SUMMER Issue '04 

Fully Immersed

Ice cubes melting in a dirty plastic bag inside a filthy Styrofoam cooler. Sprinklers drenching carefully manicured lawns and water spilling out onto the sizzling sidewalks, making every grass-covered kid in the neighborhood squeal like it was Christmas morning. The clean, sexy, chlorinated smell of a bathing suit hung up in the bathroom to dry. Rejuvenating spray from a mister at a patio bar, where the music is breezy and frozen drinks are plentiful. The blissful boredom of days spent fishing or just bobbing along in an inner tube. A thunderstorm in August when the entire heat-oppressed city breathes a collective sigh of relief: This is Memphis in summer. It's all about getting hot and cooling down. It's all about water, getting wet, and staying wet. After all, the only escape from the oppression of 90 percent humidity is 100 percent humidity: full immersion.

Each year when the days get longer and the mercury creeps toward the triple digits, the Flyer asks its writers to find stories about that miserable span of months between spring and autumn that everybody loves so dearly. The 2004 Summer issue is dedicated entirely to the wet stuff: Chris Davis discovers a real Memphis mermaid; Bianca Phillips goes looking for endangered birds on Mississippi River sandbars; Mary Cashiola pines for the good old days when every pool had a diving board ; Bruce VanWyngarden gets in deep with a man who makes his living diving for golf balls; Holli Haynie hops a yacht with some local river rats; Janel Davis pays her respects to the Tunica Queen; and Michael Finger rates some of Memphis' finest fountains. Plus, there's the very useful summer calendar. So put on your Speedo, blow up your favorite pool toy, pour a cold one, and get ready to get wet. It's the Flyer's annual summer issue.

Splash.


The Memphis Mermaid
Water-ski enthusiast Jane Coll remembers when McKellar Lake was the place to be.
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"you're the water-ski girl, aren't you?"

From 1954 to 1964 in Memphis, Jane Coll couldn't escape the question. Back when "Frankie" still meant Sinatra and Annette was wearing mouse ears, Coll was to Memphis water sports what the Watson girl is to hot tubs. It made for easy introductions and got her out of some tight spots.

"Of course you can use the phone," people would say. "You're that water-ski girl, aren't you?"

A frequent subject of newspaper pictorials, Coll was nobody's stranger. The leggy athlete was Memphis' own mermaid. If the papers were doing a story about McKellar Lake, they'd call Coll to pose. If they were doing a story about sun-worshipers flocking to public pools, they'd call Coll to pose. If they just wanted a shot of a pretty girl waterskiing fully clothed, they'd call Coll. She was almost famous.

"For me, this was show business," she says. From the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s, Coll spent the better part of her days and nights on the water. "Before we started the [Memphis Ski Club]," she says, "there was nothing going on [in terms of water sports]. Nothing at all. This was just an overgrown hick town with no good water. So we started going to the old muddy hole -- McKellar Lake -- to ski.

"Then [her husband] John said, 'Let's put an advertisement in the paper to start a ski club.' So we did, and we started having meetings at our house. Each year it got bigger, and the club started learning more and more tricks. We got a ski ramp and started learning how to jump. We got trick skis so we could do turnarounds. We started putting on more and more shows. This was glamour. It was my life for 10 years or more."

In 1954, developing "the old muddy hole" as a destination for water-sports enthusiasts became a celebrated cause in the local media. Jane's husband John, who owned Memphis' storied Psycho Lounge and who would go on to become the first director of McKellar Lake, was one of the project's most visible advocates. For all intents and purposes, Jane, now a fit senior who refuses to disclose her age and who gets carded when she asks about AARP discounts, became the lake's poster girl.

"John was really good at getting great jobs doing nothing," Coll says. "He was over McKellar Lake and Memphis swimming pools. So he was always on the water, all day every day. He was a great promoter."

McKellar Lake got plenty of attention. The Memphis Ski Club's annual Cotton Carnival shows attracted thousands of spectators. The club hosted "jousting tournaments," where speedboats would race at one another pulling skiers with shields and padded lances. There were Rockette-style chorus lines performed on the water. There were jumping contests and barefoot stunts. One article in the Memphis Press- Scimitar described the Cotton Carnival Regatta as "a three ring water-circus of sailboat races, speed boat races, and water ski stunts with the [lake's] water dyed fantastic colors."

And then there was the Memphis Ski Club's famous five-girl pyramid.

