Lessons from a Small Town: Swimming
The big kids in Ames swam in the crick. I was not allowed. When I was little, my mother warned me not to swim in the tempting watering hole in the summertime. She said there were bloodsuckers in the cloudy water. I did not know what these suspicious critters were, but I was smart enough to know that I needed all of my blood.
One hot day, I decided to venture over to the crick. My curiosity got the best of me. As I walked across the street in the center of town through Marguerite and Jay’s lawn, I heard the shouts of delight from the village teenage swimmers in the distance.
An inflated truck inner tube dangled from a rope on a low branch over a deep section of the bordering Canajoharie Creek. The girls sported colorful one piece bathing suits. The boys flaunted their bare chests. Like super heroes, their lean, muscular, wet torsos glistened in the sunlight as they swung on the black ring and dropped into the water. The pockets of their cut-off dungarees bulged with water and algae.
For a short while, I quietly perched on the muddy edge of the crick and watched the fun. But soon, I wanted to feel a part of the action. So, I waved both hands at my babysitter and her sister and shouted a greeting to draw attention to myself. I felt important when the sisters lifted their arms and signaled in response to my hello.
Occasionally during my visit, I dipped my bare feet into the cool water and let my toes sink in the gooey silt. But I also kept an eye out for the dreaded bloodsuckers.
Where were they? Under the smooth slate rocks? Attached to the submerged tree limbs? Deep in the dark olive mud? My imagination ran wild with the awful thought of my blood oozing out of my skin into the mouth of some under water creature. I pulled my bare feet back on to the grass and went home.
I never did swim in the crick.
On the way from Ames to Canajoharie up a hill above a vast field of alfalfa and cow corn, my Dad was commissioned to build the Canajoharie Country Club Pool. The refreshing oasis resided next the nine-hole golf course. To keep out trespassers, my father added a shiny chain link fence around the perimeter of the main swimming area and baby pool. The site was for members only. Guests were invited, but they had to sign in and pay a fee.
“Put on your suits. Don’t forget your towels and your bathing caps.”
In the kitchen, Mom cleaned up after a summer lunch of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches served on slices of waxed paper. She directed us to get ready for our usual 1pm departure to the pool.
It did not take long for my sisters and me to get ready. Our towels hung on the clothes line from the day before and our chlorine smelling bathing suits waited on top of the dryer in a damp heap.
The four of us slid on to the back bench seat of our car and argued for a window position. Mom arrived last. She turned the key and put the car in reverse.
The white side-walled tires of our Chrysler station wagon spun a dust tail as we drove up the gravel hill to the Canajoharie Country Club. It was not a fancy country club like I saw on 77 Sunset Strip or Bewitched. Our venue included a modest wooden clubhouse with a dining room, a bar and a wide back porch that over looked the links. I loved when we ate there on special weekends. After dinner Mom and Dad drank coffee, smoked a cigarette and talked. Our parents excused the four of us to play tag on the practice putting green, if no one was on it. As I twirled and darted from end to end on the closely cropped grass, the plaid material of my favorite skort expanded like an open umbrella. I imagined I was a famous ballerina.
When we arrived at the pool, one of us opened the latch of the gate. We entered as if we were the US Olympic Swim Team parading in the Opening Ceremony. We headed to the far end. Ready to swim, we were already wearing our rubber bathing caps. Without missing a beat, we quickly shed our cover-ups and threw our towels on nearby aluminum chairs. The colorful tubing of the chairs snagged the terry-cloth material. Tiny tents formed making the area look like a refugee settlement in a far-off land. I dipped my foot in to check the water temperature and headed to the diving board.
I don’t remember my early swim lessons.
I must have gone through the drill of putting my face in the water and blowing bubbles in the shallow section. However, I do not really recall those experiences.
But I do recall when I was a teenager how much I dreaded the final Jr. Life Saver test. Our instructor was a burly middle aged no-nonsense man. His serious demeanor and hairy chest made my knees quiver. My whole body fit into his shadow on the concrete decking.
First we had to jump in the water with our clothes on. Sneakers and all.
I should have worn looser garments.
I struggled to pull down my pants as I tread water in the deep end. At last I thrust my pants over my head in the hopes of trapping air to make a float. Eventually, I rested between the inflated fabric legs like a hot dog in a bun.
I proved that I could survive in deep water by only using my clothes. Step One. Check.
“Kim, your turn.”
Step Two. Saving a drowning victim.
I felt like I had to pee. I tugged on the back of my suit. My black nylon bottom had wedged into the crack of my back side.
“Jump in. I will grab you like I am drowning and you will bring me to the safety of the shallow end.” The instructor made it sound so simple.
Really? I don’t think I would ever try and save a person ten times my size. I would look for a rope, a float or run away for help.
