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May, 2006


by Valerie

There were many organized activities that enhanced my early school years, including family outings, girl scouts, and public school. One that really stands out, though, was our membership in the Joliet YMCA. I'm not sure when we first joined, but by age 6 or so, I was engaged in various classes, summer camp, and special events through that institution. For a long time I never even knew just what the letters on the big sign outside the building represented, but, even with such a strange name, it was one of my favorite places. Because my memories of the YMCA are all around four decades old, I can't place events in an orderly time frame. There are just a number of fond little vignettes, isolated details, and lasting impressions.

First and foremost, the Y had one of the only public indoor pools in our area. During long Illinois winters, this was a definite plus. Not only did I attend swimming classes (with levels appealingly named things like "guppies," "minnows," and "sharks"), but we also went for the free times, referred to as "splashes." My mother was involved in water ballet and we enjoyed the performances from bleachers set up alongside the pool. I specifically remember them performing "Peter and the Wolf," complete with all the characters as well as lots of orchestrated swimming. I could never figure out how my mother and the other ladies managed to make swimming look so effortless, when I had to stroke like crazy just to keep afloat. Whenever I tried their maneuvers myself, I just sank.

The pool was always warm and comfortable, even in the dead of winter. We'd enjoy long, hot showers, with plenty of Prell shampoo and sweet-smelling soap in the steamy locker room after our swims. It was especially entertaining to then step outside into the sub-freezing winter temperatures and have our wet hair freeze stiff.

Easter bonnet contest, 1966, YMCA, Joliet, IL
Vicky is at far left and Val is second from right in front row

We spent enough time at the Y that we got to know many of the people that worked there. My mother, Evelyn, also taught classes at various times, including crafts and crocheting. A lady that often manned the entry to the pool used to delight in singing the well-known folk song, "The Happy Wanderer," because of the chorus part syllables, "Val-da-ree, Val-da-rah, etc." whenever she saw me coming down the hall. After a few times, I found the play on my name to be rather tiresome, but she seemed to enjoy it tremendously.

To a child my size, the YMCA building seemed huge and maze-like. There were several floors and I used to feel like I was always on the verge of being lost among all the halls and stairwells. There were few windows; the building was more like a warehouse, and located right downtown. The floors were all linoleum tile or old wood. In fact, the whole building seemed comfortably old-fashioned. One room we used a lot was a big assembly hall that had windows overlooking the street out front. It was at least on the second floor or perhaps even higher. The lighting in the big hall never seemed very bright, but during the day, light from the windows helped a lot. We attended programs in that hall, and they sometimes set up many tables or chairs, depending on what was needed. It seems an odd detail to remember, but there were at least a couple huge leather-covered dark red chairs in which my sister and I sometimes sat while waiting for our mother to finish teaching a class. I actually remember noticing how there seemed to be hundreds of rivets on these chairs, holding the coverings in place, and how they were spaced very closely together. Who knows why a strange little detail like that would stick in my mind.

Occasionally, there were special overnight events, such as big slumber parties. These, like all the other activities that I can remember, were just for girls. I assume that at that time the boys had their own separate activities. Of course, we didn't sleep much during these but stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, chatting with others our age, singing songs (I distinctly remember being taught the words and tune to "Yellow Submarine" by a friend), playing games, and enjoying the facilities of the Y. There would be scheduled times when we could use the pool, the trampoline, or the ancient gymnasium with a strange second-level running track overlooking the main floor. It was a great treat to roller skate, to play on the big floor mats, or to climb on the wooden grid along one wall (probably the predecessor of today's climbing walls).

The Y would sometimes sponsor contests. Once, I won a ribbon in an Easter bonnet competition after working long and hard (with my mother's help) to make the most complex hat possible. Another contest was a kid's version of the dog shows that were also part of our upbringing: a stuffed animal show. I'm sure there were many other events in which we participated, but by now they've faded from my memory.

I went to a YMCA summer camp for four years in a row. It was only a two-week session each summer, at a place called Camp Pinewood in Michigan, but I have enough recollections of those eight weeks to warrant a whole separate essay. That was perhaps my most beloved part of belonging to the Y.

Our membership in the YMCA continued for about a year after we moved from Manhattan, which had been convenient to Joliet, to Lemont, which was a bit farther away. Gradually other involvements closer to home took precedence, especially once I had started band in school. For those few years in the 1960s, though, the YMCA was a source of many learning experiences, entertaining activities, and wonderful friendships.

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