We made our first swimming visit of the year to Walden Pond last week after a couple of 90 degree scorchers that begged for a watery cool-off. I tend to think it's not really possible to go swimming until July, that lakes and ocean waters will still be too cold before that, but I realize that's kind of an arbitrary start-date. The temperature of the pond was perfectly refreshing, a bit chilly going in but nowhere near the bone-cold I remember tolerating in Lake Michigan through much of the summer.
I learned to swim in a lake - not Lake Michigan, but a small one like Walden Pond. Previous to that I'd been fearful of the water, one of those side-clutching children you see at swimming pools, rigid with anxiety as I inched my way around the circumference, terrified that I would plummet instantly to the bottom if I dared let go of that concrete lip. (And, since I didn't yet know how to swim, I assume that's exactly what would have happened.) I spent a year or two taking after-school lessons in downtown Chicago at the stuffy/swanky old Women's Athletic Club, a.k.a "the WAC," quite the incongruent place to troop through as an unaccompanied uniformed schoolgirl, laden with grubby backpack. There were only a few other children in the class, and all I remember is splashing aimlessly with kickboards in the grand old swimming pool, pictured above. We didn't make much progress.
Perhaps there was some discussion of this between my parents and my aunt and uncle, because it was arranged that the next summer I would visit them in Michigan to attend swimming lessons along with my cousins. Every day for two weeks we would go to a place called Gourdneck Lake in the Kalamazoo area for our lessons, and afterwards, my cousins told me with great anticipation, we would stop at the Dairy King (not Queen) on the way home for a dip cone. Ice cream cones every single day. That clinched it: I was officially excited about learning how to swim.
It turned out those ice cream cones were not a treat, but necessity. The daily hour of hard swimming made us ravenous. Before they'd even have a chance to drip we'd have inhaled our cones (chocolate-vanilla twist dipped in chocolate was the favorite, though sometimes an adventurous soul would go for butterscotch dip), and at night we slept like the dead. It's a running joke now between me and my husband that if I so much as dip a toe into the water I'll collapse into sleep that night, but back then it was merited.
The lessons were run by a nice man named Mr. Marfia, perhaps in his 50s, with a sun-weathered face and always wearing, as I remember it, a sort of safari hat. The story was (I don't know if it's true) that he had a son who had drowned, and that's why he taught children to swim. His house was right on the lakeshore, with a wide lawn and a sandy beach out front, and a system of docks where the lessons were conducted. He would stride about the area with gusto, an expression of happy satisfaction on his face, keeping an eye on things and making sure all was running smoothly. Once, mid-lesson, a water snake appeared, gliding across the water from the middle of the lake towards the diving area, and before any of the kids even had time to get upset, Mr. Marfia had hopped in a little boat, zipped over to the snake, and whacked it smartly with a stick. That was the end of the snake. You got the feeling he was a remarkably competent person and constantly on the lookout for everyone's well-being.
Kids were allowed to go in the house to use the downstairs bathroom, which was also pretty nice, considering how many of us there were and that this was Mr. Marfia's private home. We would tiptoe across the linoleum, smelling the musty lake house smell and leaving a trail of wet footprints behind us. There was a player piano in the rec room, and we would pause in front of it to gaze in wonder at its mechanical workings and peer at the song canisters piled on a nearby shelf.
Mr. Marfia worked with the very youngest children, who started their education lying on their tummies in the sand and kicking in the shallows, so I never had him as a teacher. We older kids gathered waist- and shoulder-deep farther out in the water, "Intermediates" midway down the dock, "Swimmers" at the end near the diving area. The class would line up in the water at the edge of the dock, craning our necks up at the teacher standing above us, demonstrating the various strokes in the air before we all swam back and forth practicing them.
My first year, which I started in Intermediates on the strength of my WAC kickboard training, I got the dreaded Mrs. Cush as my teacher. She wasn't actually all that bad, but had a blunt manner and a way of putting kids on the spot, which apparently was enough to make her reputation. She was a large, portly woman, and we liked to speculate whether that would make her sink or float - we never saw our teachers actually get in the water, after all - and called her "Mrs. Cushion" when safely out of earshot. The big gossip of the summer was the rumor that her name was not "Mrs. Cush" at all, but rather "Mrs. Cusher," a name we decided was dangerously close to "cushion," and must be the reason she had shortened it, solely to avoid our inevitable mocking. (This reminds me of the terrible gossip at my summer camp one year that the art teacher, Roberta, was bald under her head scarf. In retrospect I'm sure it was true, whether from chemotherapy or some sort of disorder, but nobody ever spoke to us about it - we just whispered and stared, and Roberta acted uncomfortable and looked at us like she hated us. I wish someone in authority had somehow defused the situation.)
Outside of class, waiting for my older cousin to finish his Swimmers lesson, I trooped around with the two cousins closest to my age, who were in the same class as me. We played in the water off to the side of the rectangle of docks, or else hid underneath them, breathing in the shallow air space between the surface of the water and the wooden slats above, spying on the people walking over us. If we felt too waterlogged we'd run up to the parking lot to sit in the hot station wagon with all the windows rolled up, baking in our private sauna and eating soupy peanut butter on Saltine crackers.