"We were the only group in America with a five-girl pyramid," Coll brags. "They didn't even have a five-girl pyramid in [the professional water-ski show] at Cypress Gardens [Florida]. I was on the top of the five-man pyramid, but I was in the middle [on the bottom] in the five-girl pyramid, because I was the only one who could do that."

Before long, the group was being invited all over the region to dedicate new water parks. They were making $1,000 per appearance.

"We dedicated Old Hickory Lake [in Nashville]," Coll says. "We dedicated Lakeland." And the list of events goes on and on.

In spite of constant problems with mud and pollution, McKellar Lake became a hit with Mid-Southerners.

From the Memphis Press-Scimitar, July 19, 1954: "From Riverside Park, on the high bluff a thousand spectators watched the weekly water sports activities going on in the water below. Despite the fact that the lake's interceptor sewer, to make the lake more sanitary, will not be completed until fall or winter, hundreds of people are already swimming or boating in the lake. Sanitary or not, the water is fairly clear."

"It's a wonder I don't glow in the dark," Coll muses. "We had a doctor who would give [the serious skiers] shots so we wouldn't get anything nasty from the river."

According to Coll, there were people joining the Memphis Ski Club who couldn't even ski, didn't want to. Maybe they would buy a boat and pull skiers behind them. Maybe they just liked to watch. Or maybe they were attracted to the moonlight parties on Treasure Island at the center of McKellar Lake.

"Our house? We were never there," Coll says. "We didn't eat there, we didn't live there. We slept there and that was it. I had two [preschool] kids. We'd leave them with their grandmother in the morning and we'd eat breakfast, then we'd go by at night and have supper. I guess I was a bad mother for the first six years. Every day when I got off work, we went to McKellar Lake. Every Saturday and Sunday, I was at the lake. We might not practice every afternoon, but we'd ski every day. We'd ski to the bridge and back. We'd do 25 miles. Then we'd practice on the trick skis. That was our life back then."

Life "back then" included waterskiing behind homemade helicopters called "hydro-gliders" or crude hang-gliders called "kites." Life "back then" involved trying to break world records for distance and endurance. In 1955, Coll, along with fellow ski-enthusiast Mrs. Scott Dodds, tried to set the world long-distance record for female pairs by skiing 244 miles on the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois, to McKellar Lake in Memphis.

"Like I said, John could promote, and trying to break these records got a lot of attention," Coll says. "We got big headlines."

"Young Mothers Try for World Record," one headline read. The follow-up: "Girl Water Skiers Fail." Only 100 miles into their trip, and about eight miles north of Tiptonville, Tennessee, Coll's boat hit a sandbar. It was traveling about 30 mph and two of the boat's occupants were thrown through the windshield. Two other passengers were thrown from the back of the boat to the front. Nobody was seriously injured, but there would be no world record. Coll told the press that she would try again soon, but she never did.

"I've only skied 100 miles," Coll laments. "Only 100 miles. It made me so mad when we hit that sandbar."

Coll's failure to break the record didn't stop the publicity. One winter when it got so cold that all the swimming pools in Memphis froze over, she was called to have her picture made on ice skates. She was also asked to water-ski dressed as the now iconic Old Gold cigarette pack in a promotion. (When she tried to ski, she'd lose her costume.)

"Once you get famous, they always want you for something," Coll says. "They'd call wanting me to pose in a frogman suit. They'd want me to do something for water-safety week. It was always something. It was wonderful. It was glamorous. It was, for me, almost like being in show business."

by Chris Davis


One good Tern deserves another.
An endangered species calls the Mississippi home.
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Flooding is a fact of life on the Mississippi River. Just ask anyone living in one of the small oxbow-lake communities, like the residents of Dacus Lake in Arkansas just over the Hernando DeSoto Bridge. They have to pull their mobile homes up to the farm roads near I-40 every time the river rises 20 feet or so. But there's one species living on the mighty Mississippi that doesn't have the luxury of moving their homes to dry land: the endangered interior least tern.

Interior least terns are small, white- and-gray birds with forked tails. They nest on the river's sandbars, but their nests can be washed away if the river rises too high. In the flood of 1993, nearly every sandbar in the Memphis area was covered in several feet of water. The river took thousands of chicks and eggs with it.

