Mr. Smith Lives in the Pool Drain
by Ann Mulloy Ashmore
Splashing about in a swimming pool on a hot summer day is everyone’s idea of fun, but when Mr. Smith lived in the pool drain, summer swims were also funny, thanks to H. A. Rey, co-creator with wife Margret of the Curious George children's books. From 1953 to 1977 the couple vacationed each summer in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. Every afternoon Hans Rey would walk or ride his bicycle to the community pool to swim, and every afternoon a cadre of neighborhood children eagerly awaited his arrival. In the water, Hans became a turtle, giving rides on his back to all-comers, or at times a whale that spouted water. But Hans drew the most giggles when he crawled under the diving board to “talk” to Mr. Smith and the other creatures that lived in the pool drain.
An accomplished ventriloquist, Rey learned to imitate animals as a small boy visiting the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany, where he grew up. He became so good at throwing his voice, that one time while speaking in Atlanta, Georgia, he almost convinced the 4,000 people in the audience that there was a real lion in the auditorium. The next day The Atlanta Constitution newspaper reported, “He cackled. He bellowed. He snorted. But when H. A. Rey, the little round man who writes and illustrates children’s books, turned his talents to roaring like a jungle lion…the kids of Atlanta roared right back at him!”
Rey studied astronomy and wrote two books about the subject. One, Find the Constellations, was written for children and on clear summer evenings in Waterville Valley he often invited curious youngsters to “stargaze” at the Rey cottage. “Every kid would come on the run,” remembered a neighbor. Patiently, he let each child use the big telescope to look at the stars in Orion’s belt and Jupiter’s moons as the planet rose in the sky over Mt. Osceola.
Hans shared not only his enthusiasm for astronomy with each child, but also his love of nature and animals. Three of his young friends, Nat, Nick and Steve Scrimshaw, wrote a tribute to the author following his death in 1977. “It was to him that we would bring wounded chipmunks, birds, squirrels, a captured mole, even an odd rock.” Likewise, the thoughts and opinions of his small companions were important to him as well. “What animal should the letter M be?” he once asked the Scrimshaw brothers when working on a book.
Sadly, today’s summer visitors no longer talk to the inhabitants of the swimming pool drain at the Waterville Valley Inn. Without Mr. Smith and his friend H. A. Rey to call them into our imaginations, their voices are silent. But the children who took turtle rides on Rey’s back those summers long ago know the creatures have not gone away. They are just hiding, waiting—eagerly expecting a magical summer day when the little round man returns for his afternoon swim.