Thursday, 24 March 2011

Growing Up Home: Swimming Lessons


My nephew fishes in the lake I grew up on
(The following is an excerpt from "Growing Up Home." Copyright RK Henderson.)

In Olympia, Washington, where I grew up, people who couldn't swim were considered physically, if not mentally, disabled. So to avoid small town censure, and perhaps save our lives, my mother enrolled my brother and me in swimming lessons at the age of six and eight.

Back then, self-respecting Puget Sound kids swam in lakes, and on really hot days, the bay. I still abhor pools, reeking of bleach and God knows what else. But this was pushing it. I don't recall the precise month the course began, but my graphic memories of icy grey skies place it closer to the previous Christmas than the next. The venue was Capitol Lake, a former mudflat of the Sound, dyked off in the 1950s to make a freshwater reflecting pond for the state capitol dome. The black marine oobleck, stagnated river water, and municipal effluent also made it a fermenting cauldron of corruption, one whose temperature hovered just above freezing in that season.

Before our abject refusal even to undress in the dank bathhouse, much less enter the water, my mother bribed us with a Mountain Bar a-piece, payable after each session. And so we fell in with the blue-lipped, shoulder-hugging damned lined up in the pea gravel. The only sound was the ominous lap of waves, from which we reflexively pulled back our toes; we were all shivering too hard even to complain.

Eventually a teenager appeared, in dry trunks and thongs, carrying a clipboard. A whistle was slung around the hood of his sweatshirt. "Everybody in!" he ordered, stepping onto the L-shaped swimming dock. Nobody moved. As he rounded the corner a whistle blast split the air. "I said IN!" A girl of similar years appeared behind us, urging us forward with menacing pushing gestures.

I don't know where Parks and Recreation got those instructors. Possibly they were young offenders working off their community service. At any rate, when push came literally to shove, we found ourselves knee-deep in glacial sewage. Our tormentors ordered us to grip the dock and kick, to tread water, to swim across the boomed swimming area. We strove to move as little as possible, and not to put our faces underwater. Or, God forbid, get any in our mouths.

And so it went, week after week. Few images survive today beyond wretched misery; the rest have been firmly repressed. But I do recall once huddling with another boy as we numbly contemplated some grotesque, B-movie invertebrate clinging to the dock's slimy undercarriage. I've spent my life on, in, and near water, but I've never seen its like again. Mostly, I remember how we vaulted out of that arctic slough at lesson's end, clutching beach towels around waxen shoulders and simply savouring the terry cloth nirvana. It's amazing how a slight shift in location can make a cold, soggy morning feel like an August afternoon.

I learned nothing about swimming that spring, but is that really the point? Capitol Lake is off-limits to swimmers now, condemned at long last by a lethargic county health department, and today, my nephew takes his lessons in a heated indoor pool. I worry about his moral development. Sure, he'll learn the side stroke, the dead man's float, the Australian crawl. But can the boy truly become a man without spending nine consecutive Saturdays waist-deep in a freezing mudflat, while Colonel Klink snarls at him from the dock?

And will he ever know the sheer, ecstatic bliss a guy can get from a single Mountain Bar?
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