The town of Vail, Iowa, has a population of fewer than 500 residents. Nonetheless, it has a swimming pool. It’s not a publicly-owned government pool, but a community pool ran by community activists and volunteers which has been in existence for over 50 years.
In the 1960s, kids in town were getting bored and getting out of hand. Many of us were hitchhiking to Denison to swim in its public swimming pool. Or, we would sit downtown with swimming trunks and a towel and ask a person we knew, like Tracy North, if they were going to Denison, could we catch a ride. We never thought about how we would get home. The other alternative was to walk through a corn field and a pasture to get to Tracy’s Pond about a half-mile southwest of town. It was probably more dangerous. We would skinny dip in the pond while the cattle watched us upstream. There was a huge raft (about 30’ x 15’) dry-docked on one of the banks. We would dive in among the rusting fish hooks and protruding nails on the raft, thinking nothing of the consequences. But it cooled us off.
Grace Lindberg, a local restaurant owner, owned a piece of property on the main block of town. The fire station and the American Legion Club were across the alley. Grace said that kids needed something to occupy their time, safely. An old dilapidated house sat on some property Grace owned. She donated the land to begin a movement that has continued since.
The house was torn down, and the Vail Community Swimming Pool Association became a legal entity. Grace was its first president.
A contractor from Harlan, Iowa, was selected to build the pool. Supposedly, it was a company that had built similar pools in the Midwest. The sloping hole was dug and concrete block was used to build the walls. Sand was layered on the bottom, and a huge plastic liner was placed into the hole, covering the sand and the concrete block. Ten-foot square sections of cement were poured along the outside edges of the pool, a chain link fence surrounded the pool, and a small building was erected to house the pumps, cleaning supplies, restrooms, etc.
While the contractors were building the pool, many Vail children hung out and watched. There wasn’t much else to do. We talked with the workers, most of whom were in their early twenties. During construction, the workers asked us if we wanted to travel to Harlan in a school bus and swim in the owner’s pool. It would be identical to what we would have when finished. After swimming in the owner’s pool, we would be bused out to a farm, have a bon fire, hotdogs, marshmallows, and sleep in the hay loft of the barn before returning home the following morning. We would need to have our parents’ permission.
Just about every boy that hung around the pool, and a few more, brought a permission slip over the next few days. Finally, the day came when the workers finished up the activity at the pool site and we all got on the bus for what we were sure was going to be the best night of our summer.
On the drive to Harlan, we were loud, rambunctious, and annoying teens and pre-teens. The first stop was to the owners’ house, where he had a pool in his backyard, fenced off with a wooden privacy fence. We swam, we dived off the diving board, we threw beach balls and other pool-related toys, we had one hell of a good time.
As the sun was going down, we were back on the bus heading to a farmstead. The farm was beautiful, manicured lawn and everything colorful was in its place. The workers started a huge bon fire, as promised. Waiting for the fire to get going, we placed our bedding in a spot in the hay loft where we intended to sleep, and we searched for and used long skinny branches to cook our hot dogs, and later, to roast our marshmallows. There were plenty of condiments for the hot dogs, and chocolate squares and graham crackers for the marshmallows. We ate until we could barely move.
Then, one of the guys pulled out a guitar and asked if we wanted to sing. Knowing most of the kids there, I doubt anyone yelled, “hell, yeah!” But there we were, singing Kumbaya and other religious-oriented songs. Actually, I think the only persons singing were the construction workers.
The strangest thing occurred next. They split us into groups and selected which kids would go with each individual worker. The groups would go off to a remote place not far from the bon fire. The ratio was 3-4 boys with one counselor. Except for me and Honcho. These guys were calculating. They knew who would give them the most trouble, me and Honcho. Honcho was two years older than me. I may have been the second oldest of the troop. We didn’t have one ‘camp counselor,’ we had two.
They talked to us about Jesus and asked if we had ever been saved. I think every kid said, “I don’t know.” So, they commenced to talk to us about saving our souls and why it was important. These boys they recruited to have a fun night of swimming and eating were mostly little Catholic boys, most of whom were altar boys, and a few Presbyterian Sunday School students. This religious recruitment process was not on the public agenda prior to the trip or our parents would not have signed permission slips.
I was afraid that Honcho would get pissed and tear into them. Honcho, who was quick and muscular, would rather fight his way out of a garment bag than pull the zipper down to get out. He watched my every move and mimicked what I said and did. “Any questions?” They asked. I knew that if I had a question, we would be there all night. I also gathered that the longer Honcho sat on the log with me more likely he was going to erupt. “No, I think I’m saved.” I spoke. Honcho quickly caught on. “Me, too!”
We were about to get up and move on when the one I suspected to be the leader said, “I remember when I was saved, I said a prayer.” I looked at Honcho. His eyes were beginning to get bigger. “Yeah,” I replied. “Good idea.” I sat back down and yanked at Honcho’s jeans. He sat next to me. He could see that I folded my hands and placed them on my chest while bowing my head. He followed perfectly. After about a minute, I raised my head (yes, Honcho did immediately and in sync with me). “Do you feel it?” Or some question like that, the older one asked. “Yes!” I said jubilantly. “Yup,” Honcho meekly replied. There was a little small talk and Honcho and I walked to the barn.
“Hey, M.T.” Honcho got my attention as we were walking across the farmyard. “Did you really pray?”
“Oh, yes I did.” I looked at Honcho. “I said ‘God get us out of here.’” Honcho busted out laughing.
Once again, in the loft, we were obnoxious kids.
The following morning, we were given something for breakfast. I don’t know what. It didn’t make any difference. All of us were more than willing and ready to go.
The bus ride home was a somber event.
I don’t remember that any of us shared the event with anyone else. I can’t believe that we did because the contractors scheduled another event for those kids who couldn’t make it the first time. None of the original group signed up for the second trip.
I want to say that Jim Malloy and I were the first two in the pool. On the first day of the pool being filled to the top, at 11:00 pm after the bars had closed and the town was quiet, Jim and I went over the fences and dived in. However, that honor of being first has to go to a man who lived out west of town a few miles. His last name was Stone. He climbed the fence, just as Jim and I did, after coming out of the American Legion Club, predictably drunk, and became the first. There wasn’t much water in the pool at that time. Jim and I had the privilege of diving in when it was full. We didn’t stay long. It was as cold as the Arctic Ocean.
This essay is not intended to make fun of anyone’s religion, I am just writing what I experienced with about 15-20 other boys in the early to mid-1960s.
EPILOGUE: The Vail Community Swimming Pool Association filed for dissolution in May of 2020. It was more than the Pandemic that closed it down. It takes a lot of money, work and effort to run a nonprofit that owns a swimming pool. To all those families that supported Grace, thank you! To all the women, and a few men, who served on the Board of Directors, thank you! And to the late Grace Lindberg, you’ll never know how much children in Vail are indebted to your vision and goodwill.
I don’t think any Vail kid was saved that night in the summer of 1964.
Mr. Stone was tragically killed when his gun went off accidentally while he climbed over a fence.
The Vail Swimming Pool did not keep kids in Vail from getting into trouble, but it sure did slow them down.