It was my turn. The water cascaded over my face as I jumped in and drifted to the bottom of the pool.
There he was waiting for me on the metal drain plate. My instructor lunged in my direction and grabbed me around my neck in a bear hug. His vice grip pressed my trachea against my backbone. My trembling hands pushed against his hairy arms. He was like a gorilla latched onto a tree. I was the tree. I wedged my right hand between our cheeks that were now practically melted into one. But I did not have the strength to uncouple us. My chest started to ache with my limited air supply. I felt a warm stream of urine between my legs.
Finally, I had to resort to a basic survival technique that I had heard about from the boys on the school bus. I pulled my one knee upward with all of my might and thrust it forward into my instructor’s groin. My knee cap made contact with a soft area between his thighs. Suddenly his grip lessened. Bubbles came out of his mouth. I wrapped my arm across his torso and kicked fiercely with both legs to bring us up to the surface. When my head emerged, I exhaled the small reserve from my lungs and gasped for more air. I leaned back, kicked with all my might and headed to the other end of the pool with my victim in tow.
Nothing was ever said about my unique tactic. It was obvious that I was physically outmatched. Perhaps my instructor admired my resourcefulness.
I got my Jr. Life Saver patch and proudly sewed it to the bottom of my black bikini for everyone to see. Yes, I was a qualified Jr. Life Saver, but I never intended to save anyone.
“Take off your sweat shirts and towels campers!” The directive came from a fully clothed counselor in the shadows. I was not sure she was a she.
I had fashioned a nifty terry cloth sarong out of my floral beach towel and tucked it under my new, thick gray sweatshirt. I did not want to part with either.
“Come on, hurry up girls. We don’t have all day.”
Actually, I did not mind if this took a while. Maybe in a few hours the sun would hit the waterfront and make it more inviting.
Slowly I peeled away my cocoon. Goosebumps and shaking knees screamed out.
Multiple cardboard boxes filled with colorful rubber bathing caps stacked on the wooden planks of the dock. Red for Beginners. Green for Intermediates. Blue for Swimmers. White for the Life Saving Class.
It was now time to divide us into the appropriate color categories. In order to avoid the cold waters of Lake Otsego in Cooperstown, NY, I had to quickly devise a strategy.
“Are there any swimmers?” The manly voice continued.
Confidently, a few Girls Scouts proudly pushed their way to the front of the pack and marched out to the far end. My older sister Chris was among the brave.
The Waterfront Director of Camp Minnetoska seemed to be enjoying her authority a little too much. She blew her whistle three times to get our attention.
About 2/3 of the remaining girls dutifully followed the box of green caps to the center of the dock. Their strides were not quite as confident. Some girls even clutched on to each other’s hands for support.
I smugly remained at the water’s edge.
Flipper, the loud, masculine counselor who had been barking orders, turned around and followed the first two groups of girls. She supervised the screening process of the more proficient campers.
PJ, a short, rotund, curly-haired college girl gingerly approached the remaining six of us huddled on the rocky shore.
“Don’t be scared girls,” she comforted us as she crouched down to our eye level. “We are only going to get our toes wet today.”
Bingo! My plan worked.
Sure, I knew how to swim!
I had endured several years of lessons at the Canajoharie Country Club Pool but I was not about to jump into a cold, dark lake with plumes of unknown vegetation poking through the surface like flares going off at an accident scene. I knew there were fish in there too. Probably the cousin of the Loch Ness Monster was also waiting down below for my tender young legs.
I demurely dipped one foot in the clear, shallow, lukewarm water along with my fellow non-swimmers.
“See how easy that was!” encouraged our nurturing leader as she madly applauded our efforts. “Now try the other foot,” she coaxed us.
Two wet feet and a new red bathing cap signaled my success.
When the lesson was over, I proudly donned my symbol of victory and went back to the warmth of my sweatshirt and towel that were waiting for me under a tree.
Each morning my Beginner level routine was repeated and a new task was cautiously added. Eventually, we built up to stretching out our bodies on the soft sandy bottom. I slithered around like a salamander as I searched for pockets of warm water and smooth rocks while the sun toasted my back. I totally enjoy my scaled down status.
One morning, my secret almost slipped out when my older sister chastised me as she passed me on the dock on the way to her Swimmer’s section.
“Kim you know how to swim!” Chris was a proud blue capper. Her group was working on breast stroke techniques next to the diving board. She sounded disgusted as she hissed my name.
“Nope,” I quietly responded as if I were dismissing an anonymous pan handler.
Getting down on all fours for my morning lesson, I slid into the calm water of Glimmerglass, nicknamed by James Fenimore Cooper in his Leather Stocking Tales. Today I was in search of fossils.
That summer I was a Red Cap forever!