During class we must have been lined up alphabetically, with me near the beginning of the alphabet and my cousins at the end, so my swimming lessons pal was a boy named Hans who was placed next to me in line. Hans was friendly and quiet, and used the strategy, when teased about his name by other boys - "Hands?" - of smiling and saying, "Yup, two!" and holding them up cheerfully. He must have been used to that one. We talked in undertones together, I don't remember what about, probably just swimming lesson things like strokes and diving, as we bobbed at the edge of the dock waiting for our turn at the next exercise. But it was frequent enough that one day one of the other boys (those taunting boys!) asked him loudly, "Is that your girlfriend?" Hans looked mortified and awkwardly dodged the accusation, but it didn't stop him from talking to me, for which I was grateful.
Many days of swimming lessons were spent learning survival techniques. If we fell overboard, we were told, the first order of business was to get our shoes and clothes off. This was conveyed with great urgency, as though those items were lead weights that would instantly drag us down to the bottom of the ocean. And I don't know, perhaps they would. I would picture myself tumbling off the side of some enormous, Titanic-like vessel, and wondered how taking off my shoes would help me if I were bobbing alone in the middle of the ocean. We spent much longer than seemed necessary learning the jellyfish float (huddling in a little ball face-down in the water), and were shown how to tie off the legs of our pants to make them into inflated floats (by far the coolest part of the lesson). Then, one exciting day, were told to bring in a full outfit of clothing which we would wear while jumping into the water and then remove while jellyfish-floating, all timed by a stopwatch. That night, my cousins and I worried a lot about forgetting to put our bathing suits on underneath our clothes the next day, and practiced the jellyfish float as best we could on the family room carpet.
The next day all went well at first. Nobody forgot their under-layer of swimsuit, and we all jumped off the side of the dock in our clothes, feeling them grow heavily waterlogged, indeed fairly lead-like. I floated in my jellyfish pose and successfully got my shoes off, knotting them together, but when it came time to remove my shirt I made a crucial error and flipped it back over my head, thus pinning my arms behind my body. Suddenly the whistle was blowing and Mrs. Cush was hauling me up onto the dock, an example to all of what not to do.
"This girl!" she bellowed, "this girl ..." and she went on, but I don't remember anything else she said, only that ringing "this girl" and that I had to stand up there on the dock in my dripping clothes, my arms still pinned behind my back while Mrs. Cush went on and on about my mistake, prodding at me and turning me around to show off my sodden shackles to best advantage. When I was finally allowed to slip back into the water, my cousins and my buddy Hans may have tried to throw me a consoling look, but it was my turn to be mortified, and I felt far too disgraced to meet anyone's eyes.
In spite of the "this girl" incident, I was promoted out of Intermediates in just one year, something of a coup since most kids spent two seasons at that level, but I ended up spending two summers in Swimmers, since that was when we focused on diving and I had trouble surrendering myself to the perils of the diving board. This meant I had to undertake the ultimate "Swimmers" test two years in a row: swimming across the lake and back. Compared to this, jumping into the lake in our clothes was nothing. No dock to hold onto if we got tired, no sandy bottom where we could put our feet down, everyone watching if we failed, and who knew what lurked in the depths in the middle of the lake. There might be snapping turtles, and that water snake had come from there, hadn't it?
The first year I found the challenge surprisingly easy. We all headed off across the lake in a pack, and it seemed we reached the opposite shore in no time, staggering up through the cattails on the muddy beach like shipwreck survivors and admiring the strange view of Mr. Marfia's place from so far away, then crashing back into the water for the return swim.
The next year, for whatever reason, was much harder for me. Maybe I just had a bad day. I got really tired, and though I made it across and didn't lag too much, I remember struggling to keep up with everyone else. My mom took a picture of me just after I'd climbed back onto the dock, and the expression on my face is priceless: completely shattered, an embarrassed smile at having my picture taken mixed with the look of someone about to break into exhausted tears. And then, stumbling back down the dock towards the beach and the parking lot, a final celebratory dip cone in my immediate future, I wove a little too far to the right and fell right off the dock into the water with a big splash.
I was too tired to bother feeling mortified this time, and anyway, I'd scraped my leg pretty badly on the way down. And apparently all that mattered was getting across the lake, not what happened afterwards. The Swimmers instructor still passed me - she was much nicer than Mrs. Cush, and even bothered to learn our names, I remember, though of course now I can only recall the mean teacher's name, not hers.
So, in addition to the breast stroke and the crawl and the jellyfish float, that's the main thing I learned from swimming lessons: try not to be too mortified when you embarrass yourself in front of everyone. Kicking off your shoes and turning your pants into water wings won't help anything, and there's not much else you can do about it but smile and make a joke ("Hands? Yup, two!"). If you're lucky you still might get a dip cone on the way home at the Dairy King.
Also that it's okay to swim in lakes: chances are there's nothing in there that's going to bite you. And if there is, jump in your boat, fast, and try to hit it with a stick.