Every now and then, you are given an opportunity to face your demons. I'm talking about the aspects of your psyche that when on display can reduce you to a cardboard cutout of a human being. The secrets that, if they saw the light of day, would cause even those who know you best to slowly back away. And then run like hell. My secret is that I don't like to share my water space.
Most of my adult life, which as a 34-year-old I'd say began a couple of years ago, I've avoided Jacuzzis, public pools, water parks, even bathtubs. My rule is that if the body of water isn't fed by pristine mountain springs the likes of which you see in Coors commercials, or if the other side remains visible on a clear day, I avoid it like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.
What am I afraid of? Is there any rational basis for the terror I see in naked bodies sloshing around in an oversize petri dish heated to ripe incubation temperature? Okay, if I put it like that, it's kind of rhetorical. But, truly, the questions I'd pay a shrink to answer are: Is it really that bad in there? and, Is my fear of splashing about with my fellow man evidence that the heart of a misanthrope beats beneath my humanitarian exterior?
Oh yes, I worried there would be a day of reckoning. And there was.
It all came together for me on a recent Saturday as I was standing seven stories above the huddled masses, waiting to take the plunge on Drop Out. Drop Out is one of the attractions at Raging Waters, where, knowing the issues I grapple with, a sadistic editor at this publication thought it would be fun to send me. Raging Waters may well be the last best hope for relief for hundreds of thousands of the Inland Empire's subjects, but for me, the name said it all.
So there I was atop Drop Out, “one of the tallest vertical drops in the country,” waiting to pitch myself straight down at speeds approaching 40 miles per hour into a catch basin for both customers and the 1,500 gallons of recirculated water employed to keep them sliding freely and landing softly. Far, far below was a viewing area where friends, family and chickens gathered to watch the Mountain Dew moment. If they only knew what I was thinking . . . because by then, it had all become crystal clear.
On the aforementioned day of reckoning, my friend Kelly and I climbed into my giant metallic-blue pickup and made our way out of Hollywood and onto Interstate 10 East. That's troubling enough, but the really weird thing is, Kelly didn't have to go. She wanted to. Then again, Kelly's long been suspected of being an alien, and I figured she was going to replenish her juices, or take samples, or something.
The air over the San Gabriel Valley was festering like a scab on a dog's ass. Moving deeper into the heart of the haze, each mile pushing the thermometer toward the triple digits, I was struck by the notion that we were going the wrong way. We were driving away from coastal breezes and white, sandy beaches. Away from water that doesn't come from suspicious sources. Away from vendors competing for attention with endless and imaginative varieties of cool drinks and icy refreshments. Away from the dream and toward the hard reality that we are all prisoners of circumstance. Toward what happens when you are forced to make the most of a bad situation. Toward San Dimas, and its Raging Waters.
As we passed the roadside attractions of the 10 – strip malls, auto complexes, chain restaurants – Kelly spoke of how she used to fantasize about being a mermaid in an aquarium and swimming up to the glass to smile at the happy onlookers. Crazy alien bitch, I thought to myself, and returned to my own inward journey. The one that took me back through a long series of watery affronts, none more unspeakable than the Glenwood Springs Vapor Caves and Hot Springs Incident.
Glenwood Springs is a little town in Colorado with a long history of hosting weary travelers, like Doc Holliday, who went there to treat his tuberculosis and ended up dying. But the town is perhaps most famous for its hot-springs pool and the Yampah Spa vapor caves. On New Year's Day 1994, both became permanently branded on my id.
Glenwood Springs is where me and my cousin Greg found ourselves after a New Year's Eve that ended badly, with allegations of wrongdoing on a lot of people's parts. The next morning, we gathered around the breakfast table of my folks' condo in silence, afraid to talk about how it had gone from beautiful to bad so quickly. That is, until Greg, the main instigator, pulled up to the table, grabbed a cigarette from my mom's pack – a bold move in and of itself – put his feet up on the table, lit up the heater, blew out a thick plume of smoke, waited a beat, and then said to my mom, “Sandy, where did we go wrong?”
Now, Greg and I were banished from the house. I decided it would be a good idea to sweat out our sins in the vapor caves and follow that with a relaxing dip in the hot-springs pool. My God, what was I thinking? As we climbed down into the bowels of the Earth, the dank, sulfuric air was suffocating. Waiting in every chamber for us to join them were Satan's rejects – asymmetrical limbs, contorted faces, strange protrusions, shorts that were way too short. And we were all seeping into each other along the brackish currents of the cave floor.
