What crosses your mind when you see a fire hydrant? Some folks don’t even give these a second thought. Others are bothered by it when the only parking spot available is, of course, a foot too close to it. Maybe the image of a pissing dog comes to mind. While most of the female population will vouch a hot fireman to be the image that happily comes to theirs. But there are a handful of us, in comparison to the magnitude of this world, that carry a different type of memory when contemplating these metal water conductors.
My story of recollection begins in a questionable neighborhood, or The Hood as some may refer to it. Summers were “cook an egg on the sidewalk” sizzling. We could never depend on the relief of an air conditioner except when we’d take a trip to Food City or McDonald’s. Even the local Pizzeria just kept their doors propped open in hopes for an occasional breeze and to let out the heat generated by the steaming ovens. Depending on the year, my mother’s old jalopy of a car either had working cool air, or didn’t. We never owned one in our apartment nor did any of our neighbors. (An interesting fact that as an adult now myself, looking back, I think the grown-ups purposely chose not to be “that” apartment with a unit in fear of being the catch-all to the neighborhood kids).
Those were the days when ceiling fans, window fans, and full height floor rotating fans populated each room. To add insult to injury, most of the furniture, everywhere, were protected by thick, stiff plastic. Sitting on those always created a pool of sweat right beneath our thighs. When we’d try lifting ourselves up, we had to peel ourselves off since the heat somewhat soldered our skin to the plastic. The only solution to that dilemma was to cover the already covered furniture with a flat sheet (amazingly, to this day, I never use that flat sheet as bedding. Makeshift tent for the kids, beach/picnic blanket, but not bedding).
As for the thought of a swimming pool, well, this was so far from reality, we could only covet them when seen in movies like It’s A Wonderful Life, Mommy Dearest or The Graduate. Crystal clear, refreshing but above all NOT accessible. This, by no means brought down the summer morale. For certain all us school aged children could logically deduce what we were missing, but we didn’t go around sulking about it. We may not have been graced with picture perfect tree-lined streets that would have provided us with temporary shaded alleviation of the sun’s discomfort. We didn’t complain nor did we stay away from the outdoors.
What each street DID have was a savior of sorts. A liberator, a knight in NOT so shining armor. A cast iron Super Hero. “LA POMPA”!
This was a Hispanic neighborhood with a couple of black families and definitely not one “gringo”. Although all the kids spoke English fluently, you’d never catch any one of us using the word hydrant. I can’t ever recall even knowing that was the actual word for it until adulthood. A typical summer afternoon went something like this: “Mom, it’s hot in here. Can I go downstairs with the other kids to play en LA POMPA?” Amazingly, no whining was ever needed to accompany this question (hint to my middle child). Any other reason to go out would have prompted an immediate, without hesitation, big fat “NO”. Parents knew the powers encapsulated within this cast iron hero. They understood the trickling effects that would occur by allowing LA POMPA to entertain us for a couple of hours. They could get in some housework without us kids making a mess in their tracks. They could catch up with their VCR recordings of their favorite Novella. And best of all, we’d be so exhausted upon our return, solidifying a quiet evening. Mom’s response? “Esta bien (translation: fine/ok/sure/no problem). Stay close to the sidewalk. Please, careful with the cars.” Score! “Love you Mami”.
And down five flights of stairs I’d rush, skipping as many steps as possible along the way in hopes to get there all but five seconds sooner. At the lobby, even before running out through the double doors of this prewar building, you could hear the excited laughs and cackling of the neighborhood kids. A group of kids that normally wouldn’t find themselves within the same social circle on dry land (think The Breakfast Club). But unlike detention, it is HE that brings us all together on this scorcher of a day. There HE stands in all his glory. Spiderman may shoot out webs, Superman boasts ice breath, but it’s LA POMPA that gushes the perfect stretch of water rocketing our level of amusement and washing away the discomfort of the day.
On any given day ages could range from toddlers to teens, with the occasional parent joining in on the fun. There were the kids that sported cute bathing suits or trendy trunks, and there were the kids that just wore their tees and shorts. No one judged, no one whispered, not one kid was above another. LA POMPA brought peace, forged temporary friendships, helped wash away not only the bullets of sweat, but helped cease fire on all conflicts even if for just a moment. He reminded us what it meant to truly laugh. He reminded parents of the benefits of letting your kid just be a kid, to allow them to just break free, to squeal without regard and to jump around without a care.
Oh, what an exciting scene this was to observe. There were kids on either side of the street. You either chose to stand on line to take your turn to direct the water from behind LA POMPA or stand with the rest of the group as the squawking recipients. Each position had its glorious merits. When it was your turn to step up to direct the water, you’d braced yourself behind LA POMPA, feet planted solid to the ground, bent over with an empty prepped can (open on both sides) well gripped between both hands. The kids on the other side would stand there waiting with bated breath for you to slowly bring that can around, down and over the open hydrant. This was a skill that took a few turns to perfect. If you didn’t know what was coming when you lowered that can over the water, the pressure alone would pull you in, chest slammed in to the hydrant and send that can flying to the other side as all the kids would take cover behind their own arms. But once you had the hang of it, with much assertiveness, you’d tightly hold and direct that can upward feeling the force of the water pulsating through your hands all the while watching as the water took to the sky. And as gravity would have it, watch it then wonderfully fall upon all the sweaty kids below. You AND LA POMPA were cheered on, feeling like a hero. A few minutes later, in honorable nature, you’d pass on the torch to the next kid in line and happily take your place under the cascading water.
You know those television commercials advertising the perfect vacation portraying a woman under a gorgeous waterfall, clearly showing her exhilarated pleasure when the water hits her skin relieving her of nature’s heat and humidity? Well, that’s what it felt like for us when the arched water dropped from the sky. With arms held up high as to catch the water and embrace it. Running around, laughing and bumping in to each other. Jumping knee high to land on to the puddles being created beneath our feet. Kicking up the water that’s become a stream along side the curb traveling away making its way down the sewer. And to top it off, the thrill when a car showed up, slowly inching down the street. We’d tense up just a bit waiting. But when that driver showed equal pleasure by stopping and giving us the thumbs up to allow the water to wash away the dust from their car, well, he just climbed his way in to cool status.
Honestly, there are so many additional details that made this moment glorious. Asking our parents to donate empty cans to the cause, removing our shoes to feel the stream of water flowing through our toes, bracing yourself with your back to LA POMPA waiting for the forceful pressure of water when directed straight at the group and still getting knocked on your rear, taking cover behind parked cars for a little reprieve, watching the sun go down behind the buildings knowing that soon you’ll be summoned upstairs, understanding with respect when an adult would come with the special tool to close down LA POMPA for the evening, watching as the last of the water would trickle away, the feeling of wet clothes sticking to your skin as you made your way back home, waiting at the door as mom would bring me a towel to dry off and ending the evening with a bath, hot meal and relaxing by the television.
It was all this, encapsulated, that allowed us welfare kids to believe that nothing else in this world mattered except for that moment right there. We didn’t go away on vacation, we didn’t have pretty houses or manicured lawns or backyards or pools or soft green grass to play on. We had dull grey hot concrete under our feet. We were trapped by six-story buildings lining the streets and all the crime within them. We had worries that kids should never have. We felt the heat of this environment year round. But thankfully, LA POMPA, with all it’s streaming forceful powers gave us the relief we needed to be just a kid and smile another day. That’s a superhero in my book.