By JuliAnn “Julie T.” Tuleya Ditchett

 [This essay was originally drafted in July 2004, published in the Hightstown High School Ram Page in 2005, and was revised April 14, 2024 in reflection of the decision by Princeton University to indefinitely close Nassau Swim Club in Princeton, New Jersey.]

    "There aren't many places as special as Nassau," an older man once recalled. He wore a neon orange cap, worn out shorts, white beard and a tan. He was perhaps weary from life's trials, but a brightness glowed inside of himself. "The shared experiences of that small, isolated and hidden corner of grass, water, sky and trees have made us one family."

    When spring ends, kids fly out of classrooms and jump into summer. As a child, most of the kids that I knew would pay homage to camps, lakeside visits, or swimming pools each year. They’d cool off and invariably make their own memories. But I knew from an early age–and still believe today–that my childhood summer experiences were different. Because nestled in the woods of Princeton, N.J. on a winding gravel road full of potholes lived a swim club that held a rare tradition of an established history and fraternal friendship.

    I was one week old when my parents brought me to watch my brother and sister swim in a meet at the Nassau Swim Club in July of 1982. They chose a grassy spot on a hill and set up a playpen where I slept, completely unaware of the experiences and memories that this pool would hold for me in the years to come. Since that day, I was at the pool so often that my name caused confusion for the manager, whose daughter's name is also Julie. I was christened "Julie T.," and years later, it was still my only name there.

    The club was founded in 1961 by a group of families from Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study. That might sound pretentious, but Nassau was far from it. Just beyond the club’s rusted gates, the tiny office building was simple and full of junk. Sun-bleached green awnings hung across splintered picnic tables, and a few mud puddles.The old pool’s concrete edging was sharp and tugged at my swim suit bottom when I sat on the edge. Visiting teams grumbled over the tiny outside lanes which harked back to the pool’s early construction. For decades, members celebrated this quirk during the BNSM, the Bruce Nystrom Swim Meet, named after the pool's iconic former manager and head coach. During the BNSM, the swim team members competed against one another in old-fashioned races across the pool’s width instead of its length. Games, hoagies, and prizes always followed.

    Residing on Springdale Lane, Nassau sits on the edge of the Charles H. Rogers Wildlife Refuge. An abundant population of wild creatures like horseflies, dragonflies, slugs, spiders, mice, frogs, worms and snakes reside there. Yet another reason for non-Nassau-goers to cringe but once you’re a member, you’d quickly adapt to the environment. In my tenure there, we used a dedicated red kickboard solely for exterminating horseflies. And years ago, on rainy mornings, we checked the pool filters for frogs and fetched worms from the bottom of the pool before practices.

    Bruce taught me, my siblings and countless others how to swim. While he was from New Jersey, he raised his family in Richmond, Virginia. Each summer Bruce and Nystroms migrated north to run the pool and swim program at Nassau. As he grew a little older and white-bearded, Bruce traded a white bucket hat in favor of a bright orange ball cap, to direct his young students at the edge of the pool, like conducting an orchestra. Then he’d slip into the water to teach culture-packed lessons, where he’d count to 10 in Spanish or French during the jellyfish float. Bruce was an intriguing, almighty being in the eyes of his young pupils. He’s lovingly regarded by generations of now-grown swim students as a kind and absent-minded swimming genius whose influence pervades the club's history. Today, I love to tell my kids how I learned the breaststroke and butterfly on a picnic table bench. There isn't any other way.

    Hoards of families returned each summer for cool leisure and warm sunshine. We’d arrive for lessons and swim practice in the mornings followed by picnics and playtime in the afternoons. We’d play Marco Polo and endure games of Racketedy-poo, or “Rack” for short (my spelling here is questionable because it was never written down–all we needed to do was shout it to one another). Racketedy-poo is a more physical version of Sharks and Minnows. Players dive into the murky and ferocious waters of the diving well to pull, scratch and capture their opponents. Pool lore was that the curious name evolved from the neighboring “Rocky Brook Pool.” I’m afraid that, along with Nassau’s legacy, Rackety-poo will never be played again but will be an oral history of our childhoods.

    Childhood independence at Nassau meant that we were left alone with siblings or a sitter for the day and that we learned to play cards with the big kids.The big kids evolved into guards, coaches and teachers lingered by the club to pass on its traditions. It meant that when we were old enough, we’d go for afternoon walks to WaWa to buy a Snapple and a Butterfingers. We learned together, cried together, celebrated together, and witnessed and supported one another’s milestones–the first time we swam a full lap across the pool, the first time we jumped off the diving board, the first time we met our best friend, the first time we lost a swim meet, the first time we kissed our summer crush, the first time we felt heartbreak. It was the definition of growing up.

    Nassau’s Princeton neighborhood attracted generations of fascinating members, like physicist Freeman Dyson, who is renowned for his quantum electrodynamics work. He studied at Cambridge and Cornell before joining the Institute for Advanced Study as well as the swim club. Bruce once recalled in a letter to club members how years ago, on a sunny day at Nassau, Dyson showed the younger members how to view an eclipse silhouette on a white piece of cardboard. In the same letter, Bruce recalled visits from Helen Dukas, Albert Einstein’s secretary, and her habit of strolling down the paved entrance on beautiful mornings and asking in a heavy German accent, “Brrrrruce, do you think it will rain today?”

    Nassau taught us diversity and how to be open-minded to one another’s differences. Around the pool, distinctive chatter reflected assorted cultures and a shared enthusiasm for camaraderie. Even its mascot was a lesson. We were Lemmings. Seemingly small or modest, but brave and extraordinary. The trip up the dirt road to Nassau didn't bring ordinary summers because it offered generations of values and relationships. Winnings, losses, changes, and even death have bound this family together. We cherish the little swim club in the woods of Princeton, and deep down, hold a peculiar fondness for a rodent called the lemming.

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