Men often succeed spectacularly at times and in places where common sense tells them they should not even try. On several basic counts, the whole city of Phoenix, Ariz. is an impossibility. In summer the noon sun is strong enough to bore a hole in a man's head, and the Salt River Valley, where Phoenix sprawls, gets enough rain for chuckwallas and lesser lizards but for little else. Yet there are now 600,000 people living handsomely in the valley where barely 35,000 existed 50 years ago. The city of Phoenix has plenty of water, and water-lovers of all the usual aquatic types. In the past five years it has become a favored watering hole and spawning ground of springboard divers. For any watery city a thriving colony of divers is the ultimate flourish—they are a specialized breed, rarely found in abundance anywhere.
The names, faces and forms of Phoenix' divers appear frequently in the papers—everyone in town knows that local girls won six of the twelve places in the last national championships—but relatively few have ever seen the divers in action. Although the city has many pools and many springboards, the divers from all around town—and from distant states—crowd into one unsightly but practical pool operated by a small, determined man named Dick A. Smith. Even without divers, Smith's place would still be the busiest water hole in town.
In a city that wears almost as much neon as Las Vegas, Smith's pool is hard to find. It is hidden in a huddle of one-story buildings, marked only by the words DICK SMITH SWIM GYM painted on a modest sign. There is one obvious flaw in Smith's place: the door isn't wide enough. From early morning until 10 at night, people come and go through it—well-proportioned athletes and cripples, adults of various shapes and all ages, and teen-agers, and a steady stream of tots, dragging and being dragged by mothers. Occasionally a stray dog sneaks in to lap water from the pool, thereby increasing its use beyond even Dick Smith's expectations.
A cottage at the northeast corner of the place serves as a "kindergym" for little children. At the far end of the property, older children queue up for trampoline practice. During peak hours, from the low building on the south side of the pool comes faint music, accompanied by steady thumping and occasional loud thuds. The music and steady thumping indicate that a dance class is hard at it. The sporadic thuds are contributed by judo wrestlers in an adjacent room. In one shallow section of the pool, a class of cripples swims slowly, trying to recover motor power destroyed by accident or disease.
In the shallows at the opposite end, a solemn, gaping cluster of 4-year-olds listen to their instructor. If they do not snap to it and learn to open their eyes underwater, the instructor warns them sternly, he is going to melt all the ice cream in the world and put dead flies in all the candy. The instructor interrupts his lecture to recover Cathleen Hallinan, age 4, from the bottom of the pool. Cathleen is a fast learner, and having already mastered the knack of putting her head under, she is now trying to see if she can go to sleep on the bottom. At this moment, on the far side of the pool, 4-year-old Doug Burch, member of an earlier class, has disappeared fully dressed. He is found cave-crawling in an open luggage locker. At poolside 10-year-old Jimmy Collins tells his mother that he wants to skip diving practice because he is pooped. (There is no reason for him to be tired: all he has done that morning is swim a mile and play nine holes of golf.) "You dive," his mother says crisply. "Better to be pooped here than bored at home."
In a corner of the pool a bunch of synchronized swimmers, supine, scull toward each other feet first, creating the image of a flower on the water surface. It is not a perfect flower. The girls vary in age and size, and the littlest petal, Louise Watson, age 7, keeps sinking out of sight. Along one side of the pool there are several movable structures that are too low to be tables and too high for benches. These, like much of the gear at Smith's place, are multiple-use items, serving as rests for arthritics who cannot sit easily, also as starting blocks for swimmers, and as a "penalty box" where springboard divers are sometimes made to perch, like dunces in a schoolroom corner, because they have foolishly balked on the board. The water in Smith's pool usually quiets down about 10 at night, when the last users, wearing scuba gear, crawl out of its depths on their froggy feet. Night is not the perfect time for scuba men to practice purging masks and ditching gear, but it's the only time the depths are free of bodies falling from the springboards above.
Springboard diving is an exacting art, best learned in water that is free of flailing novices and the distractions of a hurly-burly crowd, yet the country's best gang of springboard divers flourishes in the unceasing bustle at Smith's place. The prime reason is Smith himself. An experienced diver can make progress on his own, but for all his days he also needs the eyes of a coach like Smith, who has lived long and patiently with the art.
Smith is an unusual water-loving specimen who was spawned in an unusual water-loving town. Modern Phoenix gathers its water in eight impoundments in the mountains north and east of the valley, and it is on these reservoirs that weekenders enjoy themselves. In greater Phoenix there are about 10,000 swimming pools, most of them small, irregular jewels adorning the lawns of homes and spiffy motels. There are also about three dozen large pools used by competitive swimmers who are eager and in some cases accomplished.
Neither the reservoirs nor the chlorinated jewels nor the neon lights that wash the big desert stars out of the night sky would be there now except for a novel idea that first occurred long ago to some peculiar Indians called Hohokams. No one knows where the Hohokams came from. They seem to have materialized in the Salt River Valley 1,300 years ago, armed with the idea that all it takes to create an oasis is sweat. With stone tools the Hohokams dug 125 miles of canals, turning 25,000 acres of the valley green. Then into the valley swarmed the Apaches, behaving much as they still do on television. The earnest Hohokams disappeared, and so did the greenery.
The valley lay burning in the sun until an ex-Confederate captain, Jack Swilling, came upon traces of the old Indian canals and figured the idea was worth another try. Not much is known about Swilling except that he married a lady named Trinidad, and was stubborn and, at times, violently persuasive. In the one good photograph of him, Swilling has a hat in one hand and his other hand upraised as if to bash the photographer. The phenomenal, watery city that he started should have been named Swilling, Arizona, or perhaps New Hohokam. But an Englishman wandering by, steeped in whisky and the classics, insisted that Phoenix was the proper name for any town rising in such a searing, Godforsaken place.