By John Thomas Tuft
Early April in the Pittsburgh area can be a dance of cold and wet one day, sunny with hints of summer the next. Spring of 1975 was no different. Early April of that year found me just finished up with my Junior year at the University of Pittsburgh and my little brother Dan had put in a good word with his boss for the summer, installing inground swimming pools. I showed up for my first day in a pair of light jeans, tee shirt and flannel overshirt, and tennis shoes. By the end of the summer, I knew enough to have steel-toed boots that can handle being coated with wet concrete, heavy jeans that feel like cardboard the first time you put them on—but that’s getting ahead of my story. Workdays at Valley Pools always started the same way; a stop at King’s Country Restaurant for hot coffee and bear claw pastries grilled in butter, with the boss, who happened to be the owner’s son-in-law. Hey, what came next was eight nonstop hours of hard, physical labor so don’t get all nutritiony on me…
First day, after the obligatory pastry, we piled into the utility trucks and the big blue dumper and drive out to the first site, somewhere in the North Hills. These folks, for reasons known only to them, wanted a big pool. Nothing but the best for them: a 20 by 40 foot big rectangle with a ten foot deep end for diving which meant I arrived to face a 22 by 44 foot hole in the ground with a twelve foot deep end with sloping sides as low gray clouds were scuttling by overhead. Later on that summer I would learn the aggravations of bending fiberglass panels into the familiar kidney shape of backyard pools, but on this first day, I was facing steel. A dozen 4 by 10 foot panels of steel that had to be lifted down into the hole, then bolted together and leveled up. As anyone from Pittsburgh can tell you, steel is not light. Steel is not forgiving. Squeezed into the 18 inches between a 40 foot wall of steel and the edge of the hole, trying to balance it on the toes of my tennis shoes made for a long, painful day. But that’s not the worst of it.
My pants had disintegrated. The steel panels were laid out of the ground so we could attach hardware before lifting them into the hole. Someone needed a tool. I jumped over the panel to retrieve it and felt the back seam of my pants let go. Strike one. I leapt back with the tool. The seam split all the way around to my zipper in the front. Strike two. Six inches of the panels are bent over to make the flat surfaces all the way around for bolting together and leveling up on the ground. Meaning edges. Lots of sharp edges. Two panels in and my light jeans were shredded. Strike three and I had the rest of the workday to get through. The best I could manage was to tie my flannel shirt around my waist and keep on sliding into the hole behind the panels to bolt and level, trying to ignore the dirt and stones sliding into my underwear. And of course, the half dozen other workers were all perfect gentlemen about it. Okay, maybe not, but the next day when the dump truck emptied twenty tons of sand into the shallow end, I jumped into the hole in my stiff jeans and new boots to start shoveling it into the deep end so it could be troweled smooth, same as concrete. Drop in a vinyl liner, finish up the plumbing, add a few tons of water, and presto, you have a swimming pool. Now it’s your problem.
Later that same summer, in a hot, muggy July one particular customer insisted on having a pool installed. The traditional 16 by 32. In a backyard that had maybe 20 feet of flat space before a steep embankment continued upwards. That flat space only occurred because the builder of the house had cut out a flat space midway up the embankment to put a house on. Because Pittsburgh, what can I say. Backhoe guy showed up to dig the hole for us. Things went okay until the far corner of the deep end. The mother of all boulders. Maybe not everyone is meant to have a pool. Boss Man looked at it, drove off and returned with two sledgehammers. One for me and one for another labor guy. You haven’t lived until you have spent a hot July afternoon pounding the mother of all unyielding boulders with a ten-pound sledge in utter futility. Enter the air compressor and jack hammer.
But wait! They wanted a concrete bottom. Which is how I found myself on the hottest, muggiest day of that summer, staring up from a twelve-foot hole at the back ends of two concrete mixer trucks. With their chutes out over the hole. Concrete tends to set quickly in hot weather. So, common sense said to get it all down in the hole as fast as possible. But wait! It’s being dumped into the bottom and needs to be distributed up the sides of the hole. Enter yours truly and other grunt labor with shovels. To lift it one shovel full at a time up the sloping sides of the precious deep end of the pool. And you cannot stop until it is all finished. Wet concrete waits for no man. Six hours later, after shoveling wet concrete nonstop, I could barely move.
Weeks later, Larry and I were entrusted with returning to this pool to install the pump and filter. The concrete deck, or sidewalk, around the pool had meant hauling the “mud” one wheelbarrow at a time up the steep slope because the cement mixer driver didn’t want to try to back it up. Now it was finished, wedged in between the back of the house and the hillside, cursed thing. Easy day. Hook it up and chalk up another satisfied customer. We wired it up and flipped the switch. No gurgling sounds of water being drawn in from the skimmer. Just a whirring motor that went faster and faster. Then froze. We’d wired it backwards. Larry had seniority, let him tell the boss man. Like I said, not everyone is meant to have…