“It’s sort of like my own personal obsession,” says Bob Wulkowicz, the inventor. “I can’t say for certain exactly why I do it. I’m not Joan of Arc. I’m not a martyr or an angel. But I figure kids are dying. They’re killing themselves. If there’s something I can do, I should do it.”
As he talks, he steers his van, a gray Dodge, onto Irving Park Road. He’s a short, plump man in his early 40s, sporting a thick black mustache. And what he’s doing is making late-night expeditions to the city’s 54 outdoor swimming pools.
“I can remember when I started; I can remember the first night.”
It was last summer. Two teenage boys had broken into the fenced-in swimming pool at Piotrowski Park on the near southwest side. Sometime later, a passing jogger heard their screams and ran to the rescue, but he was seconds too late. One of the boys had drowned.
“All total that summer, there were four drownings. Since 1980, there have been 24. We’ve had two this summer already,” Wulkowicz continues. “Sometimes it’s kids, sometimes it’s some guy zonked out on booze. Whatever, Walter Netsch, then president of the Park District board, knew of my work. He called and said: ‘Bob, try to figure some way to keep these kids from killing themselves.’ And that night, I began.”
He pulls his van up to the Mcfetridge field house on California Avenue.
“On hot nights, they come out early,” he says. “The pools close at nine, so you have to figure 11, 11:30, they’ll be out here.”
He stops talking and looks out the window. It’s a still night. The moon is full.
“Come on,” he says, “let’s go.”
With that, he slips out of the car and walks across the lawn that leads to the pool.
This park is perfect for midnight swims, he explains. The kids love it. The trees that run along the north branch of the Chicago River–out beyond the pool–provide cover. The kids hide there until the guards go home. After that, the pool is theirs.
He stands before the pool and stares at the sparkling turquoise water. There’s a single light and a 12-foot cyclone fence.
“Kids scale this fence, no problem,” he says. He points to the top of the fence, where spiky strands of wire have been pushed back. “That’s the work of dozens of unseen teenage hands.”
A light breeze blows through the trees, and Wulkowicz eyes the pool one last time.
“No action here,” he says. “Might as well move on.” He returns to his van and heads south.
“Yeah, me and the kids. It’s sort of like a game. I can appreciate that.”
By trade, Wulkowicz is an electrician. But his passion is public safety. “Give me a problem,” he says, “and I’ll search for the answer.” Although he has no college degree, he loves to tinker, and his work space on Elston Avenue is a jumble of drawings, sketches, diagrams, books, and patent applications.
“But the swimming pools are my greatest challenge. I’m up against the collective brainpower of hundreds of kids. That’s an awesome power. You have hundreds of kids with nothing better to do on a hot summer night than figure out how to sneak into a swimming pool. They’ll counter every move the Park District makes to stop them. My challenge is to outwit them. If the consequences were not so serious, I’d laugh.
“I started coming out to the pools every night last summer. I had to. I can’t solve a problem if I’m locked up in my workroom. I have to study it. I’d drive my car up to the pools, and the kids take off running. I’d want to scream, ‘Hey kids, are you stupid? Don’t you know you can drown?’
“And it’s not only kids. You should see Trumbull Park on a real hot night. You’ve got to go there. It’s unbelievable. You have 30 to 50 people out frolicking in the water at two in the morning.”
He laughs, and then abruptly stops talking and puts his finger to his lips. He points to his left. It’s Union Park, at the corner of Lake and Ashland. All looks well. A handful of black men and women are sitting around, chatting amiably.
Look closer, Wulkowicz whispers, listen carefully. Sure enough, from the distance comes the sound of splashing.
Wulkowicz flashes on his high beams, toots his horn, and turns into a driveway that leads to the pool. Instantly, 20 or 30 figures–it’s hard to tell the exact number–rise from the water. A few shouts ring out, followed by the sound of bare feet on concrete. Dozens of figures–nothing more than shadows against the moonlight–jump onto, up, and over the fence, and then scatter in every direction.
“Did you see that?” Wulkowicz says. “I mean, if you didn’t see that, would you believe it? What were there–30 kids? It’s too much.”
He backs his van onto Ashland and continues south, winding through side streets until he reaches Halsted and Archer.
“I don’t know about you,” he says, “but a lot of times just around midnight, I get hungry. And right now, I’m famished.”
He pulls into the parking lot of a White Castle drive-in and waits his turn to order.
“We’ll have a Cherry Coke, one large Coke, a coffee, a hot chocolate, and three double White Castle burgers,” he says into the microphone.
“Is that all?” asks the waitress, her voice a whiny squawk over the speaker.
“Is that all?” Wulkowicz repeats. “I think that’s enough.”
“That should make me violently ill by the early morning.”
No response from the waitress. Later, when Wulkowicz picks up his order at the drive-in window, she eyes him suspiciously.
Anyway, he continues between bites, the most obvious solution to pool break-ins is to keep them open later, which the Park District is thinking of doing. Or you can post guards, which the Park District is going to do at certain locations.
“But these proposals involve manpower, and manpower costs a lot of money in salaries. So I studied the problem and came up with a two-part solution.”
First, he says, you’ve got to make it uncomfortable for the kids to be in the pool. For that, he’s invented an alarm system–a microwave beam, projected by hidden sensors, that constantly caroms around the pool. Intercept the beam and you initiate an ear-splitting racket loud enough to send kids, vagrants, winos, whoever broke in, scrambling away. Plus it warns police of the break-in.
