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Notably Norwich: The YMCA was a great place for local youths

It’s sad to drive by the former YMCA building in Norwich these days, remembering the joy it brought to so many people of all ages, religions, economic backgrounds and ethnicities for so many years.

Today, it sits unused, like so many properties in so many cities, a deteriorating eyesore that can only be hurting property values, not to mention a city’s aesthetics. Without a viable substitute, it’s probably detrimental to the community’s children if there’s no functioning YMCA. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Norwich, where there is a vital Recreation Department. However, I’m sure even the good folks on staff there would agree that you can never have enough programs and activities for the kids.

I’m not picking on Norwich, mind you. New London’s YMCA and many others throughout the United States and beyond have closed over the years, which was a loss for anyone of any age who used them or would have. They offered many activities for children and families and for individual adults as well. There was, of course, cost involved, and sadly, greater Norwich was not able to sustain its YMCA, even after a new swimming pool was opened there.

The Y closed in 2009, lost its tax-exempt status and, after years of deterioration and non-payment of taxes, was taken over by the City of Norwich. With a prime location at the intersection of Main Street, North Main Street and East Main Street, the building will eventually be demolished and the property marketed for development.

Located across from the old Post Office and Elks buildings, the Norwich Y was for many years a hub of recreational activity. My first memory was going there as a grade-schooler to learn to swim and participate in a variety of other activities like dodgeball and basketball. Other kids were signed up for arts and crafts, which did not interest me in the least.

As there was very limited parking, parents would usually drop off their children in front of the Y and wait until they had climbed the steps and entered through the front door before departing, That arrangement certainly didn’t help down-city traffic flow, but it was the best we could do. Once inside, we’d wait for our instructor to emerge from downstairs and call us down to the locker room, where we’d change into our bathing suits.

Our early swim lessons took place in “the shallow end” of the Y’s original pool, which was about three feet deep. We’d hold onto the sides of the pool, kick our feet as hard as we could and put our faces in the water. I always worried about getting water up my nose, despite following the instructors’ orders to exhale through our noses. I had mixed feelings about “graduating” to the intermediate section of the pool, which I believe was 4 1/2 or five feet deep. That would involve swimming without holding on to the side of the pool, putting our faces into the water, then turning our heads to the side to breathe — all while churning with our arms and kicking our feet like our lives depended on it.

The reason for my trepidation wasn’t the actual swimming; it was having heard from other kids that we would have to open our eyes underwater, and that the pool’s chlorine would burn our eyes and make them red. Now, I had done a lot of brave/stupid things as a youngster: riding a bike with no hands, skateboarding at high speed down the Newton Street hill, climbing high into large trees, standing on a sled while sliding down what is now the second hole at the Norwich Golf Course. But opening my eyes underwater? No way! The problem was, you couldn’t graduate to the deep end of the pool until you had passed the underwater eye test. Our instructor would put his/her hand into the water and we had to submerge, open our eyes, and correctly report the number of fingers we had seen. This had to be done twice so as to minimize guessing the number of fingers the instructor held down in front of us.

When that fateful day arrived and I went underwater, I never opened my eyes. “How many fingers?” the instructor asked. “Two!” I replied emphatically. “OK,” the instructor said, “One more time.” When he asked how many fingers he’d held down underwater, I again answered with confidence even though I’d kept my eyes closed again: “Three!” He congratulated me on graduating, and I offered a brief prayer of thanks at having guessed correctly, not once but twice. What were the odds?

By the time I was supposed to begin lessons in the deep end of the pool, I was involved in a number of other activities — drum lessons, student government, the talent show and all the extra homework that came with advancing grades in school. So, I didn’t mind skipping the advanced swimming lessons. Besides, having frequented the beaches in New London and Westerly, I’d become a good swimmer, even if I couldn’t open my eyes underwater. I recall my Cherry Hill neighbor, Heidi Wolfman, was a popular swim instructor at the Y as were members of the Hull family — all of whom showed great patience with the dozens of little swimmers they taught to swim on any given day.