"River [flooding] inundates more [least tern] chicks and eggs than any type of river recreation," says John Rumancik, a fishery and wildlife biologist for the Memphis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "A lot of times, the river will be down in June and the birds will start nesting. But if there's a whole bunch of rain in the Ohio River Valley, that affects our water level here, and it wipes them out."

Somehow enough birds survive for them to come back each year. The Corps of Engineers is in charge of surveying the population every summer. Last year, 8,000 birds were counted, the highest number recorded in this area to date. Nearly two-thirds of the interior least tern population can be found in the stretch of river between Cairo, Illinois, and Vicksburg, Mississippi. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's interior least tern recovery plan only requires that 3,400 birds be present in that stretch to maintain the species.

On a local level, the birds' survival is largely due to the corps' efforts to improve their habitats. While there's not much they can do about flooding, they've helped create safe areas for the birds when water levels are normal.

Since the birds nest on sandbars rather than trees, they're an easy target for predators like coyotes, owls, foxes, and snakes. If a sandbar is attached to the river bank, it's easy for a hungry coyote to find a buffet of eggs and defenseless baby birds.

"We've been trying to increase the nesting habitat by isolating some of the sandbars on the Mississippi River," says Rumancik. "We put notches in the dikes we build to make water flow into the back chutes around these sandbars. That acts as a moat to keep predators out."

The corps also arranges work schedules in certain areas of the river so as not to disturb the birds. If a proposed work site is near a nest of terns, corps engineers are instructed to wait until the terns leave. The birds generally move once the young are hatched and mature enough to fly.

The birds can be found on most major river systems in the interior of the U.S., including the Missouri River, the Red River, and the Yellowstone River. In some areas, conservation groups actually construct sandbars for the birds to nest on, but Rumancik says that wouldn't work in Memphis. "Since the river rises up to 40 feet at times, any sand you pump out there is just going to get washed away by the high water. It wouldn't be very economical because it wouldn't be there next year," he says.

People are one of the main reasons the birds were put on the endangered list. In the late 1800s, fashionable women wore least tern feathers on their hats. Some hats would even be adorned with an entire stuffed bird. River channeling and dam building have also been major contributors to the least terns' habitat loss.

Irresponsible recreational river users can also be a threat.That's why the corps doesn't mark sandbars where the birds are known to nest. They fear people picnicking on sandbars would notice the nesting colonies and disturb the eggs. Once the eggs are moved, the mother abandons them.

"They may even mob you until you leave their colony," says Rumancik. "If you see gray-and-white birds on a sandbar, don't go walking through the colony and disturbing the eggs. Be considerate and just watch them from a distance."

by Bianca Phillips


Bubbles and Balls
While swimming around a golf course, there's no telling what you might find -- or what might find you.
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"My rule is if it feels like a ball, I put it in the bag. If it squirms, I let it go."

Steve Loibner is talking about his livelihood, which is diving for golf balls. There's nothing too sophisticated about it, to hear him tell it. "It's the Helen Keller method," he says. "All feel."

As we talk, Loibner's standing waist-deep in a pond on number 11 at the Marion [Arkansas] Golf and Athletic Club. It's a course where the rough is deep -- and has waves. In fact, it seems to this observer that the course is more water than land.

"Oh yeah," says Loibner. "Marion is my favorite. You can put a ball in the water on every shot. I'm here every month, sometimes twice a month." They don't call this place the "Marion Monster" for nothing.

Loibner calls his business Bubbles & Balls, and he's been at it for 22 years. He began with four courses near his home in Benton, Arkansas. He was a teacher then, and ball-diving was a perfect summer job. "Yep," he says, "I taught biology and anatomy -- and I coached girls' basketball and softball. I've got five state championship rings." Which is good, since he's managed to lose four wedding rings plying his watery trade. In 1998, he "hung up his chalk" and went into the ball-recovery business full-time. Now he has 115 courses as clients, spread out between Oklahoma City and Memphis.

His biology background sometimes still comes in handy. "I spend most of my days flipping turtles and goosing frogs," he says. Surprisingly, he says snakes are not really a problem. "They normally just try to get away from you," he says, adding that there are a couple of places he won't work "during the mating season." The biggest problem, though, is leeches.

Leeches? "Oh, yeah," he says. "Leeches love a golf ball. They rest on them and wait for a host to come by." Like, say, a diver. Which is why Loibner covers every inch of his body, except for his face.

