It’s HOT-HOT-HOT, as my friend Humphrey would say. And while I was watching the synchronized swimming events of the Olympics, suddenly a waterfall of childhood memories tumbled over me as I had one very cool thought: Esther Williams.

I feel much cooler already.

When I was growing up, my sister and girlfriends and I loved Esther Williams. Who didn’t? She starred in many unique films where she displayed unbelievable feats of swimming and diving (and water-skiing) expertise … and she was smiling and gorgeous the whole time. There’s the old joke about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers saying that Ginger did everything Fred did, but she did it backwards and in high heels. Well, Esther had all the grace and athleticism of Fred and Ginger … but she did her thing underwater. And during my 1950s and 60s childhood, we reveled in her amazing exploits in a nice cool movie theater, even before we had air conditioning ourselves.

When I was very young, on hot and humid St. Louis afternoons, my mother would take my sister, Janet, and me down into the cool basement. Janet and I would strip down to our underwear or slips (remember ?) and play in front of the fan. When it was almost time for dinner, we’d go upstairs for a bath and clean clothes and feel quite refreshed.










After dinner on hot evenings, we might take a drive to ride the boats on the lagoon at Forest Park – Janet and I got to steer the motor boats – or just look at the big fountain with the changing colors. Or we’d go out to a big swimming pool, like Springdale, and cool off. But an Esther Williams movie was the coolest thing of all. Just watch this little video tribute and you’ll be a believer.

When I was older, about middle school age, my life changed completely when Sandy Birnie moved in across the street. Yep, my married name is Birney and my childhood best friend was named Birnie. Little did I know! Sandy and I were inseparable, especially during the summers. Mostly, we’d play cards all day and evening. We’d take the Hoyle’s Book of Rules and play everything,  including poker with just about everything wild. There were insanely high-speed games of double solitaire and War. We’d also walk our blonde cocker spaniels every day. Mitzi (a mix) was mine and Ginger (a purebred)  was hers. They weren’t that friendly, but they tolerated each other for the walks. Ginger even had puppies one summer, thanks to the neighborhood rogue, Buttons.

Sandy and I would also walk to the Crest Theater to see Esther Williams or Doris Day or anybody at all, to cool off.

But the best part of summer was swimming. Our wonderful neighbors, Lora and Gil Hansmann, had the only pool in the subdivision. On certain days, Mrs. Hansmann would hang a flag on the outside of the pool, signalling the neighborhood kids that they were welcome to come swim at a certain time. Sandy and I did that at first, tolerating the rowdy younger boys, but later the Hansmanns invited the two of us to swim without the rest of the pack – no flag needed. After all, Sandy was a superb swimmer and a certified lifeguard and we were (fairly) mature and responsible. We had to clean out the pool – they taught us how – and respect their rules of not running and not making too much noise.

Miss Birnie and Mrs. Birney-to-be had all afternoon to swim and play in that pool by ourselves and it was glorious – thanks to Esther. As we did handstands, backwards somersaults and our own version of synchronized swimming, we were channeling Esther Williams. We raced (Sandy was a much better swimmer than I was). We dove for pennies on the bottom of the pool. We had the best time two best friends could ever have.

To repay the Hansmanns for their incredible generosity, we would occasionally “Grandma-sit” for Mrs. Hansmann’s 90 year old mother, Mrs. Pippin. She was a sweet little old lady who had no teeth, but still chewed Chiclets gum incessantly. She liked cards, so Sandy and I would teach her “our” card games with their crazy rules. Invariably, sweet Mrs. Pippin beat us. We could never really figure that out and despite our plots to unseat her as the reigning champion, we never succeeded. Mrs. Pippin was a loveable shark.

Those summer days were just as hot as the days we’ve been having, but much sweeter to me. I can still remember walking back up to my house in my swimming suit, then taking a long, hot bath and feeling amazingly refreshed and relaxed.

I can still remember feeling just like Esther Williams when Sandy and I were in that pool.

Esther Williams is still alive at 91. I hope she’s well and can still dip her toe into the water. I have a lot to thank her for – not just the pleasure of imagining myself to be her, but also for the fact that she inspired our family to visit Cypress Gardens on a big trip to Florida. We loved it because we felt that Esther had been there.

By the way, my other childhood idol was cowgirl Dale Evans. Somehow, I think that longing to be feisty Dale or Esther – whose athleticism paralleled her beauty – was a little better than wanting to be a model or a princess. But then … that’s just me looking back in time.

I still think Esther was the coolest thing around.






















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