“You’re going to do what,” my new neighbor said, obviously astonished by my pronouncement.
“I’m going to dig my own swimming pool,” I repeated, and then added “with a shovel.”
“You’re outta yer mind,” he said, “hope you can find someone to help, because I sure as hell ain’t. That’s insane.” But my across-the-street-neighbor, Wally, did help. He and I did most of the digging. Every night, after work and dinner, we’d meet up and go into the hole.
Sometime around the end of the seventies, I’m not sure of the exact date, “Family Circle” magazine published an Easter issue with a cover picture of a swimming pool surrounded by a wood deck. The cover declared you could build your own affordable backyard in-ground swimming pool. I had saved the magazine copy for a few years, and now that I had just bought a new home again, after going back and finishing college, the time was ripe. I was going to build a pool. And, according to the article, I was going to be able to do it for less than $5,000! (I still have the magazine.)
Back in 1985, when this project took shape, the average cost of an in-ground pool was in the neighborhood of $11,000 to $20,000. That’s what some of my neighbors had already paid. I was figuring I would be able to do it for under $3,000. Basically the cost of materials.
The pool, designed by a California company, could be built three different ways. You could use concrete block with mortar, a stacked block process without using mortar on the blocks, or…a treated wood frame. Basically, this involved building a fence around the perimeter of the hole, putting a packed concrete base on the floor, and installing their liner. It was a 20-mil thick blue liner with a tile border imprinted on the top. It snapped into a special channel, mounted on the top “fence” rail. Since I knew nothing about concrete block, and I had some skill working with wood, I decided to go with the treated lumber. You’ll learn more about that later. Hey, I knew I could build a fence, in the ground or otherwise.
Now, this wasn’t some itty-bitty pool to splash around in when the weather got hot, either. This was a 16′ X 32″ full-size pool with a 7 1/2 foot deep end. I don’t know how much dirt there is in an excavation of that size, but I could figure it out if I had too. Let’s just say, although I consider myself “handy,” taking on a project like this, might have been just a bit more than I should have considered chewing. But once it started it took on a life of its own.
On the first weekend in March, I staked out the corners of the pool and ran string lines to square it up. Then I used what would become one of the marvels of the job: a hose level. This apparatus consisted of a 50′ length of garden hose with a one foot section of clear plastic hose attached to each end. Since water seeks its own level, by filling the hose with water you could measure across the pool from corner to corner pretty accurately by using the water level in the clear end of the hose.
I didn’t think any of this stuff up by myself, by the way, it was all in the directions and plans from the California pool company that was the focus of the article in “Family Circle.” Leisure Pools, I think. Sounds right doesn’t it? This “Leisure Pools” is no longer in business although there are other companies by that name. One, in Texas, makes an in-ground fiberglass pool. That might have been an easier proposition, but I couldn’t have done it with my meager budget.
We didn’t have a ceremony or anything for the ground breaking, just started to dig. And dig. And dig. Drink beer. And dig. By the end of the day, I had a pretty good size hole developing in the back yard. Now, in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, the soil is, well, sandy. So digging was relatively easy. No big rocks to dislodge. No utilities passing through the yard. No tree roots to contend with, because nothing grows in it but scrub and cactus. So my only real problem was with something I was told was “caleche.” That’s a word, but it means nothing like rock hard sand, or almost sandstone. That is what layers of the soil, under the soft sandy portion, would be like. You could see it in the strata as the hole got deeper. Veins of caleche, almost as hard as rock, but soft enough you could use a pick axe, break off huge chunks of it and carry it out of the hole. All the rest of the “carrying” was being done by wheelbarrow.
Now, one of the problems with this excavation was what to do with all the dirt that would be displaced by a hole that was 16′ X 32′ X 3′ sloping to 7 1/2′ deep. My plan was to back-fill to the backyard fence and basically level out the yard. At least part of it. The yard, at the start, had a gentle slope down to a five foot block wall. The neighbor behind me was 6 1/2″ below that level, so the fence was already 11 1/2′ high from the bottom of his yard to the top of my fence. So what I was expecting to do was make this block wall, designed to be a fence, hold back three more feet of ground. The fence was concrete block with columns every ten feet. I added concrete in the columns (which are hollow) with the idea that this would add strength to the wall and keep the 3′ wall of dirt and 32,000 gallons of water, out of my neighbor’s yard.
Now you ask, certainly, you got permits for this, right? Well, I tried. Honestly. I went to Santa Fé with my site plan, and detail of the fence that would surround the pool, known as an “attractive nuisance”, which is really the only thing they cared about. I got my working permit, which I put in the front window of the house as instructed. The actual permit measured 24″ X 48″ and took up most of my daughter’s bedroom window, but could be seen from the street as directed. I did all that after I had already started digging, and, I might add, is the only permit I have ever gotten before or since to build anything…you’ll find out why later.
The amount of the back-fill and the leveling of the lot was not in these plans. The plans submitted to the state assumed this had already been done, and, really, no one checked. So if this wall was engineered to hold back 3′ of non-compacted soft soil, we’ll never know. I added another four feet of block to the columns and built a wood fence between them. We now had a fence, viewed from my neighbors yard that was almost 18′ tall. But it looked good. I built the fence before I finished the hole because I didn’t want the neighbors to know what I was doing. Or, more truthfully, I didn’t want the neighbors to know I didn’t know what I was doing, and have them call in some snooping building inspectors or something.
Day after day, week after week, the digging went on. Friends would come over and take a turn in the hole. Some digging all day on a Saturday, followed by a BBQ. We’d sit around and admire the hole and it’s increasing dimensions. We drank a lot of beer.
Now you might have asked yourself why we didn’t use one of them backhoes? And it would be a good question. I have several answers. First, although the lot was almost a quarter acre front to back and side to side, the sides didn’t allow passage of a piece of machinery like that without dismantling the block fence. In truth, they weren’t wide enough anyway for a normal size backhoe. Second, we really didn’t have the money to rent one, nobody we knew owned one, so the luxury was out of the question. But we were at the rental place one Saturday and noticed a small Ford tractor with a bucket grader on the front that would fit through the gate. Only $125 for the day, plus gas, and it came with its own trailer. It was white, which made no sense to me, but I also had no idea how to operate it. No problem the guy at the rental place said. Easy to learn. So we reserved it for the next weekend. The hole was about two feet deep by that time, all the way around.
I should mention here that the back-filling of the fence was already complete and, in fact, a lawn installed complete with a sprinkler system. All these side projects were taking away from the actual dig. The dirt from the excavation was now being piled on the other corner of the lot, and dumped into the side-neighbor’s yard. He agreed to take some of the dirt with the understanding that his family would be invited to enjoy the pool from time to time in the future. At this point, however, there was no certainty that a pool would exist. Only a very big hole.
We were going to use the tractor to level out some of the dirt now piled in his yard. Just to make sure you didn’t miss that, we were going to finish digging the pool and level out the neighbor’s yard, in what we estimated to be a few hours.
(To Be Continued)