The key and whistle are on a hook in my sister’s home, by her front door. Or maybe in the kitchen. She’s not sure.

This news staggers me. The most powerful key and whistle of our entire Kid World and she’s not sure where they are. I blame the chlorine.

It's been decades since the lifeguard's key and whistle have seen action, but they remain ready to dive into action when needed.

My sister's lifeguard whistle and key to paradise.

Finally, after all these years and all that swimming at our municipal pool, the chlorine has taken its toll on her memory. Oh well, it was worth it.

We lived in The Pool. Seriously. It was less than two blocks from our small-town Wisconsin home. Running barefoot, dodging gravel driveways and scampering over hot blacktop, we could get to The Pool before the door swung shut and Mom knew we were gone. 

And so we were. As quick as a breeze. Gone. The entire summer.

In the morning, just after the sun melted the ice, I took swim lessons. My lips still have a vibrant blue tint from those early swims. In the afternoon I swam and splashed and canon-balled away the hours with neighborhood buddies. After supper it was either Little League baseball or swimming. Sometimes both.

Easily the best swimming, however, was under the cover of darkness, when stifling hot, pre-air conditioned nights drove us out of the house half crazed. The pool beckoned, like a watery mistress. A sneak down the alley, a silent climb over the chain-link fence and – sploosh! – we were in.

But sometimes, and I can only tell you this now because I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations covering such things is up, my sister would simply use her key to open the swimming pool door. We were in like thieves, stealing away a swim under the stars.

Pool by J. C. Leyendecker, 1935.

For three glorious summers, my sister was a lifeguard at The Pool, easily the most powerful job in town.

To be on the wrong side of a lifeguard was a risky proposition. One false splash, one too many smart-aleck remarks, one episode of running when you should be walking and you were gone, kicked out with one shrill tweet of a whistle. Her whistle.

My sister, two years older than me, wielded immeasurable power. It was like being a brother to a mob boss. And I loved it. In her eyes, I could do no wrong. And in my eyes, I was the luckiest kid in town.

My hometown tore up The Pool some 25 years ago, building an indoor pool in its place. The indoor pool is nice, I guess. Kids seem to like it. They splash and giggle and make their own memories, I suppose.

But they’ll never know what it’s like, in the dark of a hot August night, with one magical key and one understanding sister, to slip into the water while the rest of the town sleeps.

If my sister ever finds that key, we’ll take you for a dip. Promise.

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Paul Kennedy

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