Oregon Magazine

“Splish-Splash, Brrr ... Ahhh!"
Remembering the “NAT” 
by Paul Pintarich

Even today I can remember plunging carelessly into the deep end of 
Rockaway’s Natatorium, a naive non-swimmer convinced the rumored 
buoyancy of the “Nat’s” saltwater would keep me afloat: An early 
“triumph of hope over experience.” 

As they rose past me, all those silver bubbles in the bright green water 
were fascinating, I must admit. Until I reached bottom and confronted 
the dilemma of how to get back up. 

But no problem. Though I was a chubby little kid, a hand reached down and plucked me to safety, its owner suggesting forcefully that I “. .Was a dumb little. . !” 

You can imagine the rest,  though since that day, and all the days of my increasingly long life, I have never had a fear of water, deep or shallow. In fact, several summers later I taught myself to swim in the Nat. I would paddle about tentatively, farther each day, until eventually I flailed and gasped my way to the pool’s central fountain, pulling myself aboard like an exhausted sea lion. 

Buoyed by my achievement, and the Nat’s warm saltwater, I eventually 
swam farther out into the deep end; thus beginning a journey of splashing about in rivers and oceans around the world, eventually concluding in laps at the YMCA. 

(ED: With an interesting side jaunt to Australia, where in an isolated, deserted cove, he splish-splashed around for a half hour -- subsequently coming out to see a Mick Dundee type sitting on a nearby rock, watching.  "Why aren't people enjoying this great little bay?" Paul asked the old Aussie. "Well," came the reply, "it might be the poisonous sea snakes, Moray eels or the lion fish that live there.")

In those days the Nat was an imposing two-story landmark whose heated, 
ocean water pool was a catalyst to Rockaway Beach becoming “The
Jewel of the Oregon Coast.” 

Construction began in 1924, and when it was completed in 1926 the Nat 
included a pool 50 by 80 feet. There was a wading pool, diving boards and a central fountain raining down warm saltwater. Spectators could watch from a second-floor gallery, which was adjacent to a bowling alley, and the pool was open until 10 p.m. 

In later years upstairs living quarters were converted into a popular night club, “The Panorama Room” (It’s unofficial sobriquet was “The 
Pandemonium Room”) which had a great view of the ocean, including the 
black curved pipe that for decades slurped seawater up and into the 
swimming pool. 

On the eve of my 21st birthday I happened to be drinking in the 
Panorama Room when, at midnight, I announced to the bartender I was 
finally 21, which was met by low groan. Still, it was much better than 
getting thrown out of the now-defunct “Harold’s Club” (No, not that 
one), as I did one Fourth of July.

When one considers the Nat, you must remember that in my youth, a hardier, more careless time, we just ran down and jumped into the ocean, usually after one or more beers. This was literally a breath-taking practice not recommended for brass monkeys or those visiting from Florida or Hawaii. There were riptides too, of course (no one thought about sharks, or rolling logs), but most of the time we made sure the tide was incoming before hitting the waves. 

Afterwards, if not having a driftwood fire on the beach, we might sprint 
quickly to the Nat, there, in those days before wet suits, to plunge 
into its warm embrace until our blue bodies turned red again. 

In its last years the Nat became home to a recreation center for teenagers, featuring billiard tables, snack bar and music for dancing.  In 1967, however, it met its demise after the Oregon State Parks Division replaced it with the present Rockaway State Parking Wayside.  Yet even today, as I drive into Rockaway after many years, I miss the old place and its capacious, other-century grandeur. It should still be there, I think, echoing with memories and little-kid laughter; a wonderful anachronism of the kind disappearing all too quickly these days. 

This is not the Natatorium, but if you imagine the entire inside is a salt water swimming pool, that's what it felt like.

Original text © 2008 Paul Pintarich