I kept my eyes down and tried to think of dry, cool places. But when I looked up to get my bearings, I saw my cousin Greg, red face tilted back in a hideous laugh. I swear he was twirling his tail. Jesus, I thought, it's happening to us! I ran out of the caves and sprinted the 50 yards to the hot-springs pool. Free at last! Free at last! But when my head popped out of the water all I saw were giant reptilian creatures clinging to the sides, thrusting their tongues into the air to catch the snowflakes that were falling from dark skies.
I jumped out of the pool, ran into the showers and let the cold water wash the whole nightmare off me. Just as I was sure that I had finally made it to a safe place, a glob of soap flew from the schlong of the guy who was lathering up across from me and nailed me between the eyes. I changed in the hallway.
In fact, the only good shared-water memory I have is of the little 4-foot-deep raised pool we had in our back yard in Haddonfield, New Jersey. That was a long time ago, back when friends just came with the scenery. But, oh, the fun me and the neighborhood gang had jumping off the picnic table into the pool . . .
“Hey, we should get a camera. One of those waterproof disposable kind,” Kelly said as we exited onto the 210 West.
“Huh, what? Oh, yeah. A camera.” Camera, sure. But what do they call it on your planet, freak girl?
We were getting close.
I did, of course, want to know what I'd be getting into before actually going.
So I called the L.A. County health department, where Richard Kebabjian is chief of the recreational program for the Environmental Health Division. When I told him what I was up to, he laughed and said that a little information could be a dangerous thing.
“I got an article I'll send you,” he said. “I don't know if you're going to want to get in the water after that.”
At the time we spoke, a large water park called White Water in Marietta, Georgia, was very much in the news due to an E. coli incident of epic and ultimately tragic proportions.
According to reports in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, between June 11 and June 18, 26 kids were infected with E. coli, usually benign bacteria residing in the intestines of humans and animals. Unfortunately, some E. coli have evolved into violent strains that produce a toxin that destroys red blood cells and platelets necessary for clotting. This causes cramping, diarrhea and sometimes death. Actually, E. coli kills between 200 and 500 people each year. In most cases, however, an infection in a a healthy adult will be self-limiting, meaning it generally works itself out after a period of flulike symptoms. In the White Water case, those infected were very young.
I asked Kebabjian where the E. coli in the Marietta incident might have come from.
“That would have come from the rear end of a kid, probably,” he said.
That's the other thing. Although most often associated with tainted meat, E. coli is ultimately a fecal matter, the ironic evidence being that in the White Water case, the one child who died, 2-year-old McCall Akin, was a vegetarian.
E. coli isn't the only potential enemy lurking in public pools, according to “Disinfection of Public Pools and Management of Fecal Accidents,” a Kebabjian article published in the Journal of Environmental Health (July/August 1995). Others include Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a “hardy thermophilic bacterium encapsulated with a slimy coating that makes it more resistant to disinfectants.” This silent assassin is frequently responsible for folliculitis and dermatitis. Symptoms of folliculitis include malaise, fatigue, fever and papulopustular rash. Personally, I live with most of these every day, but it's the last one that had me trembling. It sounded . . . unsightly.
Staphylococcus is another bacterium that has earned a place in the waterborne rogues' gallery. This one originates from the pool user's skin and oral and nasal tracts, and “can cause serious skin infections as well as conjunctivitis.” Also wanted for liquid crimes against humanity are viruses such as adenovirus and enterovirus and hepatitis A. According to Kebabjian, viruses are more resistant to chlorine than their bacterial playmates and require higher levels to neutralize.
While viruses and oozy secretions are nothing to sneeze at, so to speak, the main concern at the intersection of environmental health and public pools remains fecal accidents. Riding shotgun with E. coli on the Hershey Highway are two other bad guys, Giardia and Cryptosporidium. “Both organisms are protozoans and are transmitted from person to person through [the] oral-fecal route,” according to our intrepid health officer. They can cause nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.
