My mom put the van in park under the diner’s yellow lights. Outside the tiny takeout window was the usual line-up of kids in soccer cleats, licking perfect swirls of vanilla ice cream.
I went inside to the front counter. There was a bell you could ring for service and a menu on the wall listing every combination of cheese, bacon, and chili you could think of. Behind me, the dining room was nearly empty except for a white-haired couple having a cup of coffee and hot caramel sundaes. A girl was vacuuming the floor and another one burst through a heavy swinging door and started wiping down the tables. It smelled like onion rings and Clorox.
I placed my resume on the counter and asked Maddy if I could speak to the manager. Maddy, like most of my friends in high school, was a couple years older than me. She had long dark hair and was a starting player on the senior volleyball team. She told me to come by during her shift to apply for a job.
A short woman with blonde hair and thick-rimmed glasses approached the counter and started skimming my resume. The girls behind her kept busy, wiping down counters and restocking napkin holders, but I still felt their full attention on me.
“Do you want to cook?” she asked me.
A couple days later I was peeling a bag of carrots behind the hot grill of the Dari-Isle Drive-In, earning $11 an hour and falling in love with one of the most special places I’ve ever been a part of.
I always imagined myself serving tables, being a camp counsellor, or driving a beer cart at the golf course. I was a 15-year-old yearbook editor with a sunburn, who was thrown into a kitchen and handed an apron. You don’t know until you try.
For five consecutive summers, I showed up every day at 11am, tied on an apron, and got to work. There was always something to do and someone to talk to. While the staff up front took takeout orders from couples on motorcycles and served ice cream to teenagers in bikini tops, I was in the back, hiding behind the long row of order slips, flipping burgers.
I quickly picked up the skills and fell in love with the fast pace. The pressure. Burger, grill, freezer, timer, bun, sauce, flip, fries, steam, pickle, toothpick. I discovered I could multitask, and that I loved working with my hands.
When things died down and the rush was over, I made homemade honey dill sauce and memorized the secret gravy recipe. My coworkers mopped floors and I chopped onions while we talked about our futures and upcoming music festivals.
There were the hot summer nights when we deliriously sang at the top of our lungs after the last customer finally left the building. Those quiet hours before the Sunday church rush, when the sign was still flipped “Close” and we got to drink coffee and talk about our crazy night.
Everyone goes through major growth spurts during those summer months in high school. We fall in love, fail driving tests, drink too much around bon fires and come back in the fall wearing a whole new layer of life lessons.
If you’re lucky enough, you go through your growth spurts at the Dari-Isle Drive-In.
There we were, a merry group of pre-pubescent boys prancing around, absorbing every last ray of summer vacation. We didn’t know what life was. Only fun. We were idiots. And still are. But some of the best moments of our idiotic lives happened at one, special place.
I was lucky. I got to grow up at Grandma and Grandpa’s pool.
Every week, from the last day of school in June to the crappy first day back in September, the pool was my paradise. And all my pals got the invite.
My mother, a notorious over-do’er, fattened us up with platters of chips and dainties as we’d discuss in depth the only thing 11 year-old boys can actually discuss in depth: boobies. We’d eat too fast then proceed to do pencil diving contests with awkwardly-shaped bodies, gasping for air at the surface with barf-bloated bellies. Like main street junkies, we’d come off crippling sugar highs and stomach cramps in the sun until it was time to go home, overstaying our welcome every time, continuously begging mom for another 10 minutes.
It was more than just a place for fun and relaxation. The pool brought everyone together. Cousins, neighbours, dogs, friends. Like an unsuspecting matador, Gramma waved us in from her outdated lawn chair. The chaos was here. We’d open the gate, race to the change rooms and be ready to dive in before mom could finish unloading the cooler.
The pandemonium paused thanks to one galvanized rule.
“Do your laps” grandpa would holler; skimmer in hand as he’d clean every last speck of matter he saw tarnishing his prized possession. A minimum of five laps must be completed before any hooligan shenanigans. Grandpa’s sharp tone and calm demeanor beckoned no back-talk. We knew it was coming every time, but we always needed to be reminded.
The pool has been in the Earth for 41 years. Grandpa still insists on cleaning it and chemical’ing it every season. And without question, that’s why it’s still resort-quality.
Unfortunately, these days, I don’t make as much time for the pool as I used to. But I still visit every summer and see a new generation of kids jumping in to enjoy it, and most likely pee in it. And every summer I get to see grandma and grandpa’s face lighten up with the thrill of knowing they’ve made yet another kid’s day, simply by being there.
The pool was such an integral part of my own childhood I sometimes forget how many other childhood’s it’s made better. All thanks to two special people.
They’ll be waiting in the back. In a lawn chair; skimmer in hand. Just remember: do your laps.