Lifeguard Max Wastler

An Ode to Lifeguards & A Review: Class Action Park

As we say goodbye to the strangest summer in our lifetime, one in which I — someone who hasn’t gone more than a few weeks without swimming — has not been in a pool since February, inspired by a new documentary that tells a fascinating, dark tale of a swimming pool, I thought I’d take a look back at my first lifeguarding job. 

Minutes after I finished watching the documentary Class Action Park, out now on HBO Max, I found myself compelled to drive straight to the first pool where I spent summers guarding lives. 

All that remains of the original Kirkwood Pool

Energetic on its best day, chaotic on its worst, the original Kirkwood Pool, which was not actually in Kirkwood, rather in a neighboring town called Sunset Hills (how that happened is the “$10,000 Question,” according the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) had as its backdrop the Meramec River. Nestled into the banks of that river’s valley, part of what is known as the Powder Valley Conservation Center was a 25-ish yard pool owned and run by the city of my upbringing. When the city opened the monstrous water park “Recreation Station” (a reference to the importance trains have played in the history of Kirkwood) next door to the then newly-covered ice rink, they filled in the old pool. What remains is a grass field, some industrial-strength steel toilets and a covered picnic area with park grills. 

“Class Action Park,” one of many nicknames given to the “largest water park in the world” in Vernon, New Jersey sounds like the kind of place I would’ve guarded had I lived in Jersey. Action Park was still in operation in 1996, which would have been my first summer as a guard. Many of the cameos in the documentary made by former employees appear to be people that were around my age.

I remember when I first went to Kirkwood Pool, my mom had to drive me, because I was only 15. Despite the fact that for seven years, I’d donned a Speedo and swam at pools every single day, neither one of us had ever been to this pool before, and we nearly got lost. Tucked back between a river and a highway, just before arriving at the pool, the road rises as if the pool was playing hide-and-seek at the bottom of this massive hill only found once you’ve sped past winding tree-lined roads and the chalky, pale limestone cliffs which Missouri’s Department of Transportation has turned into indeliberate works of art. 

The documentary showcased how after the Reagan and Bush Administrations oversaw nearly twelve years of intense deregulations, under Clinton, regulations of all kinds were firming up around the time of Action Park’s ultimate demise. The same could’ve been said for Kirkwood Pool. A reflection of its time, especially in that first summer, we all took liberties with how the place was governed. I remember much like the stories coming out of Action Park, there were adults who worked there, who drank and smoked and hooked up and gave the younger guards rides.

Class Action Park makes the case for those experiences as well, but it’s clear they took it to an entirely debaucherous level. The way the guards themselves were encouraged to design slides and rides sounds as insane as the rides themselves ended up becoming. Park attendees of all ages were bruised, battered, broken, lacerated by human teeth, and many of them died. During my tenure as a lifeguard, thank goodness, no one died, but there were kids who came to the pool every day that we knew could not swim, there was one girl who came with the city’s summer camp every day for three years and every day she would dislocate her shoulder. 

As far as I know, perhaps because unlike the privately-owned Action Park, the city-run pool where I worked avoided involvement with the Mob or other shady investors, but we had a cavalcade of odd characters, from the disco-loving lesbian park ranger to the mayor’s assistant who would slip us $100 bill each to stay open an hour later so that he and his girlfriend could awkwardly pal around in the diving well after hours while we played Seal on the loudspeaker. 

Class Action Park features many jokes from stand-up comedian Chris Gethard’s 2019 album Taylor Ham, Egg, And Cheese, 36 minutes of jokes about New Jersey that actually has a little something for everyone. “You’d get back to school in September after the summer off. You would compare Action Park scars….”

All that remains of Wet Willys

The Kirkwood Pool didn’t have slides, but not far from the Kirkwood Pool was the  class-action-lawsuit-waiting-to-happen Wet Willy’s, a two slide water park atop one of those limestone cliffs. The slides were named “Fast” and “Slow.” There were these awful, moldy blue foam mats they insisted you sit on, and the well at the end of the slide wasn’t cut long enough. If you went head first, there was a good chance you’d end your ride with a concussion.

The Kirkwood was not dangerous, per se. It was of another era. Originally built during FDR’s WPA, the pool wasn’t exactly accurate, and it leaked, and it had an odd plaster texture that was slippery and slanted not from the start of the lane to the end of it, rather from the stairs to the diving well. That is to say that if you’re in lane one, it was three feet deep from beginning to end. Lane six was eight feet deep the whole way. The summer I started was the summer of the Olympic Games in Atlanta. We watched those games on a 13” TV with rabbit ears. Corduroy bucket hats and leopard-print wrap-around sunglasses from Oakley were all the rage. There was this magical coat hanger that we could insert into the locked door of the snack bar and it would no longer be locked. Magically. We allowed people to drink, but they had to be aluminum cans. The radio was always a point of contention. I liked listening to Porcelli’s Deli, a mix of new alternative and eighties on a station appropriately called “The River.” I don’t think I’ll ever need to hear Primitive Radio Gods’ “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand” again, but here’s a playlist inspired by my years as a lifeguard.

In the summer of 1999, I helped to build and open Recreation Station. A story was told in Class Action Park, about how when testing new equipment, they’d send the lifeguards down their contraptions, offering to pay them for their trouble. I was the first person to “test” the water slides at the new pool. Unlike Action Park, the owner of the pool was not waiting for me at the bottom with cash for his crash test dummies. 

I think back on those summers with deep affection and a bit of horror. I’ve wanted for years to find the vehicle for best capturing the stories from that time, stories about raccoons getting their heads caught in snow cone machines, stories about nacho cheese acting as a great vehicle for graffiti, stories about the various types of chocolate and non-chocolate we would use on slow days as a stand-in for poop in order to close early, and of course stories of summer loves and wild nights, swimming by pool light. Until I figure out a better place to share them, watch Class Action Park and follow my hashtag on Instagram: #mwpools.

I wish someone could tell me what it means that three of the pools that meant the most are now gone or decrepit.

Check out Class Action Park, out now on HBO Max.

Listen to Chris Gethard’s comedy album from 2019, Taylor Ham, Egg, And Cheese.

Follow my Lifeguard playlist on Spotify.