The health hazards of water recreation are easy to overstate. In fact, fatalities are so rare as to be statistical oddities, and it appears there are only two recorded cases of E. coli transmission through chlorinated public pools. Still, these menaces are not to be taken lightly. In the wake of the White Water fecal incident, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 14 states had 26 waterborne-disease outbreaks associated with recreational water in 1993 and 1994, the most recent survey years. More than 1,700 people became ill in the outbreaks. About half those cases involved swimming pools.
The good news is that proper levels of chlorination and a good filtration system easily prevent and eradicate most of these problems, with the exception of Giardia and Crypto, which are more resistant and require superchlorinating if detected.
The bad news is, as Kababjian put it, “You take a shower and just wash your rear end, it's likely to have E. coli in it.” The other bad news is, as Kababjian put it, “You're in a pool, and a kid lets go with diarrhea, and it goes in your mouth, there's not much you can do.”
Newly developed swimming diapers aren't exactly inspiring confidence, either.
“If I see toddlers in diapers swimming in the same pool I'm in, I get out,” Dr. Neil Izenberg, a pediatrician at the Dupont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, recently told The Chattanooga Times. “We have said for years that if a child does not have bowel control, they should not be allowed in public swimming pools.”
Despite all this, and despite the White Water tragedy, hysteria is far from warranted. Water parks are like McDonald's: Millions and millions are served, and in both cases an excess of saturated fat is the most dangerous thing you'll run into. In fact, water-park use throughout the United States has gone from 18 million in 1984 to 61 million in 1997, according to the World Waterpark Association (yes, there is a World Waterpark Association, located in that hotbed of water-park activity, Overland Park, Kansas), almost entirely without incident.
“In the 18 years we've been around, we've never seen anything like [White Water]. It's very isolated,” said Marci McNeal of the WWA. She also said that when the association gets together for its convention in October, the White Water E. coli outbreak will be a hot topic. “We'll probably have a roundtable discussion about this . . . what have we learned, how can we prevent this from happening again.”
A park like Raging Waters or Six Flags Hurricane Harbor in Valencia or Wild Rivers in Irvine can host more than 6,000 customers a day. With that many people in the water, I told myself, what are the chances someone's going to shit in my mouth? But, then again, with that many rear ends splashing around like loaded guns, what are the chances someone isn't going to let go with at least a muddy fart? I wanted to know more about what our local parks were doing to keep us safe from the forces of darkness.
Easier said than done. It seems that any news concerning the pathogenic integrity of their operations is bad news, as far as Raging Waters and Hurricane Harbor are concerned. Fervent requests for a guided tour of the maintenance facilities, along with an explanation of how the pool water and chlorine levels are monitored, were repeatedly turned down.
My final plea to Andy Gallardo, spokesman for Hurricane Harbor, ended like this:
Me: “This is bullshit. You're giving me the runaround.”
Andy: “I'm sorry you feel that way.”
Me: “It's true, isn't it?”
Andy: “Isn't there somewhere else you can go?”
In Andy's defense, he did provide me with a couple of contacts, including the number of the World Waterpark Association, which is more than I can say for the mystifying firm of Lisa Carey Public Relations, which represents Raging Waters. After intense back-and-forth negotiations that would have given Richard Holbrooke fits, this was the final word from Lisa Carey:
“Hello, Joe, it's Lisa Carey getting back to you . . . I want to pass along that Raging Waters will not be able to work with you on this project, and we wish you all the best. Thanks for thinking of us. Bye.”
What were they afraid of? What secrets were swimming in the Raging Waters and Hurricane Harbors? As it turns out, probably none. Kebabjian reported that both have recently undergone thorough inspections, and, with the exception of a minor fecal accident during which Hurricane Harbor closed two pools and followed proper safety procedures, both were in good shape heading into the dog days of summer.
Even so, before diving headfirst into a pool of humanity, I wanted some answers. Once again, I turned to Kebabjian.
“What if someone has an open sore or something?”
“That's a touchy subject. There are laws, but it's pretty hard to keep someone out of a pool . . . If someone has a birthmark or a genetic disorder that looks like something and you ask them to get out, you got a lawsuit on your hands.”
“What if someone has a festering wound?”
“It would have to be self-policing. What else can they do? Put up a picture and say if you look like this, don't go in?”
That sounded good to me.
“Besides,” he continued, “pretty much the big danger here is a fecal accident.”
