Pirate nights and gelatin jumps.
All summer long, my six-year-old has seen titillating flyers posted on the walls of our neighborhood pool. The flyers announced the coming of the second annual Pirate Night. According to the flyer, the pool would be taken over by Pirates and transformed into a treasure cove, and the kids could join the adventure and participate in a Coin Dive, find keys to a treasure chest and watch people walk the plank. I do not think I need to describe how delicious this sounds to a six-year-old boy. He was, needles to say, pumped and after seeing the flyer on the walls for most of the summer, his imagination was firing on all cylinders as he imagined the coming aquatic pirate invasion of the neighborhood.
The summer blazed on and the flyers continued to tickle his fancy every time we escaped the heat and went to the pool. Which was often. And his heart was broken when the Pirate Night was suddenly cancelled at the last moment due to one of this summer’s many severe storms.
But a week or so later, the flyers reappeared and so did his excitement. A new date was was proposed. Finally, the evening came. After dinner, we threw on our swim suits and started our walk to the pool. The kid could hardly contain himself. The entire walk consisted of him voicing an inner monologue about what the Pirates were probably doing to our pool right now. He was sure that they had sailed a pirate ship right into the deepest part of the pool, dragging behind them a deserted island containing mound of buried treasure. He imagined the pirates dancing and drinking island rum and clanking swords as the kids swam around the pirate ship, diving under the water for any scraps of gold coin that might have fallen off the ship or the deserted island due to the sheer force of scallywag revelry. He listened for cannonball shots in the distance and he imagined how thrilled it would be to find that mysterious key that might open his very own treasure chest. He had created an entire world around a few promising words printed on a personal printer and posted on a wall.
As we walked to the pool, and as he constructed the world of the coming night on his crazy imagination, I was reminded of a similar experience that I had when I was not much older than he. In the town I grew up in, we had a Three Rivers Festival. Every year the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana has a festival celebrating the convergence of three different rivers in the heart of the city. Really, it is just an excuse for a city-wide, week-long carnival, and the annual return of the Three Rivers Festival was one of the highlights of my wonder years. There were carnival type attractions set up all over the city as well as flea markets and art fairs and musical events and, of course, Junk Food Alley. But each year my parents let my kid brother and I choose one event that we wanted to explore. My son’s imaginative enthusiasm regarding Pirate Night reminded me of the year that my brother and I decided to go to The Gelatin Jump.
The Gelatin Jump paragraph in the Three Rivers brochure described an absolutely incredible event. A pool full of gelatin, and in this pool full of gelatin were treasures and prizes to be found by the ones brave enough to dive inside. I remember asking my mother one bit of clarification: “What is Gelatin?” She then told me that gelatin is what Jell-O is made from. That was all I needed to hear. I was sold. I loved Jell-O and I loved swimming, so I was going to dive into a pool full of Jell-O and I was going to swim around in it. I was going to wiggle-swim longer and deeper than any kid in the festival, and I was certain I was going to find the most amazing toys in the astonishing depths of cool cherry Jello. A Luke Skywalker action figure was at the top of my hope list, but hell, I decided even an Etch-a-Sketch or a Slinky would be a fine thing to find caught in the middle of a giant pool of Jello. I wasn’t going to complain. After all, I was going to find them while swimming. In a pool of Jell-O.
When my son and I rounded the corner and strode onto the street where the tops of the slides were visible over the chain link and thorn bush perimeter that hides the pool from the street, he tried hard not to express his disappointment at the significant lack of a pirate ship mast rising above the perimeter. From where we walked, nothing looked different. At all. He redoubled his imagination, explaining away the reason why the Pirates did not bring their ship. (Maybe the ship sank?) We neared the gatehouse of the pool and went inside.
Pirate Night turned out to be . . . not very much of a Pirate Night. There were one or two lifeguards sporting a eyepatches and one who slung a sword and wore a pointy hat. I believe that the soundtrack from the Pirates of The Caribbean movies were playing from the loudspeakers. We looked around. My son was quiet, but wiggly with excitement over What Might Happen Next. We picked our chair and threw our stuff on top of it. We had apparently missed the Coin Dive, whatever that was, so we swam as usual. A few minutes into the swim, a pirate-y voice announced that if any of the swimmers were to find strange keys on the bottom of the pool, they were to take the keys to the pirate lifeguard to see if they opened a treasure chest. My kid was overcome with excitement. We swam and swam, but did not find a key. About fifteen minutes later, the lifeguard wearing the sword and the pointy hat formed a line of young swimmers by the diving board and began leading them off the diving board with the tip of his plastic sword. And that was pretty much the extent of Pirate Night. By then, nothing really awesome had happened, and it was nearly time for us to go home.
When my brother, my mother and I arrived at the location for The Gelatin Jump, I was ready. I had my swimsuit, my goggles and a towel. I had swum extra hard at my YMCA swim lessons that week. I was going to take the Gelatin Jump like a pro. I was going to find a Luke Skywalker. As we parked the car, it did seem slightly odd that the parking place for the Gelatin Jump was in a strip mall. Where would the pool be? “We’re here,” my mother said. Here? Where? Where are we? Where are the high dives? We followed the small crowd to a portion of the parking lot that had been roped off for something. When we finally managed our way through the mumbly, decidedly non-buzzy crowd, the Gelatin Jump was finally revealed to me. At least the sign said it was the Gelatin Jump. But I didn’t believe it. This could not be the Gelatin Jump. Behind the yellow ropes was a small backyard style convertible pool, about three feet in diameter, about knee-high, and filled maybe ankle-deep with something that looked like moderately syrupy kool-aid, but was certainly not Jell-O. The pool could hold about three kids maximum. And there was a decent line, so kids got to spend about thirty whole seconds splashing around in the ankle-deep semi-aqueous substance. When my turn came, I stepped into the mildly warm, mildly sticky puddle of nothing, and fished around inside for my prize. My toe landed on something. I pulled up a wooden nickel. Then my time was up. I turned in my nickel and the lady exchanged me a ticket for discount dry cleaning. I looked at my mother in amazement.
My son and I walked out of the pool after pirate night. A few feet from the edge of the zero depth pool, my toe landed on top of something. I reached down and pulled out a tiny silver key. A treasure chest key. I showed it to my son. He yelped and gasped and ran to one of the lifeguard pirates. The lifeguard gave it a once-over and proclaimed that it was “not a winning key.” My son walked back to me. He was quiet. I smiled and told him it was time to go, and I took him by the hand and we walked back to our poolside chairs. He sat down and began to dry off. He sniffed. And despite his best efforts to do otherwise, he started to quietly cry. When I asked him why he was crying, he said it was because he didn’t want to go home. I didn’t believe him, though. I knew better.
After my letdown at the Gelatin Jump, I remember feeling foolish. I didn’t really feel sad that I didn’t get to find Luke Skywalker, or that I didn’t really get to dive into a pool of Jell-O, although those were certainly disappointments. More than anything I remembered feeling betrayed by the force and clarity of my own silly imagination, and I was confused by its questionable relation to the world I was growing up in. And I think that somehow, at that particular moment in time I felt my first real growing pains. As I looked out the window of the car on the ride home, I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed by the realization that the real world could never have giant pools of Jell-O to swim in. Of course it couldn’t. That was the stuff of dreams and imagination. The real world was a pale imitation of that ridiculous, wonderful fantasy. The real world was sticky kiddie pools and wooden nickels.
During my long, arduous journey into manhood, I would eventually learn that the real world contains a myriad of tangible, breathtaking wonders. And as I sat by the pool after Pirate Night, I held one of the great wonders of my world in my arms, and let him cry on my shoulder. I kissed my beautiful boy on the top of his head, and let him cry.
Our imaginations are powerful things. They are a release, a coping mechanism, a drawing board, an abacus, a canvas, and a filter. But each of us, as we grow, find a cracking place in our dreamworlds. In this cracking place, whether it be during a pirate night or a gelatin jump, is one of the most lonely moments of growing up. The world feels sad and cheap when that crack opens up the flaws in our imaginings. There will be other cracking places in my children’s journey into the world. I can only hope to offer continuous love, a shoulder and a new story to seal the crack, even as another one opens.