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Making a Splash in the Backyard

Our first swimming pool was, admittedly, a modest one: an ex-goldfish pond: 10 by four by three feet. But after we knocked down the decorative island in its middle, plastered the rocks over with cement, painted it aqua blue, and filled it with water, it seemed practically Olympian.

Paul, our one-year-old, continued to use his galvanized washtub, but seven-year-old Tessa splashed in it with her friends. And I discovered that if I held my arms out in front of me and a bit to the sides, I could take a very, very shallow dive.

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It was our cool tub, and when the heat of northern Florida became really oppressive, we would throw in a 100-pound block of ice. Keeping it up was simple. We drained it out every few days into a ditch with a garden hose.

When we moved to Summerville in South Carolina, one of the first things we did was choose the spot for the swimming pool. It would be 15 feet long, six feet wide, and four feet deep; made out of cement blocks -- with a drain in the bottom that led to the ditch next to the road.

We still didn't know about chlorine, so once a week I let the water out. If I were a few days late, green slime would appear, and we would have to scrub down its sides with a stiff brush. If I were later than that, we would have to repaint. Nevertheless, this was a real pool, with pool parties, kids splashing, and midnight dips. We poured a cement deck around it so we could bask in the sun. Everyone loved it, but, of course, it was a bit small.

When we moved to Long Island three years later, in 1963, we were determined to have a more substantial pool -- something we could really swim in. There were on-top-of-the-ground pools by then, even good secondhand ones, but they were ugly. So we decided to hide it in the ground.

The pool we found in the classifieds was 30 feet across, five feet deep, and not only could you dive, but you could even swim laps. It came with a filter and a plastic container that you filled with chlorine tablets and let float around. The filter didn't work, but I figured out how to do without it. I would charge around the inside of the pool until I had worked up a good current and then I would get out. After five minutes or so the leaves and stuff would collect in the center, and all I had to do was vacuum them. For that I had a section of 2-inch hosing and a hand pump -- gone were the days of sucking on the garden hose.

The pool, nestled between an apple and a pear tree and hidden from the house by a large dogwood, gave us the illusion that we lived on an estate. Surely the next step was polo ponies!

The pool didn't look so beautiful the following spring, however. You couldn't see the bottom; when you stirred it, swamp gases bubbled to the surface. The only solution seemed to be to drain it -- whereupon it collapsed into a pile of twisted aluminum sheeting, vinyl liner, and muck. I'd forgotten why an above-the-ground pool isn't meant to be put in the ground.

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''What are all those for?'' said Lucy, as I unloaded some redwood two-by-fours I'd found at the dump.

''To cover over our moat,'' I said. Our new pool was 24 feet across. It would stand on its own inside the hole. Once I built the deck, however -- fanning the two-by-fours out from the edge -- it would look as if it belonged in the ground. And so it would. This one we could drain if we had to. The deck would actually be part of its support. I should have been an engineer, I thought, surveying in my mind the completed work. The only problem was that there would be V-shaped cracks between the two-by-fours. You'd just have to be careful about not dropping things through.

By early June it was all done and we were swimming -- exulting in the pleasures of being poolside.

''Why not rent the house for the rest of the summer,'' Lucy said as we were sunbathing one afternoon. ''Go on a trip.''

The first family that looked at it took it. The three children had their bathing suits with them, and no sooner had we agreed on terms than they jumped in.

''There's no filter?'' the man said, as I started to go through the maintenance procedure with him.

''Not as such,'' I said. To make it easier, I got into the pool and showed him just what to do. Before we left, I even wrote it all down. About a week after they moved in, he called.

''Maybe you didn't build up a strong enough current?'' I said. ''You've got to really push. I get down low and spread out my arms.'' He mumbled something about contacting a pool company. ''You have to hold the hose in with your hand when you pump. Be sure nothing gets stuck in the hose.''

He called again two weeks later. ''I'm spending all my time in the pool.''

''Great,'' I said. ''Glad you're enjoying it.''

''I'm not enjoying it. What I'm telling you is ...''

Eventually, I calmed him down, but I was beginning to wonder. How could he make so much out of so little?

A week later, he called again. The pool was unswimmable. It was not really a proper pool at all. Nobody he had contacted would even look at a pool that didn't have a filter. He was spending all of his time dealing with a problem that shouldn't be there in the first place.

He went on and on. He was deducting the use of the pool from his final check. What could I say? It wasn't even the money that got to me. Where was the man's pride in accomplishment? Not to mention his spirit of adventure. A commuter, he should have been glad to get the exercise.

''I don't believe this,'' I said, staring down at what was left of our pool. ''He took the deck apart.'' I'd have to start all over again from the very beginning. It was too much. ''No more pools,'' I said. We filled it in and turned the place back into a lawn.

But that spring, mowing over the spot where our pools had been, regret flooded over me. Where we had gone wrong, I decided, was in thinking too big. We had gotten above ourselves. It was time to scale down. There was a pile of rocks behind the garage. I would dig a hole ... just large enough for me to take a very shallow dive.

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