The first thing to catch your attention as you make your way down Raging Waters Drive toward the promise and threat of Raging Waters is a hapless reservoir that a stone could get maybe five skips on before reaching the other side. But that wasn't stopping about 30 boaters from looping around in tight circles with skiers attached. Damn, I thought, these people are desperate for water.
“That'll be $6,” said the attendant when we pulled up to the outer reaches of the parking area. “Have a raging day.”
“Have a raging day,” said the shuttle bus driver as rear ends the size of cannons waddled out ahead of us.
“Have a raging day,” said the cashier as she returned $1.02 from the $45 I handed her to gain admission for two.
“That'll be $6,” said the locker girl. “Yours is locker 867, underneath the cotton-candy sign. Have a raging day!”
As you walk into Raging Waters on a Saturday with the temperature in the Hades zone, it becomes immediately clear that you aren't going to walk around Raging Waters. You are going to dodge. Dodge inner tubes. Dodge knee-high kids with haircuts they must have done something awful to deserve. Dodge the cigarette-huffing mothers chasing after them and then the packs of boys and girls chasing each other. In comparison to the walkways, the water, where the milling mass of humanity is somewhat contained, almost looks inviting.
Another quick revelation is that the parkgoers can be easily divided between the smart ones and the dumb ones. The smart ones are the ones wearing water slippers. You notice they are smart and you are dumb as soon as you find yourself actively seeking out stagnant walkway puddles to keep your feet from fusing to the cement.
After the initial shock of just being there wore off, Kelly and I stepped out of a puddle and headed for a children's play area with gentle slides, jungle gyms, shallow water and laughing rug rats. I decided one of the kiddie slides would make for a friendly initiation into the Raging Waters. As soon as I splashed down, though, my body recoiled in horror. Had I forgotten everything I learned? The kiddie area is perhaps the most fecally suspect part of the entire park! Luckily, or so I thought at the time, there was a spot in the kiddie area where you could pull a rope and unleash a shower of water on top of you. I stood there pulling and rinsing, pulling and rinsing.
“What are you doing?” Kelly asked.
“I'm rinsing myself off.”
“Where do you think that water is coming from?”
She had a point.
We hotfooted it over to Thunder Rapids, where the long, shady line looked like a safe haven. Boy, was I wrong. As the waves of humanity inched forward and the nature of Thunder Rapids became more clear, I started to panic. Not only were we going to be sent down a twisting, churning watery chute, but we were going to be forced to share a raft with several random denizens of the park.
I looked around my immediate vicinity at the likely candidates. I'm not sure anything would have been acceptable at this point, but I'm not exaggerating when I say the prospects were grim. It was like a Jerry a Springer picnic. Buzz-cut blond dudes with bad White Pride tattoos. Black girls with too many rolls of fat seeking shelter under too little clothing. Prepubescent boys with girlie nipples. Chests with too little hair. Backs with too much. Bad teeth. Pimply skin. Thin upper bodies on top of fat lower bodies. And vice versa. Everything was just a little off, and I was afraid it was catching. All I could think, God help me, was that if everyone was beautiful like me, I'd be okay with this.
I tried to find a way out, but we were hemmed in by the mass of humanity. I would have climbed the fence around the park, but it was topped with barbed wire. There was no escape. At the moment of my greatest despair, a man emerged from behind a gate. He was wearing an official-looking outfit. Behind the gate were huge vats of what I assumed to be the chemicals that held the key to my fate.
“Everything okay?” I asked the guy.
“Yeah, everything's okay,” he said, surprised at the question.
“No fecal accidents?”
“No, no fecal accidents,” he said, closing the gate and scurrying off, not want-ing to continue the conversation.
We moved closer to the point of embarking. Who would it be? Who were we going to be forced to absorb?
Just then, one of the lifeguards, the only other people within the park who seemed to have cracked the genetic code, called out for a party of less than three. I raised my hand and grabbed Kelly's and raised hers, too.
“Here, here!” I shouted. And like that we were brought to the front of the line and placed in a raft with a fine-looking fellow and his two healthy, but scared, young daughters.
“Don't worry, it's going to be okay,” I told them. “Just keep your mouths closed.”
Off we went, careening down the slide, flying up the sidewalls on the turns and then back down again. Water splashed over us, on us and into us. I held on in tight-lipped horror. Kelly, though, she was laughing a big, wide-mouthed laugh the whole way down. That alien freak, I thought, she's feeding. Apparently she got her fill, because when we got out of the water, she asked me if I was ready to go.
