Thanks to all who left comments or wrote to encourage me to keep blogging. I have a very large catalog of pictures that I’ve taken over the last two years, so I’ll go back and dig around to see what I can come up for this blog. I apologize ahead of time if I post a repeat. It’s doubtful that I’ll post the exact same picture, but I often take several photos at each shoot, which leaves me with a pretty good assortment of shots that I can use. I’ll try my best not to get too repetitious, but unless conditions improve I don’t expect to be taking new photos for at least a few more weeks. (And even that might be wishful thinking.)
Both my parents grew up on lakes. My father was raised on the shores of one of the Great Lakes (Lake Ontario), my mother on one of the smaller lakes in the Finger Lakes region. (Conesus Lake.) As a consequence, both parents felt it was important for all of their children to learn how to swim at a very young age because they knew we would grow up spending a considerable amount of time at either lake. I don’t recall how old I was or how I got my feet wet, but I was a proficient, if not highly skilled swimmer well before Kindergarten. My mother enrolled each of us in formal swimming lessons, though I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps she felt it was important for us to achieve our Red Cross swimming cards or maybe it was just her way of showing off? Whatever her reason, we smoked every kid in each class that we took.
By the time I was in sixth grade I was waiting to be old enough to take Senior Lifesaving. If I recall, you had to be a certain age to enroll. At that point in my life we lived in the suburbs of the city and we had an in-ground pool in our back yard. Swimming was as natural for us as any other childhood game or sport and given this advantage, I’d advanced well ahead of the curve. In fact, my formal lessons had come to a screeching halt a few years prior as I had passed all but the two final tests: Junior and Senior Lifesaving. As a young man my father had earned money working as a lifeguard at a public beach in Charlotte, NY., so naturally he expected that his children would take (and pass) the lifesaving courses. And as mom pointed out, with a pool in our back yard, the more card-carrying lifesavers around, the better!
My older sister was exactly eighteen months (to the day) older than me, and when she reached the age to enroll in Senior Lifesaving my mother somehow managed to get me enrolled in the class too. This meant that I was the smallest and youngest in a large class of mostly boys and a few girls. While my sister was a strong swimmer she was by no means a tough girl. But I was, and that more than made up for the slight disadvantage I had going into this class. I don’t remember all the details of this experience, but I do remember having to swim lots and lots of laps and having to tread water for a ridiculous amount of time. None of that bothered me the least, but what did bog me down was the amount of reading and reciting that we had to do. I remember sitting poolside and reading our Lifesaving books, yellow hi-lighter in hand. Often, my sister and I would jump into the deep end of our pool to practice something we’d just read. I’m sure this gave us a huge advantage over other students in our class.
When it finally came time for our water tests the instructors did their best to try to intimidate us. We were each tested alone; nobody except the crew of instructors and their hand picked “drowning victims” could watch. Each test for every student was different, created spontaneously as the student was ushered from the bowels of the locker room up to the pool. We nervously waited our turn, then as each student returned from their test we peppered them with our questions. “How was it?” “Was it hard?” “Did you pass?” “How many tries did it take?” Unfortunately, each student was sworn to secrecy before being dismissed, and so we learned nothing. Two or three students were injured in the process. Dislocated fingers and broken toes seemed to be the catch of the day.
My sister was called to test ahead of me, leaving me for last. By then, word had it that several students had failed their water tests. I was shocked to learn that several of the biggest, best swimmers had failed to “land” their victim in the allotted amount of time. I worried that my non-aggressive sister might not fare well and I hoped the best for her. When she returned, she looked defeated (she had, in fact passed) and subdued, and she wouldn’t catch my eye, afraid perhaps that her big sister concern would tempt her to share more information than allowed. I remember the chill as I walked up the long tiled corridor, followed by the strong smell of chlorine as the warm humid air hit my face. I was quickly introduced to my ‘victim’ before he jumped into the deep end of the Olympic size pool. By all accounts, he was huge. Tall, muscular, very long-limned, and I had no idea how I was going to “rescue” him. I knew for certain that he’d be doing his best to try to drown me in the process, especially since “Realistic” was the only description I’d managed to cajole out of any of the other students.
My test was explained to me. I was to perform a direct front in-water approach and a classic cross chest carry. Once I got out there anything could happen and I would be allowed to make my own decisions on the fly, but that was what I was supposed to attempt. I nodded that I understood, glanced at the clock and walked to the edge of the pool. There were ropes with life rings attached, long poles and other implements that we could use as we deemed necessary, but only after our prior assignment had failed. The whistle blew and I dove in. A strong under water swimmer, I didn’t surface until I was just out of reach of my victim. I called to him and he lunged directly toward me, mimicking a full blown panic! I dove deep, grabbed his legs, spun him around until his back was against me. I crawled up his body, gripping him like a vice, terrified that he would get turned around again. I knew I didn’t stand a chance if he wrapped one of his spidery arms around my neck. My lungs were about to burst. I kicked hard, surfaced, threw an arm across his chest and locked my elbow down. We headed toward the edge of the pool, but his long, heavy body dwarfed mine and I had to fight to keep us both afloat. Meanwhile, my victim was doing everything in his power to sabotage my rescue. He repeatedly tangled his legs in mine and tried to break free, but I rolled him like an alligator and kept working toward the make believe shore.
I was one of four students who passed the Senior Lifesaving water test that summer. I never applied to be a life guard anywhere, but swimming has remained my strong suit. Many years ago I joined a YMCA and swam laps on my lunch hour. Something about the steady rhythm of the crawl appealed to me. I found it calming. When I was young my parents used to pack me up and send me off with my older sister for a two week stay with my mother’s mother. Grandma didn’t spend much time worrying about us or supervising our every move. We knew what was off limits and what the rules were, and were were pretty much on our own. One of my fondest memories was waking up at the crack of dawn so we could swim while the water was still calm. The cool morning air made the water feel bath-tub warm and the only sound we could hear was the soft slapping of the occasional wave against the sides of the rowboat that was moored along the dock. I remember the long, stringy, green seaweed that clung to the wooden ladder at the end of the dock. It looked like cooked rhubarb as it waved back and forth, pulled by an invisible current. I remember doing handstands, my feet kicking in the air and my fingers pushing against the ripples of sand on the shallow bottom. My sister and I swam or rowed to a float that was secured some 150 yards or so from the main dock, where we planned our strategy for swimming across the lake. (Accompanied, we thought, by one of us rowing the boat alongside!) We were young … probably seven and nine when we were doing all this, and totally unsupervised. Like many memories from my childhood, I’m so glad we had the opportunity to do these things, unfettered by parents who thought better of our crazy schemes and ideas.