And then, he adds, on top of the alarm, he has proposed the lifesaver.
“This is Piotrowski Park,” he says, climbing out of the van. “This is where we’ve already installed the alarm system on an experimental basis.”
He wants to describe the lifesaver in great detail, he says as he eagerly scampers to the pool, but he can’t–patent lawyer’s instructions, you understand.
“It’s the perfect sidekick to the alarm,” he boasts. “It’s an arrangement of floating planks with handholds on the side so that any nonswimmer, from a five-year-old kid to a 300-pound drunk, can pull himself onto the platform.”
“You see, the alarm alone is not enough. The noise only tells me that someone is on the pool deck. But what if they have also jumped in the pool? What good is it if I run over and find a dead body?”
Clang–it’s the sound of a body slamming against the cyclone fence. Wulkowicz spins around in time to see a teenage Hispanic, beer bottle in hand, scrambling to the top. On the ground stand two other teenagers.
“Hold it,” Wulkowicz bellows. “Stop right there.”
The teen, still hovering at the top of the fence, stares in utter amazement as Wulkowicz–at least half a foot shorter than any of them–rapidly approaches.
“There’s an alarm here,” Wulkowicz exclaims. “A hidden electric alarm that you will detonate if you climb that fence. It will alert the police, too. You’ve got to get off the fence.”
The youth scampers down. “Sorry, man,” he says with some embarrassment. “I didn’t know.”
“Yeah, man,” adds a friend, “thanks a lot.”
“That’s quite all right. They put the alarm in to keep kids from swimming,” the inventor explains. “Didn’t you know that kids have drowned in this pool?”
The teens hang their heads.
“Gee, that’s bad,” one of them says. He finishes his beer with a long swig, starts to toss it on the ground, and then thinks better of it.
For a moment, Wulkowicz and the teens stand silently.
“Well, we gotta go,” the fence climber announces. “Thanks again.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you might be nuts?” Wulkowicz is asked a few seconds later, as he sits in the car heading further south. “How did you know that kid didn’t have a knife? How did you know he wasn’t going to shoot you?”
“I didn’t,” Wulkowicz replies. “But I didn’t think he would. And most times, I don’t think about that stuff at all. Who knows, maybe I should. Some of these pools are gang turf. It’s absurd. You can have a hole in the fence that only one kid can use. That’s his hole. His turf.”
He drives along silent side streets lined with darkened bungalows. Here and there are kids on bicycles. But mostly, it seems, the city sleeps. Wulkowicz turns on Cottage Grove and heads into the black, middle-class neighborhood of Chatham.
“This park here,” he says of a darkened patch of grass and shrubbery just off 80th Street, “usually has some activity.”
But tonight there’s only one couple in the pool. They embrace, kiss, and then, giggling, swim away from each other before looking up in startled confusion at Wulkowicz and his honking horn.
“Better get out of the pool,” Wulkowicz yells, as he hops out of his van. “Someone called the cops. They’re on their way.”
What he says is a falsehood, but the couple doesn’t know that. They swiftly climb to the deck and gather their towels and clothes.
“Thank you,” shouts the woman.
“Yeah,” adds her companion, “we appreciate that.”
“No problem,” says Wulkowicz, returning to his car.
“I do whatever it takes,” he says, smiling. Of course, the hardest part, he explains, is still ahead, when he has to convince the city that his plan works.
“I have to get a bunch of college-educated experts to have faith in a free-lance inventor who doesn’t even have a college degree.”
He’s been down this road before, he explains. It took months of wrangling, but two years ago he somehow convinced Public Works officials that they did not have to expand the Fullerton Avenue entrance ramp at Lake Shore Drive to cut down on accidents there. Wulkowicz figured that most of the accidents were caused because a blind spot prevented motorists on the Drive from seeing cars on the entrance ramp. So he installed an electrically controlled merge sign that notified motorists of approaching traffic on the entrance ramp. Accidents decreased, and park land was spared.
“That sign cost me $30,000,” says Wulkowicz. “It was money I borrowed, or money from investors. I never received a dime from the city. If I go on like this, I’ll go broke.
“Sure, I want to make money–all inventors do. We all have the great American invention in our desk drawers. I figure the alarm will cost the city $4,000 to install at each pool, and the flotation device is about $1,500 a pool.
“But I have no guarantees that they’ll buy my proposal. The Park District was nice enough to let me install my experiment–at my expense–at Piotrowski. But they don’t have to buy it.”
He winds his van through a maze of side streets and finds himself within a few yards of the Trumbull Park swimming pool–more than 140 blocks south of where he started–his last visit of the night.
By now, it is after two. The only intruder at the pool is a sleek, black cat.
“Damn, I’m surprised, there’s usually a lot of action here. You know, this is the pool where I caught this pregnant lady trying to climb over the fence. That’s right, a pregnant lady. Her husband was on the deck waiting for her. She had one leg over the fence and was pulling her other leg over, too.
“I yelled: ‘Hey, lady, don’t you know that a kid drowned in this pool?’
“She looked at me like I was crazy, and she says: ‘But, it’s hot.’
“And, you know, maybe she’s right. Maybe I am crazy. Because it was hot. And the water is cool. And it only makes sense to take a dip in the summer. But then I think no, it’s not right, people are dying.”
He turns to watch the cat slip along the pool’s edge.
“Oh well, I guess that’s all the business we’re going to get for now,” he says, turning his van north. “I suppose it’s time we called it a night.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.