He finds lots of other things too. Like shopping carts, bicycles, skateboards, guns, and at least five clubs a week. "Some I donate to a charity like First Tee," he says. "But most of 'em aren't in real good shape. Normally, when a club hits the water, the shaft is bent or broken, if you know what I mean."

Sadly, I do.

"Hold your balls higher," says the photographer. Loibner grins and lifts the mesh bag obligingly. He's heard all the jokes. It helps to have a sense of humor when balls are your business.

Usually, Loibner splits the balls he finds with the golf course. Then he puts the ones he keeps through a four-step, 24-hour cleaning process before selling them to various retailers, golf courses, and driving ranges.

He'll sell you a bag too: $25 for a bag of 100 "pond run" balls. Whether that bag has more cheap Top-Flites or top-of-the-line Titleists is anybody's guess. Balls recovered from exclusive country clubs are more likely to be a better quality than balls he finds at a place like Marion. And that's no reflection on Marion, which is a nice course. It's just wet and anyone who plays here knows they're going to lose their balls. They even give you three balls before you start to play.

Loibner cautions that his job isn't for just anyone who can strap on a scuba tank. "It's black water down there," he says. "People think it's an Easter egg hunt, but you can't see anything. He also likes to tell about the human-sized catfish he accidentally mounted. "I came straight up out of that water," he says. "Fast."

And sometimes the hazards are human. "Once, when I came up out of the water, a ball hit me on the back of the head," Loibner says. "I went back down and laid low until I figured they were gone. A little later, I went into the clubhouse and there's a couple sitting at a table. The woman looks at me and says, 'I'm mad at you.'

"I said, 'Why?'

"She said, 'Because my husband's ball hit you in the head on the 9th hole.'

"'And you're mad?' I said.

"'Yes,' she said. 'It bounced off your head, onto the green, and my husband birdied the hole. I had him beat until that happened.'"


Whatever Floats Your Boat
The river rats hit the water.
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On the docks of the Memphis Yacht Club, in an atmosphere saturated with music, rambunctious chatter, and the smell of smoked ribs, a proud group of friends enjoy their own little community on the Mississippi River. They call themselves river rats.

Ronnie Bolgeo, 52, of Frayser offers a shady spot on the back of a friend's houseboat to talk about being a river rat. Bolgeo has been a member of the yacht club for six years but has always been on the river. He owns a 30-foot Trojan cruiser named Nervous Wreck and a pontoon fishing boat. The club is Bolgeo's home away from home. He can be here in 15 minutes and usually is at night and on weekends.

"I've been running the river all my life," Bolgeo says. "Everybody down here loves the river, respects the river, and loves all the people. It's just a good gang of folks."

There are 125 members and 80 boats at the yacht club. Crafts range from jet skis to 70-foot houseboats and cruisers. There are only a couple of actual yachts.

Bolgeo says there are a few friendly cliques among the members, but the souls that call themselves river rats make up the majority. A river rat is usually someone whose parents or family were involved with the yacht club and grew up enjoying the river, passing it on to the next generation.

On any given night you can find them docked on the Arkansas side of the river, kicking back with drinks in hand, listening to music, working sizzling grills, and hopping from boat to boat. By day, they fish, while their kids swim. They've designated one of their hangout spots "West Palm Beach," a sandbar past the Hernando DeSoto Bridge where they scavenge for rocks and arrowheads. Then there's the "Hole in the Wall" on the Loosahatchie River, a tributary running north of Memphis that has become a refuge from barge traffic for smaller boats.

One of the rats' favorite times of year is Memphis in May when they can freely enjoy the festivities while on their boats. Yacht club members hold their own annual events -- from a gumbo cook-off and barbecue contest to holiday parades and an annual trip to Helena, Arkansas, for the King Biscuit Blues Festival.

Freddie Ray Sr., who passed away in September 2003 at 67, was a revered river rat. His son, Freddie Ray Jr., 48, says his father had been on the river for 50 years. The elder Ray bought his first boat from Elvis Presley, a Chris-Craft wooden inboard. He retired from MATA in 1995 and moved into a houseboat on McKellar Lake.

Ray Sr. basically lived on the river. Every boat he owned was christened with the name Freeloader, inspired by Red Skelton's character "Freddie the Freeloader," which became Ray Sr.'s nickname. In 2000, he bought his final boat, a 42-foot Uniflite cabin cruiser. He spent the rest of his days running the river,

living on the lake, and helping anyone who needed it.

