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On Radium Springs
Page 95 of "Skywater"
written by Jay Beck (Class of 1962)
Recently my mother sent me an article that they were tearing down Radium Springs. That the world could come to this! This was the main symbol which defined my home town for five generations, the closest thing we had to a European spa or a grand architectural gesture of any kind. This multi-tiered, gleaming white building rising from clear blue water into oaks streaming with moss, this incubator of dreams, was to become a bass hatchery.
And, owned by the state that did not need the ballrooms, the double stairway, the dining rooms glassed to overlook the water, or the expensive upkeep of it all through repeated flooding, was going to tear down the buildings and use the water to raise fish.
My mother's remembers her girlhood visits in the 1920's to relatives in Tifton who would bundle up the kids with a picnic lunch and come to Radium Springs to jump into the boil. The boil, resulted from water escaping from underground rivers through openings in the limestone bubbling up at great pressure to the top of a circular deep pit which was the beginning of Radium, like the fountain dispatching water from its center sure to go up your nose.
From deep in the earth, this water rushed at thousands of gallons a second at 68 degrees in temperature, which in the 90-degree heat of South Georgia felt like freezing. Kids jumping from a swinging rope, high and low diving boards or the rock sides into the boil would sink into the pit only to be pushed up to the surface by the rushing water screaming in shock not from the jump but from the chilling effect of the cold. Everyone who first jumped into Radium dog paddled like hell to get to the nearest side to rush out into the sun and run for a towel.
My father has a picture of himself in high school sitting on the side of the wall above the boil in a kind of male beefcake pose in his bathing suit. Our picture books at home are littered with snap shots of Radium… in swimming, wading to the edge in a blow-up ducky inner-tube, at family reunions dining on the concrete tables and benches which spread forever back among the water oaks and pines which surrounded the swimming area and beach.
Coming into Radium from the front door of the Casino as a young kid, you walked past the ornate bar where there always seemed to be one or two people, cigarette drifting smoke from the ashtray quietly talking with the bartender. Across the lobby with seating groups of furniture and fresh flowers you came to the entrance to the swimming area. There you paid a dumpy old man, went through a swinging gate and door and began to descent a long flight of steps changing from wood to concrete during the descent.
On the wall of these steps were 8" x 10" black and white pictures of distinguished visitors who all seemed like movie stars. They lined the steep descent. Some had their names and an inscription and you had to be careful when looking to be aware of the wet steps. But almost from the top, the thing that defined Radium was its smell.
You came out that door to a temperature noticeably hotter and humid enough to start immediate perspiration, and were hit in the nose by the limestone water. No sleazy YMCA or high school locker room shower after a big game could have equaled the smell of lime. It was in the rocks, in the puddles of water in the leaky faucets and water fountains. It pulled you toward the light at the end of the steps that opened slowly from a concrete slab and railings to tree limbs and people and chairs and water then to the whole world of Radium Springs. Suddenly at the bottom of the stairs you were there, and could now look in every direction to see who you could and wave to and then look at who was jumping into the boil directly ahead.
There was the small town pecking order of who got to sit where and with whom. The cuffs were off for flirting. And even in the bathing suit designs of those days, there were few people reading a book.
With your parents, you went to the beach side partly around a small island from the boil to water that gently got deeper and places for groups to spread out blankets, towels and each other. On either side of the beach were turreted gazebos entered from the high side with more picnic tables and ledges like benches on its circular sides to over look the water below.
Once you adjusted to the water temperature, and with a facemask looked below, you could see all kinds of fish swimming near the rocky bottom. It was incredibly clear.
We went to Radium almost every week of every summer of my youth. It was the thing to do with visitors, with family reunions and cold fried chicken, potato salad, and gallons of ice tea. And there were the people we knew, saw in school, in church, at the downtown stores. We saw each other grow up on this common ground, this equalizer, this opportunity.
But, it is the memories of being there in those young teen years that mark Radium for me. The times when we were not yet cool. When the insecurity and awkwardness of being the youngest and least experienced teen of the group were most apparent. But, that did not stop us from going there. For those years the memories are of Radium at night. There was a pavilion on stilts with open sides and a tin roof. A jukebox contained the only lighted area in the space. A wooden dance floor was littered with sand.
There after dark the teens met to dance and look at each other and learn to talk to each other. There the older boys tried to become James Dean. The peg pants, duck-tail hair and rolled up short-sleeves accented the bearing, the walk, the non-chalice all to come together in a look, a stare at a particular girl smoldering enough to stop her still in mid flit.
And the girls in their tight peddle pushers, shirts with the bottoms tied about the waist, gum smacking, casting side-long glances and the mingled smells of sun tan lotion, sweat, beer and cigarettes were collectively enough to kick my insecurity into high gear, while awakening in me a longing like a magnet.
But sitting on the wooden benches, listening to beach music, watching couples in the dark corners sway back and forth, watching some walk hand and hand into the night I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I knew that there was a life out there I had not experienced. I knew past where the light flickered on the moss and beyond the tree limbs there awaited the sin my parents had warned me against, and I could not wait to find it.
And now, at and in a different age, the interest in Radium Springs has abated and the cost of maintaining the legacy has become too great a risk. It is to be raised, and except for the rock sides of the enclosure surrounding two thirds of its circumference, will be returned to something of its condition before the Casino. I wonder if people walking around those banks years from now will hear through the tree moss the sounds of Little Richard and Bill Haley and Ernie K-Doe as I still do.