Swimming Lessons

Like most kids, I loved water in all its forms – whether garden hoses, sprinklers, or just falling from the sky. I couldn’t resist it – if there was a mud puddle, you’d find me there (much to my mother’s consternation). I even recall deliberately “falling” off the school bus’s step into a mud puddle one afternoon – because it was there – and then faking dismay when I arrived home in my wet, dripping clothes and shoes.

I think this love of water comes from my mom’s side, because she’s always loved water too – and like a smart mom, she decided when I was about seven, and my brother eight, that we should learn to swim – for our own protection, if anything. So she signs us up to take swimming lessons at a local Army institution.

I’ll never forget the place – a big building with tall glass windows set among the pines; a dirt parking lot, and a ‘basement’ at one end that hummed continuously, emanating the strong stench of chlorine. It was a monster of an indoor pool – easily two stories tall with a balcony running around the upper level, stiff wooden benches along the sides, and wonder of wonders: a towering highdive. My mother pulls in, the car’s tires grating against the gravel, and we go in to meet our instructor.

We were the only two kids in our ‘class’, and I’ll never forget our introduction. Our ‘instructor’ was an Army Sargent who worked at the indoor pool. It seems to me that he was an older man – I see him with white hair – thick and gruff as well, and I’m pretty sure he worked there. My brother is scared of the huge blue lake before us, but I’m all too ready to jump in. This guy looks us over, shakes hands with my mother, and the lessons begin.

It was easy, because it was ‘old-school’. First he takes me to the lower diving board – has me walk out along its bouncing length, him tailing right behind – and tells me “jump in.”

I look. It’s the deep end – and this wasn’t one of these modern pools with an eight foot depth – no this monster went down an easy fifteen feet, if not more (which, considering it had a high dive, makes good sense!) It looks a LONG way to the far end – not quite so far to the side – and I glance back at this guy for confirmation. No smiles, no nothing. Just the firm Sargent’s command again: “Jump in.”

Okay, I haven’t swum a lick in my whole life – but I’m bold, daring, and sorta dumb – and he’s told me to do this. Adults MUST be obeyed – ALWAYS. So I jump in.

Ka-splash! I felt like I sank forever, and then the old instincts kick in, and I start dog-paddling upwards – up and up until I breath air – and then I thrash my way to the side – somewhat surprised I made it, and my mom is smiling, so I know I’ve done well. The Sargent comes around to the side, helps me out, sets me down next to my mom, and gets my brother. I’m shaking, I’m so thrilled – plus its cold standing in the air – as the Sargent goes to get my brother.

Now my brother – he’s seen me jump in. He saw me sink like a stone – and then come up and gasping and thrashing, make my way to the edge of the pool. And he wants NOTHING to do with this! He starts pulling at the Sergeant’s arm as soon as the Sargent grabs him – and his feet squeaking across the floor like a set of bad brakes, gets dragged all the way to the board. He doesn’t climb up – the Sargent has to carry him, setting him on the board like a sack of trembling flesh. Me – I’m grinning. After all – it was fun! And now it promises to become even funnier, at least for me. I get to watch terrified Bro’ do something that didn’t bother me at all.

The Sargent mounts the board behind my brother, who finds there’s only one way off the thing – off the deep end, because Sargent is keeping him from beating a quick retreat to dry land. And it really reminds me of an old pirate movie now, with the pirate forcing his hapless victim to the end of the plank. The Sargent takes a step; my brother takes two back. The Sargent takes a step – my brother takes two back. Before he knows it, he’s at the end of the board, and the Sargent is still coming.

My brother is having none of this. He begins to scream. And how that place echoed! Even the smallest sound of the waves on the water; a wet towel dropped on the floor – it all makes noise that seems to echo endlessly around the concrete walls and high glass windows. So the Sargent takes a step – and my brother stands frozen, glancing all around like a trapped cat.

“Jump in,” the Sargent sternly commands.

My brother looks around again. Panic. He looks at the Sargent. More panic. My brother starts spinning in place, looking for an escape route. There is none.

“Jump in,” the Sargent says again. “Look, your brother did it. He ain’t drowned. I ain’t gonna let you drown. Now jump in.”

I watch. I’m amused. It’s good to see big Bro doing the old knee-knocker shake. My brother, like the cat, tries to dart around the Sargent. It ain’t no use. Sarge grabs him up like an old flour sack, turns him around facing the water, sets him back down.

“Jump in!” Sarge is getting a little tired of the game.

Bro won’t have nothing to do with this. More screams. I’m getting restless. I want to jump in. But Bro (as would be the case so often) is holding up the show. And the Sargent is feeling it to: he has swimming lessons to give – ours – and this is how he starts kids to get them over their fear of the water.

So he picks Bro up. Bro now realizes he’s gonna go in whether he likes it or not. Sarge dangles him over the water. The screams are just rocketing around the arena like . . . screams! I’m holding my ears; this place is like an amplifier. Sarge holds Bro by the foot for a moment – a dangling fish – and lets go.

Bro goes in the water.

I watch. He sinks like a stone. I can see him down there squirming around like a cat in a bathtub. After a moment he pops back up. And the boy is still screaming! And screaming all the way to the side, where the Sargent has come around to the edge to help him out. Lifting the boy from the water, he places him on the concrete to one side and tells him:

“Now see? There was nothing to be scared of!”

Yeah. Right. I can see my brother’s wide eyes roll towards the water. He knows what I know: we’re gonna have to go in again. And while I’m looking forward to it, he’s not.

And thus began our swimming lessons. Long hours of holding onto the sides, kicking; then kicking with the kick-paddles – back and forth across the pool. The clean bleach-like smell of chlorine. The echoes of splashing water, whistles, and shouting voices in that building; the large colorful swim-based murals on the tall walls – and I think there was even a running track overhead, sloped for speed. It was my kind of place: military, cool, well maintained and open – plus it had that pool. I was always ready to go there; could hardly wait to get out when we’d pull into pine dominated parking lot. I’d always rush across the gravel – I can still see the basement doors (they were forbidden; that was where they stored the chlorine) – and the huge locker room (which I was so embarrassed to be seen in – I didn’t like anyone to see me naked; especially the older men).


I went on to be a pretty good swimmer; still am. Got my Red Cross Advanced Lifeguard Certification; did the one-mile swims for my Boy Scout awards. Learned the Trojan crawl and the survival float. Learned to dive off the high dive – head first! – cracking my skull on the water a few times. And yeah, I’ve come close to drowning a couple times (more stories to tell) – but never lost my love for water.

But my brother? Not so much.

I guess it must be the cat in him.