"If anything happened to anybody or they ever

needed anything, they knew they could call Fred

Ray," his son says. "Whenever there was a distress call, Daddy would call me, and off we'd go."

On May 2, 2004, Ray, Bolgeo, and fellow rats scattered the elder Ray's ashes on the river. Ray says his father lived for Memphis in May and wanted to make sure his father was a part it.

"I took my daddy out for his last boat ride," Ray says.

The other boats followed and lined up at the Loosahatchie sandbar, then Ray recited an epitaph for his father over the radio.

"I said I reckoned the Lord needed a hand with a boat, so he called on my daddy," Ray says.

He released his father's ashes over the water and watched them drift downstream past the Memphis in May festivities. As Ray sounded his horn, the others chimed in unison. n

by Holli W. Haynie
All Aboard!
Tunica riverboat and riverpark provide respite for casino customers.
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Water is the summer equivalent of thermal underwear in winter: a welcome necessity. In Memphis, which happens to be located on the banks of some very large water known as the Mississippi River, aquatic activities are plentiful.

Trekking a little farther south, Tunica has its own water wonders. The Mississippi hosts Tunica's newest attraction, and we don't mean looser dollar slots. The Tunica RiverPark, just a short drive from the bright lights of casino row, is Mother Nature's (and the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau's) little secret.

Nestled just downriver from Fitzgeralds Casino, the riverpark includes a museum, which opened in November, and the 120-foot Tunica Queen riverboat. The paddleboat began touring operations in September and is the leisure arm of the $26 million park venture.

The three-level museum encompasses 37,000 square feet of exhibit space and an upper-level observation deck. The museum's theme is the Mississippi River, and anything remotely related to Ol' Man River, from transportation to flooding, is incorporated in its exhibits. Information is available on various types of early boat travel, early explorers, the Louisiana Purchase, and weapons used by boatmen.

The museum doesn't sugarcoat the stories of Europeans coming to the Delta. Instead, the information describes diseases carried by the conquistadors, which obliterated untold numbers of Native Americans, and the ongoing efforts by explorers and priests to convert the people to Christianity.

In the museum, we met up with Tunica Queen captain Don Lancaster. An experienced seaman, Captain Lancaster looks like a character out of a Mark Twain novel, complete with gray hair and genteel personality. "I'll show you around the first two floors of the museum and then the riverboat. But as for the observation deck [on the third level], you're on your own there." No prob, Cap'n. We're not afraid of heights.

One hundred and thirty acres of riverside forest can be seen from the observation level. The museum provides guides for a walking trail that traverses the local habitat.

After we've spent a couple of hours in the museum, it's on to the boat.

The amenities and spectacular views from the Tunica Queen are difficult to adequately experience in just one visit. The tour with Captain Lancaster happened to be my second visit aboard the three-tiered vessel. The Tunica Queen may be a replica of steamboats from more than 100 years ago, but its decor and design are modern. Thick carpet, draperies, and ceiling treatments decorate the interior. There are five plasma televisions.

The boat holds a capacity crowd of 350 and at least nine crew members. It makes four one- or two-hour trips each day: the mid-morning coffee cruise, the deli lunch cruise, the afternoon river-lore cruise, and the dinner/entertainment cruise, which is the most popular and includes dancing to live music by the Riverboat Ramblers.

On Mother's Day weekend, the boat's passengers included students who were celebrating their high school prom. Other passengers dressed in Bermuda shorts and flowered shirts posed for photos with the cherub-faced teenagers, offering words of worldly encouragement.

"This is the kind of job you can't believe you get paid for," says Captain Lancaster, showing off the boat's full-service galley, deck bars, and remodeled third level. "This is the Mississippi River the way it's supposed to be enjoyed."

But a little precaution is still necessary. To compensate for rises in water depth, the boat loads and unloads on a floating dock, and safety videos are played for visitors while they board.

In the true spirit of Southern hospitality, the captain shakes hands with each passenger at tour's end, answering questions about the river and the boat. The most asked question? Does the tour go to Memphis? Answer: No. Guiding the boat upriver against the current would require eight hours.

During my trip, all of the variables were in synch: The photo required by Homeland Security taken before boarding was not too hideous, the weather was warm, the wind was cool, and I was feeling good. Bartender, make my Sprite a double!