A few years later, when I was in high school and college, I loved playing full-court basketball at The Rec on Mahan Drive during the summer and at the Y any time of year. The gym there was old, but the floor was in good shape, there was always a supply of good basketballs and the rims had just enough “give” to them to be true. Of course, when the outdoor season had ended, you never had trouble finding a game at the Y. Sometimes, you’d have to wait for the gym to clear its other programs, usually activities for younger children. Once the gym was open, though, you’d hear that wonderful sound of fully inflated leather basketballs bouncing on the hardwood floor and swishing through the baskets’ nets.

Finally, two of the alpha males would emerge as captains and choose who they wanted on their respective teams of five. Depending on how many others were waiting to play, we’d play to seven points if there were a lot on the sidelines or to 11 if there weren’t that many. Sometimes, there were players my age, and other times some of the older guys were there. And they were good: Chris Portelance, Ted Montgomery, and occasionally former Norwich Free Academy and Holy Cross star Lloyd Hinchey. If you were lucky enough to get on Hinchey’s team, you were pretty much guaranteed to hold the floor for as long as you were able to play. In later years, I played with other great players like Belmiro “Junie” Rodrigues, who worked part-time at the Y, and a terrific young player, Johnny Burns, who would star at NFA a few years later.

Then, my lucky day arrived when Sam Campbell, another of my basketball buddies at Mohegan Community College (now Three Rivers Community College) helped me get a part-time job with him at the Y. That allowed me to make a few bucks and — more important — use the facilities whenever they were available. I took full advantage, running laps on the track, playing basketball and racquetball, swimming, and lifting weights. The best time, though, was after hours when I had the place to myself and could also use the trampoline in the auxiliary gym and the sauna in the exclusive Businessmens’ Locker Room.

I once made the mistake of inviting three of my friends to the Y after closing the building for the weekend one winter Saturday evening. The plan was that we would play basketball and racquetball, swim, take a sauna, then shower and go out for beers later that night, I left them in the building because it was cold outside, but made them promise not to leave the downstairs office until I had returned from dropping off the day’s receipts at the nearby bank’s after-hours deposit slot.

Despite their promise not to venture out of the office, my friends were nowhere to be found when I returned from the bank. For the next 15 to 20 minutes, I searched everywhere frantically, terrified that they’d been hurt or that my boss had shown up unexpectedly and was waiting around the next corner to fire me. The last place I checked was the pool, where my supposed friends had been waiting in ambush. When I entered, they pulled down their bathing suits, dove underwater and mooned me. It was an unpleasant but humorous reminder that no good deed went unpunished.

Working several nights a week then behind the downstairs desk, I would — among other duties — check in the businessmen and give them towels when they arrived. Regular members had to pay 20 cents to use a towel; the businessmen’s towels were complimentary, included with the higher membership fee they paid. They were all successful, or at least dressed for the part with suits or jackets and ties. A few would stop to make small talk, but most would take their towel, give an appreciative nod, and head off for their workout.

They were busy and very important, after all, and didn’t want to waste valuable time talking to the desk attendant. It made me want to be part of that exclusive group someday.

Fast forward about 20 years to 1996 when I was hired to an administrative position at The William W. Backus Hospital: I went to the Y one evening after work, expecting to finally become a member of the Businessmen’s Club. I, too, would be one of those important men who would arrive in suit and tie, greet the attendant with a nod, take my complimentary towel and go off for a few games of basketball or racquetball before taking a relaxing sauna. Unfortunately, the sauna was no longer working and what had once been a sparkling businessmen’s locker room was now dank and dirty, with water on the floors and rust on the lockers.

I decided to join a health club instead, but was disappointed the Y had been allowed to deteriorate so much.

People who grew up without access to a YMCA will never fully understand what they missed. However, for those of us who did — and there were certainly a lot — it was a wonderful place that produced many great memories.

Bill Stanley, a former vice president at L+M Hospital, grew up in Norwich.

 

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