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Oak Ridge Pool symbolizes a way of life. Let’s find a way to save it

Is it true you can’t go home again?

At high noon on this sweltering summer day, a punishing climate-change sun blazing overhead, I am facing an ocean of calm, peace and coolness – in this landlocked state, 58,000-plus square feet of unbroken blue.

I am back in my childhood.

Here at the Oak Ridge Outdoor Municipal Swimming Pool, there are gaggles of kids in particolored shorts and bikinis; water-winged toddlers; prudent families in floppy sunhats. A man in trunks with a black and white U.S. flag; a teen in a rainbow T-shirt. No one cares here.

The pool, an engineering marvel, measures 100 meters across and holds 2.2 million gallons of water. This is one of the largest spring-fed pools in the country. It was built in 1944 for 75,000 Manhattan Project workers who relocated here, displacing the summarily evicted native East Tennesseans.

Created in 1942, Oak Ridge was born into an identity crisis. After World War II ended, Oak Ridge National Laboratory continued to attract scientists from all over the world. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a Ph.D. We, the scientists’ children, were a strange hybrid of East Tennessee and otherness: with dark complexions or epicanthic folds, with last names from Ukraine, India, Taiwan or New York City. We spoke like NPR announcers with the occasional slip into pure Appalachian.

I am back from New York to bury my father – a nuclear physicist who worked at the lab for five decades. I have not swum in this pool since I graduated from high school in 1982.

In my childhood, the pool was always there. During the summer, I was here with a friend every day. We gossiped, pretended to read, looked at boys and ate sno-cones until the sun overheated us intolerably, forcing us back to the pool’s cool embrace.

Today, it is the same. Not a cellphone in sight. No one obsessed with TikTok or social-media feeds. Two kids play catch with a Croc for 20 minutes. There are sunburned farmers. Teen couples. Octogenarian lap swimmers. Everyone is equal. Bony or paunchy, wrinkled or pale, no one cares.

For $4.25, an afternoon of sun-drenched, water-cooled bliss.

But our beloved pool is in danger. It is losing 110,000 gallons of water daily. The town hired a contractor who proposed replacing the pool with some combination of smaller pool, “lazy river” or splash pad. The most expensive option: just fixing the pool.

The proposal met a polite uproar. In this national-lab-legacied, civic-minded, left-leaning community, few are willing to see our pool go gently into that good night.

A Facebook group, Save the Oak Ridge Pool, now numbers more than 2,900. Members post suggestions, complaints, reminiscences and wartime photos of family members poolside. Some ask: Was the leak analyzed? Didn’t the report come from the same contractors who want the $28 million construction project? Did anyone consult lab experts, who specialize in everything from subterranean leak detection to watertight containment for nuclear reactors?

By late afternoon, many towels have been packed up, but several families linger. A man, glistening droplets in his hair, stands in waist-deep water and throws long bombs to his grandson.

And we are here. My pool, my town, my community. Fiercely individual – oddball, accidental, unique, impractical. The few bastions remaining against Oak Ridge’s conversion into a faceless, suburban, concrete string of big-box stores.

Along with our movie theaters and independent bookstores, we could lose this, our pool.Our way of life.

But here, today. The sun, the sky, the water. There is nothing else I want.

I catch a whiff – imagined? real? – of coconut-scented Hawaiian Tropic that takes me back 50 years.

I dive in.

A former Oak Ridge resident, Irene Kim lives in the Northeast and works for the Office of the New York State Attorney General.

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