Come early to tour the museum, throw back a couple of motion-sickness pills, and stay late for a dinner and dance cruise on the Tunica Queen. Either way, you get a taste of the river as it looked in the days of Huck Finn: undeveloped and uncomplicated. n

For information on the Tunica RiverPark and cruises, call (866) 805-3535 or go to TunicaQueen.com.

by Janel Davis


Taking a Dive
A swan (dive) song on the disappearance of spring boards.
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When I moved last year, I was told the pool at my new building, out of all those in Midtown, had the last diving board. The diving board wasn't anything special: white, five feet long, maybe a foot off the ground. At the time, I didn't think too much about it (too cold), but in the back of my mind, I was excited. How long had it been since I'd gone off a diving board? How long had it been since I'd even seen one?

When I was younger, kids at my neighborhood pool were allowed to swim in the deep end only after swimming an especially harrowing length. There was no stopping allowed, no grabbing hold of the sides. But as soon as we thought we could make it, we'd march over to the lifeguard's chair and tell her we were ready.

The shallow end was a simple world of bright-orange water wings, wobbly handstands, and lounging mothers who did not want to be splashed. Babies swam in the shallow end. The deep end was where all the fun was: playing sharks and minnows, doing flips under the water, and --most importantly -- going off the diving board.

We did splash-contest cannonballs and sleek jackknives, butt bumpers, cartwheels, and, more often than you would think, funny walks where we'd pretend to fall into the pool.

Then there were the big boys: the front flips, the back dives.

I never quite got the hang of the back dive. I remember one evening when my father and sister tried to teach me off the side of the pool. The trick is to form a triangle with your hands in front of you, then watch the triangle as you throw your arms over your head. Chicken that I was, though, mine always went off to the right, resulting more in a side dive than a back one.

Those days are long gone. Diving boards at municipal pools, hotels, apartment complexes, and even private homes have almost all disappeared, probably banished to the land of drive-in movies and skating rinks.

The city's new $2.5 million Ed Rice Aquatic Center opened this month with six lap lanes and zero-depth entry (which means the pool can be walked or waded into) but no diving board. Of the city's 16 pools, Bickford, Westwood, Douglass, Willow, and Gooch Community Centers have spring boards.

"When we do renovations at the pools, we clean up the deck and redo the concrete," says David Han, the city's aquatics manager. "We do not put the diving board back in." He says he could name about 100 swim coaches in the area but not a single diving coach.

"The new pool goes from zero depth to five feet. So, for this reason, we don't have a board. We need a minimum depth of 12 feet for a board," says Han. In recent years, insurance companies have put more stringent regulations in place regarding how deep a pool has to be to have a board. The cost of liability insurance has also gone up, meaning that even if the pool is deep enough for a board, the owner's pockets usually aren't.

It's too bad, really. This year marks diving's 100th anniversary as an Olympic sport. But how can young athletes be exposed to the sport if all the boards are gone? I'm not saying diving boards aren't dangerous -- the only thing holding back my back dive was the fear of cracking my head open -- but anything can be dangerous if used improperly.

As part renter of the last diving board in Midtown, I thought it might make a good story for our annual summer issue: diving board as endangered species. The day my editor said yes, I went home to cruel irony: The board had been removed, leaving four holes where it had stood.

I saw the apartment manager a few days later and asked if the board was gone for good. (I was hoping that it just needed repairs and was "in the shop.") She said yes, that an insurance agent had inspected the building and said in no uncertain terms that the board had to go.

Is the diving board gone for good? It certainly looks that way, and there are so few simple pleasures in life already.

Some years after I told the lifeguard I was ready for the deep end, I sat in my own lifeguard chair at an Olympic-size pool. The diving well was 14 feet deep and included two boards, one 10 feet off the ground. It was here I learned how to do a swan dive.

I'm not saying it was a good one, but there's something amazing about the swan dive. One moment you are solidly on your feet and the next you are flying, back arched, arms outstretched, airborne. Then, just as suddenly, you are slicing through the water. To get to experience three states of matter -- earth, air, water -- so quickly was incredible.

I'm not sure when I'll get to feel that way again.

by Mary Cashiola


Making a Splash
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Kansas City, Missouri whose very name evokes images of parched prairie and sun-scorched wheat actually calls itself the "City of Fountains." A promotional Web site for KC even alludes to their "hundreds of fountains" and brags, "We are adding more every year."

So that made us consider our own city's public fountains. We certainly don't have hundreds not even close but these are the ones we like best. And this list is by no means complete. We omitted those where access was restricted or admission was required. Then we evaluated the rest using a complex formula, factoring in bonus points and demerits, that can only be explained by Nobel Prize-winning physicists.

1. Memorial Park

Action: Water spurts from the top of a concrete fountain, pours into a lower dish, and overflows into a semicircular stone pool. That water then spills onto a series of stone ledges, runs through a twisting concrete channel, and finally empties into a large, stone-banked pond.

Style: Cemetery Classical

Bonus points: An easy walk to surreal Crystal Shrine Grotto

Demerits: Plastic Super-Lo Food bags floating in lower pool. Who brings their groceries to a cemetery?

Score: 9.8 (out of 10)

2. Court Square

Action: Even though the statue depicts Hebe, cup-bearer of the gods, water doesn't actually spill from her vase. Instead, it gushes up from somewhere, fills the top basin, overflows into the lower basin, then fills a 10-sided concrete pool.

Style: Courtly Classical

Bonus points: A misdirected jet sends a spray of water right into Hebe's crotch.

Demerits: Old-timey drinking fountains once mounted around the basin, have been removed. Germs, indeed!

Score: 9.7

3. Civic Center

Action: Forty jets of different heights erupt from spouts in the pavement. Each nozzle is surrounded by squares of translucent plastic, making a stunning spectacle when illuminated.

Style: Borderline Bidet

Bonus points: People are encouraged to play.

Demerits: Wind-driven spray can drench passersby.

Score: 9.6

4. Clark Center

Action: Water, and lots of it, pours off the top of a large concrete slab onto five slabs below, all arranged at different levels, before filling concrete pool at bottom.

Style: Frank Lloyd Wright Cantilever

Bonus points: An incredible ice sculpture in the winter.

Demerits: A bit hard to find but worth it.

Score: 9.5

5. The Peabody

Action: Bouquet of flowers conceals the source, but water flows into the top basin of a two-tiered marble fountain, then splashes into marble pool lined with colored tiles.

Style: Italian Elegance

Bonus points: One of this city's great public spaces.

Demerits: Ducks really don't do a whole lot all day long except quack and, well you know. We wonder if they ever considered spider monkeys? Just a thought.

Score: 9.2

6. Peabody Park

Action: Expressly designed for kids. Large orange-colored tubes some more than eight feet high spray water in various directions, while jets mounted flush with the blue- and orange-tiled surface direct other sprays upward.

Style: Kiddie Karnival

Bonus points: It's an interactive fountain! An electronic gizmo a black plastic dome mounted on a post allows you to turn off parts of the fountain by rubbing your hands around it, while wheels mounted on the posts adjust the flow.

Demerits: This old writer couldn't get the hang of the controls, even when a 5-year-old tried to show him how. ("See, your hands have to be completely wet.")

Score: 8.5

7. Fogelman Properties

Action: Powerful shaft of water spurts eight feet into air and fills 30-foot circular, brick-lined pool.

Style: Office Park Old Faithful

Bonus points: Soap bubbles; probably no other fountain in town gets visited so often by pranksters.

Demerits: High-traffic site on Poplar.

Score: 8.3

8. Oak Court Mall

Action: Water pressure spins a 7,000-pound marble ball. The water flows out around the ball and fills a low green-marble basin, aided by six jets nearby.

Style: Cosmic

Bonus points: The mystery of: What really makes it spin?

Demerits: Security guard asked our photographer to leave because "we don't allow camera use in the mall."

Score: 7.5

9. Double Tree Hotel

Action: Water spurts seven feet into air from a white PVC nozzle and fills a shallow circular pool. But that water smacks into 40 stainless-steel balls dangling from rods below a pair of steel-mesh canisters suspended on three tubular legs.

Style: Advanced Jetsonesque

Bonus points: Balls swaying in wind and water make a nice "conking" sound.

Demerits: Two pennies found in dirt outside the fountain. You're supposed to throw money in the pool, people.

Score: 7.1

10. Park Palace Apartments

Action: Water spurts from three nozzles, tumbles down 12 concrete steps, and flows into large oval concrete pool.

Style: Park Avenue Palatial

Bonus points: Impressive crest on wall behind fountain.

Demerits: Severe slope to algae-covered pool bottom means a certain dunking (or worse) to anyone lured by the narrow "pathway" encircling rather deep pond. One misstep and . . .

Score: 6.5 n

By Michael Finger

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