Every summer, two weeks after school got out, the 175,000 gallons of chlorinated water gushing into Tapiola Pool signaled, for me, the official start of summer.
I grew up next door to the outdoor pool during the 1980s and 90s. Built by the Finnish community in the 1940s, the pool enjoyed its heyday along the northern edge of Tapiola Park for more than half a century and is now the site of the Astoria Skate Park.
Carla Oja, an Astoria resident, worked at Tapiola Pool from 1973 until it closed in 1997. Swim instructor, lifeguard, pool manager and second mom to legions of kids, Oja also managed a crew of lifeguards, many of them high schoolers in their first summer job.
The park — named after the forest god of Finnish mythology — was a hive of activity for all seasons of life, from toddlers in the adjoining “baby pool” to teenagers armed with lemon wedges, bottles of Sun In and Hawaiian Tropic, to veteran lap swimmers.
As in a George Seurat painting, picnicking families reclined on blankets along the grass hillside to the soundtrack of raucous screaming, laughing, splashing and the thumping sound of the diving board.
Vibrant social life
The pool opened at 6 a.m. for lap swim, 9 a.m. for lessons, 1 p.m. for open swim, 4:30 p.m. for another lap swim and 6 p.m. for a two-hour night swim (not counting teenagers who scaled the fence after dark before a pool cover was purchased).
It would be impossible to measure the impact that Carla and her staff at Tapiola Pool had on the community in 24 years. Even the loneliest latchkey kid whose parents worked two jobs could enjoy a vibrant social life from dawn to dusk. Admission was 50 cents and only climbed as high as $1.50 by 1997. A season pass was 20 bucks.
It was here that countless Astorians learned to swim. All summer long, two-week swim lesson sets had 45 kids switching out every 30 minutes, and these lessons were very popular.
“We had two people at the front desk on sign-up day and people manning the phones. That’s how robust it was,” Oja said.
Even outside the pool, staff took care of kids, removing gravel from their knees and patching them up — adhering to the African proverb “it takes a village” long before the saying became a common catchphrase among politicians in the 1990s.
Though it was a sanctuary for kids, grownups loved Tapiola Pool, too. Astoria resident Nancy Hakala, an avid lap swimmer, recalled her favorite memories of the pool:
“I miss swimming in the outdoors, the fresh air and watching the clouds and birds above when doing the backstroke,” she said. “I remember on more than one occasion, while swimming on my back, watching an eagle with a big fish in its talons flying overhead, heading up the hill.”
Still, there was the bizarre. Chlorine leaks forced swimmers to evacuate periodically. Once, on a chilly rainy afternoon, the aging thermostat was turned up to warm the pool. When it failed to adjust back overnight, the morning lap swimmers stepped into a “hot tub” at 107 degrees.
Another time, lifeguards pulled off the pool cover one morning to discover hordes of garter snakes slithering wildly in all the gutters.
And let’s not forget every lifeguard’s nemesis: the sinister “brown trout” that would clear the pool faster than anything.
But nothing topped Tuesday, July 18, 1989, when I was 12 years old. “That’s when it happened,” Oja said.
Just as afternoon lap swim began, Oja went home to take a break. She was just about to sit down to eat when the phone rang: “There’s a car in the pool.”
She returned to find a silver and teal 1981 Oldsmobile floating in Tapiola Pool.
The car — owned by Astoria-Svensen resident James Annat — had, he claimed, allegedly lost its transmission while driving up Florence Street, which prompted him to exit the car and push the vehicle to the side of the street to avoid being hit. A man nearby had tried to help him push the car from behind. Annat was quoted later: “I just lost the transmission going up the hill and started going backwards.”
The teenage lifeguard on duty, Len Chamberlain — a Portland resident who grew up in Astoria — remembered thinking that the curb at the intersection of Denver and Florence streets above the pool might stop the car.
“But it jumped that, and once it hit the grass it started to speed up,” Chamberlain said. “And that’s when I started to blow the whistle to get people’s attention.”
“Then I called Carla, as they don’t really train you for this type of situation,” he added.
Bergerson Construction divers prepped the car to be removed by crane, but first the swimmers had to evacuate the pool. Lap swimmer Marilyn Jylha, however, was “so intent on completing her one-mile workout she did not want to get out,” according to The Daily Astorian’s cover story that day.
Perhaps the manner in which the car had entered the pool allowed Jylha to ignore the Oldsmobile Omega bobbing beside her as she stubbornly continued her workout.
The unmanned car had come hurtling down the grass hill, slipped effortlessly beneath a chain link fence (which snapped back to its original position as if nothing had happened) and tumbled into the pool.
Chamberlain said it was fortunate that the incident happened during lap swim when fewer swimmers were in the water. “It could have been a lot worse,” he said.
The end of an era
In 1993, at age 16, I joined the Astoria High School swim team. Oja was my coach. Tapiola Pool was still open but hobbling along with aging filters and concrete that would periodically fall off in chunks.
Astoria lacked an indoor pool at the time, so our team took the bus to the Seaside pool everyday for practice. I started to favor swimming competitively indoors, and, as old memories gave way to new ones, I began to forget about the pool I had loved so fervently in middle school.
The Astoria Parks and Recreation Department closed Tapiola Pool in fall 1997 with a pool party to say goodbye and give people a chance to enjoy it one last time.
By the time the indoor Astoria Aquatic Center was completed in 1998, I was in college, and my former swim team finally had a home pool. Still, the end of the Tapiola Pool era felt bittersweet.
Speaking with Oja brought me back to those cold rainy afternoons at Tapiola when steam rose off the surface of the warm water, when I tilted my head to the clouds and let the cold raindrops hit my face. I recalled lining up on those forest green steps on opening day, a rolled-up towel under my arm and two quarters in my hand.
“I drive by now and wish that pool was still there,” Oja said. “If I played the lottery and won, I’d put it back.”
As we ended our conversation, I moved around the table to say goodbye to Carla. Smiling, she held out her arms, pulled the 41-year-old me into a tight hug and said, “Oh my little swimmer.”