Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear a couple of times each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.
As a young boy growing up in the 1950’s, summer time was adventure time. Adventure was a state of mind. The adventure was not a destination like the Grand Canyon or Disney Land. We didn’t have iPads and music was stored on vinyl discs. We did have bicycles. For my 10th birthday my father surprised me with a Huffy bicycle. It was a glossy red and white bike with 26” balloon tires. Now, when it came to adventure, I imagined how far my bike would take me. Artie Francheschini and Frankie Garofalo were my two best friends at the time. We all attended Our Lady of Pompei School. Artie lived on Division Street and Frankie lived on Lodi. Artie always had an idea for a big adventure.
Swimming, of course, is a big part of any kid’s summer vacation. I took swimming lessons at the Schiller Park pool. I swallowed a lot of water while trying to master the Australian crawl. Hanging out at the old heart shaped pool was a big deal but Artie came up with a great idea for a summer adventure. “Let’s swim in every pool in Syracuse this summer”, he said with a big laugh. “We all have bikes; we can get all over the city fast!” I agreed immediately. I had no idea how many pools there were in the city or how long it would take to get across town and find each one. But this was a real challenge, an adventure. The Schiller Park pool was rather shallow and didn’t have a diving board. I remember it being only 5 or 6 feet deep. There was a burlap covered board everyone could jump or dive off. Finding a pool with a diving board would be fun. Finding a pool with a high dive would be exciting.
When we first told our parents everyone’s Moms thought we were all crazy. My mom said, “Schiller Park is good enough! You don’t need a high dive and you just started beginner swimming lessons.” I replied, “But Mom it’s an adventure!” “Talk to your Father when he gets home from work”, she said while wiping her hands on her apron. She didn’t look happy and Dad was always a tough guy to convince. If he had a bad day at work it would be impossible. I needed a strategy. My Dad was a great swimmer. He could hold his breadth under water longer than any human I ever knew. He actually saved a woman from drowning when he was still a teenager. He could swim the Australian crawl without swallowing water. “These are the things I should talk about”, I thought to myself.
My strategy began to unfold. I had to find a way to get my Father talking about his favorite swimming stories. Then I could find a way to talk about my adventure. My Dad had a ritual when he came home from work. He always kissed my Mom but didn’t have much to say. He would go into the living room and lay on the floor, close his eyes and rest. He didn’t mind if I talked or laid my head on his stomach. He just felt good being home with his family. At this time Mom was in the kitchen making dinner, talking to someone on the phone or reading. Feeling confident I began to mention my swimming lessons at Schiller Pool. I started by asking for some advice. “Dad how do I keep from swallowing water” I asked? “Shut your mouth”, he responded. I didn’t know if he was angry or trying to be humorous. After a momentary pause he rolled over onto his stomach and began to show me how to lift my head at certain points in the stroke to take a breadth. Things were going very well. Our conversion progressed to diving off the high dive. “Onondaga Park has the best high dive!” He liked my idea. “Make sure it’s on your list.” “Yes”, I said to myself “I’m jumping off the high dive!”
Our adventure unfolded, Lincoln Pool, Burnet Pool, Thornden Pool, all different pools with different shapes and people and lifeguards yelling at us for breaking the rules. We never knew there were so many rules. While eating my baloney, pickles and mustard “sangwich” I excitedly began talking about the high dive at Onondaga Pool. A couple of days later we found ourselves standing in line to climb the stairs to the top of the high dive. Artie went first. He laughed and yelled as he jumped off the board. Frankie went slowly while yelling at Artie for talking him into the idea. I was last. I didn’t think I would be afraid but the higher up the ladder I went the more I began to shake. At the top, I hesitated. Artie and Frankie were laughing at me. The lifeguard told me to hurry up; lots of people were waiting in line. I slowly walked out to the end of the diving board closed my eyes, held my nose and jumped. I survived. Now, this was a real adventure.