Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 28
July 12-18, 2001
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A Frogman Out of Water

"Or sink or swim."
- Shakespeare: King Henry the Fourth

That’s the way it used to be, at least for many. That’s how swimming was oft times taught. No, not taught, let’s rephrase that.

That’s how many learned to swim. The ‘teacher’ in such an aquatic education experience certainly never deserved certification.

Times have changed. People can now take their nose from the grindstone long enough to lend a hand. The sink-or-swim philosophy no longer holds for survival in the water — nor for mastering many of the other obstacles on dry land in the course of life.

I got to thinking about this the other day when at Gettysburg, I did something I rarely do. I sat by the pool at the Eisenhower Inn and Conference Center in hopes the heat and the warm moisture would bring relief to a painful shoulder injured nearly two months ago when a youngster dashed in front of me on a sidewalk.

I was literally dashing into a drugstore, tried to do a fancy evasive foot routine and ended up with my shoulder lodged against the curb. Ouch. And it has been ouch since. By weekend will come the verdict: surgery or therapy.

Who knows? If the remedy is the latter, it could involve swimming — if I’m willing to take the dive, which would pose a dilemma. As I’ve mentioned previously in this space, I haven’t swum more than a stroke or two for going on 57 years.

I have no fear of water, but I have a promise to keep with a very important Being.

Out of the Swim of Things
When 18 and in the Navy, I was with a Seabee underwater demolition unit training for the invasion of Japan. Day after day was spent swimming while carrying 40 pounds of explosives in addition to other paraphernalia. When we weren’t in the water, we were watching film of a stretch of rugged Japanese coastline where it was figured we would be going ashore to clear and secure a beachhead.

Let’s say it didn’t look easy. I made a promise to the Lord. “You get me out of this, and I’ll never swim again,” I said. Within days, the big bomb was dropped; a few days later a second one. Japan surrendered. The Almighty had granted my prayers.
I owe him one. A big one. So it would take an awful lot of persuasion from my doctor to convince me that swim therapy would be the appropriate cure for an aching shoulder.

That First Stroke
But I’ve got nothing against swimming. It’s a graceful sport, healthy exercise and can certainly be a refreshing interlude for a family on a hot summer day — though if I want to get from one side of the pool, lake, ocean or whatever to the other side, I’ll ride a boat. Or walk around. Or stay put.

I’ve often speculated whether swimming is like riding a bicycle: Once you learn, the lesson permeates your being, so after many years you can instinctively pick up where you left off. I presume this is so.
But in swimming, it’s the first stroke or series of strokes that is the barrier … as with riding a bike, or perhaps skiing down a mountain, parachuting from an airplane or driving through Mexico City. It’s sink or swim.

So from a chair at the Eisenhower complex, I watched several parents teaching their kids to swim, urging them to take their first strokes. The father or mother — with one girl of about five, it was an older brother — stretched out arms to catch the beginner while urging the reluctant child to make the big move.

I could feel for each of those youngsters. All around was the inviting big pool waiting to be explored. But initially there had to be first strokes, even dog paddles. The reward would be great, but so was the fear that had to be mastered.

Most overcome it; some don’t. The older one gets before the first buoyant stroke, the less chance of ever exploring any pool or other body of water.

Sink or Swim
I thought back to the Great Depression when I was a teen-ager in rural New England. I never even saw a swimming pool until I was in my teens, never got wet in one until basic training at Sampson, New York. Had there been one around before then, folks wouldn’t have had the time to frolic in it — never mind clean it, balance the chemicals and whatever else is needed to keep it swimmable for humans.

There were the times back then when the occasional brief swim after a day of farm work was looked upon as an exciting way to take a bath. But it afforded little time to teach a youngster to swim.
After supper, one returned to fields or gardens to work until almost dark, and swimming in darkness was a no-no. So in the brief time at the swimming hole — long before Red Cross swimming instructions were ever thought of — it wasn’t uncommon for a parent or sibling to push or carry a beginner to waters over the head, then let him or her free. Sink or swim.

Most instinctively swam. Those who didn’t after a few such unsuccessful and terrifying lessons were doomed to spend the remainder of their lives shoreside dreadfully afraid of the water — as was my favorite Canadian fishing guide, Maggie, who could catch a salmon in a bathtub, turn a canoe on a dime in the rapids but couldn’t swim a stroke.

When a boy, his father tossed him off a dock into cold Lake Palfrey, told him to sink or swim — then ended up swimming himself to retrieve Maggie, who was paralyzed with fear. Maggie never even tried swimming after that.

I learned the hard way, though not like Maggie. Being the youngest of a group of boys, I was sent afoot to the other side of the lake to ferry a long log to my playmates. I grasped the log, and by kicking my feet propelled it to the waiting boys who climbed aboard. The log rolled, and I lost my grip.

Dexter Dumas dove to bring me to the surface. He held me while he briefed me on the dog paddle. Once it kept me afloat, he left me to join the others on the log. Soon, I was also with the others. Quickly fear was replaced by confidence, and that’s the key to swimming. Not easy, but it works. If only fear can be brushed aside.

In basic training in the Navy, I watched grown men tremble with fear when forced to learn to swim by a tough, boisterous boatswains mate who threatened after the count of 10 to toss them off the high platform.
They’d have given anything at the moment to be in the infantry, even with Pickett at Cemetery Ridge. The Bluejackets Manual, 1940 edition, read “Fair health, normal mentality, co-ordination and confidence are all that are required to learn how to swim. … The beginner must have confidence.” But those were only words in a book.

Flotation Devices
Books aren’t flotation devices, and that’s what’s needed when one who has yet to learn how to swim is in water close to the shoulders. When I was a kid, some of those who couldn’t swim splashed about in inflatable rubber Mae Wests, something about the size of the protrusions of their notorious namesake. On one of the rare days when we visited a beach, Grandma Burton commented ‘They look like her, and have her brains, too.”

Grandma never learned to swim. She didn’t do more than wade in water below her slightly uplifted hemline. She would have preferred drowning to being seen in public with the only PFD at the time, one that gave the wearer the configuration of that West woman who dared bare a leg, chase after men and joke to the whole world about it.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly