When I was nine years old way back in the spring of 1970, our next-door neighbors in La Mirada, Calif., decided to have a swimming pool installed in their backyard. As news items went in my young world, this one qualified as the story of the century.
From my perspective, the timing couldn't have been sweeter. I was already smitten with our neighbors' two gorgeous teenage daughters and when I learned a pool was going in to boot, I became something of a pre-teen stalker. Even at that early age, I associated pools with big-time fun and the idea of spending summer days swimming in their pool alongside the bikini-clad girls next door – suffice to say it all had a lasting impact on my young psyche.
These particular neighbors were extremely nice people who had taken an interest in our family, due largely to the fact that my dad was off fighting the war in Vietnam and my mom was alone raising three young children, my two younger sisters and me. So, when I showed an almost manic interest in the prospect of their new pool, they kindly indulged me.
They showed me the plans, an overhead view hand-rendered in colored pencils, which we examined in excruciating detail. We discussed the shape of the pool, the type of decking, the depth, the fiberglass slide and diving board, and their new patio and arbor. All of it fascinated me.
When the construction started, I spent large chunks of the early summer perched on the fence, watching every phase of the installation process. The excavation fascinated me as the voracious machinery ripped open the ground and dug the hole that would become a body of water. Then came the steel and plumbing, resembling something akin to a giant mechanical spider web. And when the gunite crew did their thing, it was like nothing I had ever seen before.
There was so much to see and I hung on each new phase as completion drew near. I remember being fascinated when the wet concrete decks were delicately salted and then rinsed, creating what is now the familiar and yet almost iconic pitted texture. Then came the new landscaping, patio furniture and Tiki torches.
And finally, there was water, murky at first, then transformed by filtration and chemistry to the shimmering elixir of summertime fun. The stage was set. I remember almost trembling with anticipation of the first dip.
(Yes, I was a somewhat odd kid with an unusually long attention span. Little did I know back then that later in life I'd inadvertently forge a large part of my career writing about swimming pools. Funny how things work out sometimes.)
Not long after the pool was finished, I was honored to be one of the first in. It was an almost magical experience, swimming in a pool where once had been the most ordinary of backyards. We only lived there for another year (military families move around a lot), but I probably swam in that pool at least 50 times.
Although it was a simple pool, the experiences it encompassed changed my life. It was the place I first felt those awkward pangs of sexual attraction, the site of countless hours of healthy exercise that only ever felt like play, and my youngest sister learned to swim there. All the while, I felt like I had the inside track because I had watched it being built.
Most important, looking back, I can see that by way of our neighbors offering our family access to their pool, they gave us a wonderful gift of recreation and togetherness, a charitable gesture of incalculable value. And now, it's the type of memory that can really make you feel good about other people.
Even these days, so many years later, for all the scores of pools I've seen and enjoyed on so many different levels, that simple kidney-shaped pool remains the closest to my heart.
So, what's my point?
Fast forward to the recent recession. For a couple of gloomy years, specifically 2009 and '10, I listened to numerous people within our industry lament that the middle-class backyard swimming pool was a thing of the past, that aside from high-end custom projects, the pool construction industry was dead and would never recover.
For my part, however, I never completely bought into all that dark chatter, even though the numbers during those years were indeed about as bleak as possible. Depending how you count or where you look, pool construction dropped off by something like 80 percent from its peak years during the housing bubble.
Fortunately, according to both recent statistics and personal anecdotes, the pool construction industry is now showing new signs of life. Surprisingly, and pleasantly so, many builders are saying that middle-class consumers with relatively small yards and limited budgets are reappearing in significant numbers. That's been a pleasant surprise for some in that such accounts run counter to the common wisdom that only affluent homeowners would remain active buyers. Sometimes it's good to be wrong.
No matter, the re-emergence of the middle-class pool is a beautiful trend, one that hopefully will continue. It also brings up a fascinating point of discussion, a speculative narrative that has generated some pointed debate in recent years.
Simply, can modest pools be made beautiful?
We all know that in the last decade-plus the advent of the massively complex backyard resort has dominated our industry's cultural landscape and public imagination. Many point to what amounts to the emergence of a parallel industry focused on the entire outdoor environment – a professional amalgam of architects, general contractors, landscape architects, gardeners, aquatic specialists and suppliers, all focused on delivering unprecedented levels of enjoyment for affluent homeowners.
Again, that's a fabulous trend in how it portends all kinds of unlimited creative and economic potential. My feeling has always been, however, that the "stay-cation" and backyard resort concepts should be applied at all economic levels of society, that so-called modest pools can be made with the same high-minded aims as their more-expensive counterparts, but only on a more modest and typically smaller scale.
To my mind, it's an obvious matter. Of course modest pools can be made special, so long as they're conceived with sound design principles and constructed properly! All of that brings me full circle, back to those halcyon days in the summer of 1970, when I saw a small backyard become a place where dreams came true, where the experience of aquatic recreation transformed humdrum days into lifelong memories, where one family showed kindness to another.
Think about it. Even a modest pool has that kind of power. It's why I'm proud to be a part of an industry that brings joy to so many different types of people — even wide-eyed little boys peering over the fence?
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Eric Herman, former editor of WaterShapes, is senior editor at AQUA magazine.