Across the Bridge - June 2016
Sprinkler Parties and Plastic Headbands
The sight of a sprinkler at work in the heat of a summer's day excites the inner kid of this award-winning columnist and author.
- by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
This apparatus has three arms that spin, a heavy metal base and two wheels that allow you to tug at the hose pipe and pull the sprinkler to a new spot like an obedient dog on a leash. If you turn the water up to full volume, my fine yellow sprinkler waters a diameter of 38 feet.
Best of all, it reminds me of childhood sprinkler parties. In the Alabama summertime, a sprinkler party was better than a Delta debutante ball or a Roman bacchanalia.
In grammar school, I didn’t know a soul who had a swimming pool. Mine was a nice old middle-class neighborhood of mature azaleas and tidy brick homes, but a swimming pool in a yard would have been no less exotic than a helicopter pad.
None of us noticed the omission, because you don’t miss what you’ve never had. You went to the swimming pool at the YMCA, where they taught you the Dead Man’s Float and how to tread water. The chlorination level was such that you could smell a “Y” swim on a buddy for about a week.
But the finest water event by far was a Connie Duncan sprinkler party. That was a hot ticket.
Connie was my best friend, mostly because she had the coolest mother in captivity. About once a week in the summertime, beautiful, Ava Gardner-ish Cora Duncan organized a party on the street called Princess Anne, clearing her back yard of all obstacles and putting a sprinkler in dead center.
Lucky party participants gathered in a loose circle, wearing bathing suits or shorts, waiting for Cora to arrive at her command post. When she turned on the faucet and the water began its slow spin, we became banshees, screaming as if the weak force of the water was a riddle of bullets. We jumped over and through the revolving stream, again and again, exhausting ourselves with contrived hysteria and watching for rainbows.
Cora always served watermelon when we tired of the sprinkler. There are old black and white photographs of the scene, Connie and I side by side, drenched and happy, holding big slices of melon and grinning through our missing teeth. In the photos I’m always wearing a hard plastic headband to keep my long hair out of my eyes. The headbands had teeth and left a mark of what looked like small crop rows in my hair.
I don’t guess the masochist who invented water parks with slides and giant wading pools and suspiciously vacant restrooms had made it to our part of the world by then. I’m not sure we would have noticed.
The thrill of the sprinkler party is a reflection of how little it took to amuse children of my era. We didn’t know from theme parks and computer games or even much about television because it wasn’t allowed on school nights, which is when all of the good shows aired. The rest of the time it was mostly baseball.
Sprinkler parties were the ultimate. And, nobody drowned.
We outgrew them, of course. In sixth grade Cathy Caddell moved to town and her contractor father built a beautiful low-slung house out from town that had a real swimming pool replete with changing rooms. We angled for swim party invitations.
I pretty much lost touch with Connie Duncan after high school, but I did visit with Cora not long before she died. She still lived in the little house on Princess Anne where our damp revelries had taken place five decades before.
The back yard we had trampled was now an amazing garden, a profusion of color and evidence of great care. It didn’t look like the same place.
I wondered if sweet Cora had wanted to garden earlier but selflessly put those plans on hold till the sprinkler parties of our childhood had ended. I doubt if she ever realized what an impression those simple parties made on us, so strong that a fine veil of water on an early morning sidewalk even now makes me want to hoot and holler.
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