’s your prompt to step to the front edge of the block, curl your toes over to get traction, and bend at the waist, arms at your sides so at the gun you can rocket forward to get as much speed and distance as possible.
There is almost complete silence as the swimmers set, just the soft gurgle of the water in the gutters and creaking of the blocks can be heard. Eyes closed; you can feel the sandpaper surface of the block under your feet waiting for the first sound of the gun. I always loved that moment, being in that space. It’s only about two maybe three heartbeats, but there I am equal to all no matter what lane number or AAU ranking. Not a winner or loser. Equal.
At the sound of the gun, it’s a blur, pushing as hard as you can off the block, pulling against the cold-water keeping eyes on the end of the pool to execute the turn that comes up fast. The sound of the water in my ears is all I ever heard. I focused on the turn and the finish, and when I slammed my hands into the wall where I started the sound of the natatorium would come back full volume.
I was exhilarating in a way I never imagined.
So, six years later, after swim team practice, in that same building and that same pool, I’m headed home. Hair wet, stomach empty, I push through the heavy wooden doors and go out onto Tuscarawas Avenue.
I make a hard left, go maybe 100 feet and make another left onto Third Street, and start for home. But that’s when I notice the display in the front window of Thom McAn’s shoe store.
There amid all the brown shoes are a pair of red boots.
Not cowboy boots, but round toed, zip up the side, red boots. Like you would see on Soul Train or a hip disco show. Or maybe a Pepsi commercial with the trendy cool guy proclaiming the amazing taste of liquid sugar and artificial caramel coloring.
All I know is that they stopped me in my tracks. I did that thing where you cup your hands on your temples and leaned in against the window so there were no reflections from the street in the glass, and I looked hard at those shoes.
They were SO cool. And they cost about twice as much as myConverse.
I knew buying them was out of the question, but I speed walked home to tell Mom about them anyway.
I loved home. Being inside my home was great, of course, but arriving home, after school, or swim team, was always a wonderful moment.
Long before I ever thought I would miss it, I appreciated it.
Many times, I leaned on the pole light at the end of the driveway and watched mom in the kitchen making dinner. When it was cold out the window would get steamed up from her draining the hot water off the potatoes into the sink before she mashed them into buttery starchy wonderfulness.
And that was the case tonight. I was warm from the walk but standing still the chill caught up with me, so I closed my CPO jacket around me and watched. As usual, Dad came into view, grabbed Mom and they danced around the kitchen to the evening tunes coming from WJER Radio, “The Voice of the Tuscarawas Valley”.
I went in through the door in the garage and into the warmth of the kitchen.
Mom smiled and said, as usual, “Boy you need to dry your hair after practice, walking home with a wet head will get you pneumonia!”
I wasn’t sure if that was sound medical advice, it sounded more like protective mom advice, but either way she was right, I’m sure.
We sat at the small table in the kitchen and had dinner, dad talking about his day at the mill and mom about hers at the hospital the night before. When it came my turn, I filled them in on the high school happenings and then about the boots I saw at Thom McAn.
What I was expecting was maybe a “Really…red…?”, or perhaps laughter, like when you say, “Are you kidding me…?”, but that’s not what happened.
Mom took her napkin from her lap and brought it up to her eyes, holding it there for a moment, then put it back, smoothed it out, patted my hand and said, “Those do sound really cool”.
Her eyes were full, and her lips shook a little, like they do when you want to cry but you don’t want to.
I looked at Dad, he gave me the subtle gesture, one handout, palm up, with the eyes closed and subtle head nod up and down to signal “It’s all good” and the moment passed.
The next day was Saturday, and like any kid that meant sleeping in and then eating cereal in pajamas while watching cartoons. My preferred cereal was Cheerios, preferred cartoons were all characters from Warner Brothers. The went well together every Saturday.
Mom had a different idea though, she woke me at 9:00 and said, “Come on, we’re going downtown.”
There was something in the way she was rolling that kept me from protesting, so we jumped in our ’65 Mustang and headed down the hill.
To Thom McAn.
It took me a minute to put this together because Tom McAn was next door to Dover Hardware. We got things at the hardware store all the time to do projects at home – but that was normally a trip with Dad…
So, when she went into Thom McAn I was really surprised.
And more surprised when Mom located, pointed to the red boots in the window and said “Could this young man try those on…?
The guy went into the back and came out with a pair, and I tried them on. They were a bit big, but like everything else in my closet there was the sincere hope and expectation that I would someday “grow into them.”
I was very excited, could not believe that mom and dad would buy me these. My Converse were my school shoes, I had a pair of “nice” loafers for church, hiking boots for scouts. That’s really all that I needed in the scheme of things.
Because that was the way we approached things, by what was “needed”. Mom and dad were depression kids, they wasted nothing, were very careful with money, mom cooked every night, lunches were leftovers from dinner the night before, vacations were for home improvement projects, and so on.
Frugal and practical, their joy was always found in accomplishment and not embellishments.
I was still sitting in the “try on” chair, red shoes on my feet ready to come home with me and pressing my Converse in the boot box with the cardboard toe forms and white tissue paper.
Mom was at the cash register, and I noticed that she was going deep into her pocketbook, counting change to get to the total amount due.
My excitement overshadowed the power in that moment, and only with the retelling of this story do I realize the significance of the purchase.
Mom completed the purchase with change from the bottom of her purse, the man wrote up the receipt and we went outside onto Third Street, into the morning sun, the toes of my new red shoes shiny and showing themselves from under my bell bottom pants.
We jumped into the Mustang and went back home where Mom made breakfast for us both.
She didn’t say much until she sat down, and then she said,“Did I ever tell you why they called my dad ‘Boots’ Reese?”
My Grandfather, her father, John Howard “Boots” Reese, died when my mom was six. He was a soldier in WWI, had health issues due to the gas used in the trenches, and sadly died very young. She didn’t speak of him much, my sense was because of the sadness still near the surface, and that her time with him was very short and the memories few.
His sepia tone photograph was on the wall in the hallway with the rest of the family generations gallery. He was a dashing young man in uniform, buttoned-up high military collar with epaulets on his shoulders and close wavy hair combed back off his forehead.
It’s the serene look on his face that I always remember, my mom wears one just like it.
This image was the extent of my knowledge of Grandpa Reese, with the comments of “Here he is going off to war” and “Oh David he would have loved you.”
“They called him ‘Boots’ because when he was a kid, he always wore red boots. It was his thing, not sure how he got them, but it was his trademark as they say. One day someone called him ‘Boots’ and it stuck to him his whole life.”
Again, she put her napkin to her eyes, pressed it firmly for a moment while collecting her thoughts.
“When you came home and told me about those boots, I didn’t know what to say. You didn’t know that story about my dad, so I figured that maybe, just maybe somehow, he was stopping by and loving us both up.”
Then we stood and she stood and hugged me for a long time, kissed the top of my head and said again “He would have loved you so…”
The empty spot that she carried for her dad I don’t understand, my dad was there every night, he survived his war, lived to be close to 100, and until this year I didn’t know a day without him.
So, I take very good care of those red boots. I wore them until they fell out of style, cleaned them, and placed them in a box with my other treasures. While I don’t wear them on my feet I wear them in my mind, they are a mark of expression, boldness, and panache that every artist needs. It gives me joy and confidence knowing that kind of expression is not something I need to invent, it’s legit, its legacy, and in my DNA.
I’m betting that mom was right when she said that John Howard “Boots” Reese would have loved me. I know for sure that I, David ReeseFlynn, would have loved him too.