My sweet, late mother had a deathly fear of water. I don’t know what precipitated that dread of any amount of water deeper than a few inches in a bathtub, but her fear was real and palpable. I know she lost a friend to drowning in a river, but I was a young boy when that happened and had already heard the swimming edict.
She tried to transfer the fear to her four sons with some early success…me. I’d ask to go swimming with some buddies and she’d issue her dead serious, only qualification: “You can’t go swimming until you learn how to swim.”
“But, Mother, these guys know how to swim real good and they’re going to teach me so I’ll be as good a swimmer as they are.”
“Nope. You can’t go until you learn how to swim.”
SO, I pretended I wasn’t going to go swimming, but as soon as we got to the stock tank or creek (Teague had no public pool in those days), it was skinny-dipping time. But, I still didn’t learn to swim. Even when my buddies teased me and called me fraidy cat or sissy, I clung to the bank and didn’t move past waist-deep water.
At age 12, I went off to Boy Scout camp for the first time and Mother’s repetitive admonition was leveled at me and at the Scoutmaster.
OF COURSE, I ignored it and it was torturous. She had instilled her own fear of water in me to such a degree that I was afraid to learn how to swim. I clung to the side of the Camp Tahauya natural rock pool all week long, with little progress to learn something I really needed to know how to do for personal safety and social acceptance.
As the summer progressed, though, I managed enough skinny-dip trips that I could dog paddle and thus maneuver enough that my teasing but alert friends played life guard to this rookie swimmer. It took several years before I was what I considered a good enough swimmer to feel comfortable in just about any water situation except a very long distance.
Fortunately, during Scouting excursions, swimming instructors and lifeguards taught more than a basic swimming stroke (the Australian crawl, as it is known). I had learned the side stroke was extremely restful and you could swim longer distances more easily than you could with the crawl. And, the back stroke was almost as good for those long hauls.
Suddenly, things went a little haywire because we had racing competition. I learned that the crawl called for a rhythmic stroke and breathing, but I couldn’t master the timing. The side stroke was designed for long distance swimming, but is not made for good times. The racing breast stroke was a rise-up-out-of-the-water flail that immersed your head and, again, the timing for breathing just didn’t click.
Then, I caught on quickly to the racing backstroke. It seemed tailor-made for me and I belonged, I was on the Scout troop’s camp swim team.
NOW, I could be Joe Cool.
At age 20, after two years of college, I went back to Teague to edit The Chronicle and make a little money. I’d run out of funds for college.
Meanwhile Teague had built a community pool. I could go swim, “lay out” on my towel and smoke Kent cigarettes with the baby blue micronite filter and flirt with the chicks. One day a “new girl,” almost six feet tall, long blonde hair, beautiful face, great swimsuit figure AND…she smoked. Way cool!
We met, sat on our towels, smoked and talked. All of a sudden, a hulking figure of a man appeared and glared at me. “Oh, that’s my big brother. I’m 15 and I’m not supposed to talk to older men.”
The water suddenly became more inviting and I was glad I had learned how to swim.
Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher of more than 50 years experience. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.