Followin’ the Tambourine man to the pool

  • Tom, poolside, in Columbia Falls, Montana.

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you

I must have been nine, because Bob Dylan’s Tambourine Man, released in 1965, was playing on the radio. It was summer in Leavenworth, Kansas, and my babysitter, who also taught swimming, was driving me and my sister to the pool for lessons.

Swimming is summer. Or summer is swimming. The two are inseparable in my mind. Bikinis, sunburns, Dylan, Big Hunk candy bars, and romance novels.

This week, The Epic Van cruised into Columbia Falls, Montana, our base camp for exploring Glacier National Park, and record temperatures in the upper 90s created heat waves on the pavement as we rolled past the community pool filled with splashing kids.

I insisted. We had to go.

We paid $2.50 apiece for the open swim at 6:30 p.m. We dangled our legs in the cool water, watched mothers dipping babies, boys chasing girls pretending to be mermaids, and grandmas watching from lawn chairs.

I reveled in goosebumps and drifted into a poolside time warp.

Though I know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming

I remember perching on the front seat in my babysitter’s Volkswagen Beetle in my bathing suit, my feet in flip flops dangling above the floorboards, my hair in tight pigtails, my skin sticking to the seat. I remember the “graduation” show for the swim school, where my classmates and I were seals, waddling on our flippers (hands), dragging our tails (feet) along the sloped edge of the baby pool, presumably because we couldn’t yet swim, although I knew I could, and was somehow embarrassed and pissed off, even as a kid.

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship
My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step
Wait only for my boot heels to be wanderin’
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it

I was about the same age when my grandfather held my hand as we walked in an empty swimming pool, still under construction in Hanover, Kansas, down the slope to the deep end. He was the school principal and a member of the town council, and helped get the pool approved and built. He told me how it would soon be filled, how all the kids would be laughing in the sparkling water, an oasis in the golden wheat fields surrounding town. He was so proud.

When I visited, I spent every afternoon there with the girls across the road. We read dime-store romances and baked ourselves in the sun in an effort to have tan legs extending from our shorts for the summer carnival. When we were about to pass out, we’d hit the snack bar, and I’d get a frozen Big Hunk candy bar. Before unwrapping it, I’d slam it against the cement block wall and it would shatter into bite-sized slivers of nougat and almonds.

Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’ madly across the sun
It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin’ on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin’
And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind
It’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing

When we moved to Hawaii, we lived a block from the beach, and you would think pools were completely unnecessary. Still, I became a lifeguard and swim instructor at the local YMCA. I taught toddlers to float and blow bubbles, and even helped a boy so afraid of getting his face wet that he would only take baths, no showers. At the end of the class, he was swimming.

I went to college in Arizona, where there’s a pool in nearly every backyard, although when we married, Tom and I purposely bought a house sans-pool, because we didn’t want the hassle. Eventually, thinking our son, Nate, should have a pool, we moved to a house with a back yard nearly covered in water and cool decking. It was beautiful, but I was so busy that I took a dip about twice a year. Gus, the lab, got far more pool time.

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow 

So now, in the endless-summer, no-job, teen-like, Epic-Van life, I answer the siren call of the pool, dangling my legs, watching the moms and dads and grandmas and babies, hearing in my head that perfect 50-year-old soundtrack.

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you


  1. Reply
    John July 25, 2015

    The community pool is fast becoming a thing of the past. Though, much like the lyrics to Tamborine Man, they evoke fond memories of days gone by. Nice read.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols July 25, 2015

      Thanks, John. So glad you liked it. – Judy

  2. Reply
    Elizabeth Jane Armstrong July 7, 2020

    Loved this Judy. I too love pools and associate them with happy childhood memories.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols July 7, 2020

      Thanks, Jane. Pools and summer are entwined in my mind. And now I love swimming in ponds, lakes and rivers, too. Next year in Canada!!! Love you, J.

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