“Only one thing left to do,” I said, nodding toward Drop Out, looming high above us. I was ready to meet my maker. “A little unfinished business.”
On the way over, we passed one woman with a bleeding knee and one guy with a bleeding elbow.
At Drop Out, I fell in line behind a pint-size, skinny kid with short dreadlocks and innocent eyes.
“Hey, man, you scared?” he asked as we moved toward the launching deck. It was a brother-in-arms bonding moment.
“Yeah, I'm scared all right . . .”
Only, I wasn't looking at the tiny people in the viewing area, or the pool at the bottom, which held the promise of a soft landing. I was staring in the other direction, at the Amazon Adventure, a quarter-mile-long, 18-foot-wide, 3-foot-deep “tropical river” filled with 500,000 gallons of water. It can accommodate up to 600 raft riders “who want to lazily bask in the sun while coasting down an endless waterway,” and it was filled to the brim.
I watched the disturbing crush of people floating by in a parade of sizes, shapes, colors and unfortunate outfits. They didn't seem to ask where they were going, or why. They just kept drifting, bumping into each other, splashing, mixing, sharing the same churning, recycling, undulating half a million gallons of water. I wondered what legacy each was leaving. What will one pick up from the next? From where I stood, 70 feet up, waiting to drop to a symbolic death, to violently dive feet first back into a metaphorical womb, it looked so . . . free of will. So unconscious. Almost subhuman.
I was immediately reminded of a Saturday-morning show I used to watch when I was a kid called Land of the Lost. In the show, a typical suburban family out rafting one day plunges over a waterfall during an earthquake and into a land time forgot. A land of dinosaurs and tropical vegetation. A land with a friendly but challenged prehistoric boy and his baby dinosaur pal named Dopey, both of whom inevitably cause problems that are solved by the resourceful (and extremely good-natured, considering all they've been through) family and the sexy cavegirl who looked like Pebbles would if she grew up and came to life. Along the way, viewers learn that the foibles and triumphs of human nature span the ages.
One of the show's mainstays was a gang of hissing, lizardlike creatures called Sleestaks. The Sleestaks constantly terrorized this ad hoc modern/prehistoric Brady Bunch. All my life, I've wondered why the clumsy, practically inert Sleestaks were so horrifying even to me, watching safely at home. But, looking down on the Amazon Adventure, it was beginning to make sense. As was my distaste for places like this.
The Sleestaks, and especially their rise to upright, human stature, only reminded me of the primordial pool from which we came. The threat of the Sleestak was the threat of being glommed with the ungodly ooze stewing beneath our skin and clothes. Things like phlegm, boogers, dandruff, loose toenails, pubic hair, psoriasis, seborrhea, earwax, scabs, blood, pathogens, parasites, secretions, viruses, urine, feces and . . . goop, goddamnit, goop! We're made of slimy, fetid, fucking goop!!! And I don't want your goop! I don't want to commune with the rot from which we came and to which we'll return. I want to cling like an uncomprehending child to the illusion that we are divine. I don't want to be reminded that beneath the surface we're all just a bunch of Sleestaks, that evolution is a cruel deception. You bastards! You squirming tadpoles! When I look into your teeming depths, it's repulsion – and not love – I feel.
“. . . but not of this ride,” I told my young friend. He looked at me like he understood, and slid into the chute.
I felt sorry for everyone who had been reduced to this state, and sorry that my secret misanthropy was floating down the lazy river like one of the bright-colored rafts. But I knew all the chlorine Raging Waters could bring to bear wouldn't neutralize that. So I stepped up and took the plunge.
Driving back to Hollywood, I realized that maybe it wasn't Sleestaks I was thinking of, but my friend Wilksey, who looks like a Sleestak and slobbers a lot when he drinks too much.
Later that day, safely home and showered, I called my mom.
“Mom, remember that raised pool in the back yard in New Jersey?”
“How did that work, just stick the hose in and fill 'er up?”
“Yep. That was it.”
“Did you change the water?”
“Yep. I was too persnickety to leave it in there too long. The neighbor's Newfoundland used to come over and jump in. That wasn't too sanitary. And God knows how many kids peed in the pool.”
Oh, the humanity.