Swimming Lessons 2
(Or Why You Don’t Piss Off An Old Wet Hen)

I had my first real “pool” epiphany about two or three months after I’d begun to learn to swim, courtesy of the old Sargent at the military indoor swimming pool. It was a hot Georgia summer – and trust me, summer in Georgia can get really HOT. It’s not like that nice dry heat they have out west; here it’s more of a steam bath, a sauna – a “just pop me in the pot and boil me ’till I’m done” type of heat. Maybe it’s the pines, or all the lush vegetation – you can literally see the humidity in the air come June, and it lingers like a fog until September or so. Cut it with a knife? Heck, you can eat it with a spoon.

Back in the “old days” – or at least the days of the ‘hood, when we were poor – air-conditioning was a thing of dreams. WE had one – at my mid-western mom’s insistence – which put us about a half-leg up the other envied folks in the neighborhood – the people with the brick sided house. But of course it was one of those huge old monster window units – a really big boxy thing that intruded its noisy nose into our kitchen, breathing out cool wafts of air. It made so much noise that dinner conversations were more of a shouting match than a conversation – but we didn’t mind. At least it kept the kitchen and dining area cool.

But this is about the pool. No, not that one – the indoor one, where we learned to swim. It was about another one – one that was famous for over sixty miles around – because it was huge, outdoors, and spring fed with a sandy bottom.

No, it wasn’t a lake. It was a place called “Misty Waters” – because the water had a sort of whitish look from all the sand upwelling from the springs – and it had concrete block sides, and seemed to go on forever. There were deep ends, shallow ends, it wandered around for what seemed well over an acre – and because this was “in the day”, in the Deep South, blacks were not allowed in. Not that I cared; I would boycott such a pool now, or scurry around the side and help whoever wanted to get in over the fence and wall – but back then segregation was “normal”, and I didn’t even know there was such a thing. Doesn’t really even matter considering where this story is headed. The time? About 1968 or 1969 or so – yeah, deep into the civil rights movement, but this is Georgia we’re talking about – a state that, while ‘comfortable’ with working alongside blacks, couldn’t accept blacks into its recreational facilities.  Come to think about it – I can’t remember any black kids in school, either, though I’m sure they were there. They were probably segregated among the classes, since law wouldn’t allow them to segregate the school.  Oddly enough to us kids the color of your skin didn’t matter – it was how you played that counted.  How smiling and friendly you are.

Anyway, this place, this “Misty Waters” – it was the place to go during the summer, not that we went there very often. After all, it cost money to get in – and when you have a fist full of kids and not many dollars – money becomes an issue real quick.

We’d pack up – us and the family across the street – their mother and three boys, plus MY mom and us two boys – and head out to this huge ‘swimming’ pool. I remember they had a TRIPLE high dive, a couple ‘regular’ dives – and that endless sandy bottom. And the water! So cool – almost cold after driving through the summer heat, all us kids suffering like dogs in the back of the old car – panting and complaining (and occasionally getting a few licks from the eternal wooden spoon my momma carried like an accessory – like a part of her arm). It seemed we had to drive forever to get there, though in retrospect I know now it was only about twenty or so miles over country roads – and when we’d get there! Us kids couldn’t wait to get through the line, get in that pool – and escape our mothers.

Like I said, I only remember going there maybe two or three times (times were hard for us back then – in more ways than one – and even harder for my brother and I, seeing we were stuck at home with our mother – our slightly insane mother who had a penchant for violence and terror when the doors were closed). But this one time really sticks out in my mind. It was when I learned that you don’t piss mom off, not in a pool. And you definitely don’t interrupt her when she is in the middle of a conversation with her friend.

This particular day – sunny, hot, white puffed clouds drifting in the sky like malformed marshmallows – I’d been swimming around for a while. I can remember how good it felt – that cool, cool water, the sand shifting beneath my feet – taking a few daring leaps off the high dive (which was always crowded with kids and redneck athletes out to impress ‘their women’). But I’d gotten bored, and had lost track of my friends in the rambling pool – it wasn’t square, but instead was built like a confused set of building blocks, rectangles and squares all interconnected – and it was huge. Finally I spot my mom in the shallow end talking to her friend, the woman across the street.

I push my way through the water – so clear and blue, and yet with that slightly whitish tint from the fine particles of sand – until I come up behind her. She’s busy talking; the waters right up to the top of her butt – she’s not a tall woman – and right about collarbone level to me.

“Mom! Play with me!” I say.

Wave of the hand behind the butt, she indicated I should go away.

“Please, mom! Come play with me!”

The hand waves more insistently; she continues talking. I get up closer to her. She’s got on one of those one-piece bathing suits, that much I remember. The woman she is talking to – my ‘second mom’ is laughing, talking back.

“MOM! Come on! Play!” Okay, now I’m being a little bit more stupid, a bit more daring, and a lot more dumb. I should’ve known better than to mess with this woman – my mom – especially here, while she is having such a good time – and leaving us kids alone – and there IS a huge pool to swim in – why am I doing this? I don’t know, I’m just bored. And like I said: being stupid. REAL stupid.

No more hand waving. Mom spins in the water, her face going in a flash from laughing and talking to pure rage.

Play with you? PLAY with you? Okay. I’ll play with you!”

Before I can back away – and trust me, knowing that look I’m trying to back away! – she snatches me up. Faster than you can say “fish” she’s got me by the ankles, and I hear – sort of through the water as she lifts me up – “play!”

And she starts spinning me around – around and around in the water – holding me by my ankles. And it’s NO fun at ALL, not this type of playing! Like I said: the water was hip deep on her; holding me by the ankles, I’m in from stomach to the top of my head – and she’s swirling me through the water like a turd in the toilet – and I can’t get any air! I’m twisting, turning – trying my darnedest to snatch a breath – trying to scream for her to stop, she’s drowning me – can’t see anything but blue water and flashes of sky – and around and around we go.

I’d just started to really begin drowning – choking in big lung fulls of mixed water and foam – trying to kick myself free from those nails driving into my ankles – it’s no use, she’s got a good hold on me – and I can hear the occasional “play!” – when her friend reaches forward and stops her.

Good thing she did, or else I think I wouldn’t be here right now, and my momma’d be in jail for murder.

When she let me go – I back off, crying and choking and sputtering – going from “lets play” to “run away!” in an instant – terrified, out of breath, and staring at my mom as I keep backpedaling away, not stopping for anything – not the other kids in the pool, not even to finish catching my breath. I know she scared me BAD that time – not as bad as in the story “Kissing the Thin Man” – but bad enough. I’ve learned my lesson – swimming lesson number two.

Don’t interrupt momma while she’s talking. And don’t EVER get near her in a pool.

Oddly enough, though – I was never afraid of the water – only afraid of her – and I never lost my love for swimming – though I think I did lose some of my love for her.  I know I learned another level of terror that day . . . one involved with drowning . . .

It wasn’t the first time she’d scared me like that, and it wouldn’t be the last, but it was the last time I ever bothered her while we were in the pool.