It’s swimming season. I know this because my granddaughter is taking swimming lessons this week. Nana has escorted her a couple of times to the backyard pool where she is learning the nuances of aquatic life. I called the other day to see how the lessons were going. The screams and laughter in the background at 94 decibels told me all I needed to know.
I heard “Nana” being hollered in the distance by a familiar voice. “She doesn’t want me on the phone. She told me, ‘Nana, don’t get on your phone. I want you to watch me the whole time so you can see everything. I gotta go’.” Six-year-olds can exert their will on old people in ways that would otherwise be socially unacceptable.
We were concerned about how well she would take to the water. She has depended on water wings for every trip to the pool in the past. Neither us or her mother are the kind to just tell her to suck it up and toss her in the deep end.
“They’ll either sink or swim”, my Dad used to say.
I can remember the first of summer butterflies. It felt like the first day back to school. Excited to get in, but nervous about swallowing enough water to fill my lungs and sink like a rock. What if I get in the deep end and go under and can’t get to the side? What if some big kid has his way with me and dunks me like a wet rag?
I grew up swimming in creek and lake water. Leaches. Fish nibbling at certain parts of my body. Mama telling me to watch out for snakes. There was a time when I campaigned for a pool in our backyard. I had no idea what I was asking for, and Dad was not interested.
“They got pools in Florida. You can swim in one when we go to the beach the week of July 4th.” I knew that his answer was non-negotiable.
As a kid, I only knew one family in all of Hampton that had a pool, and they had money. Real money. I never got invited, but I heard of lavish pool parties and young teenage girls with perfect tans already by the time school was out. I played and worked outside all the time in nothing but my shoes and a pair of shorts. My Mama would make socially insensitive comments about the color of my skin, and when we did go to Florida, I was dark all except my neon white feet. I don’t think I’ve ever had tan feet.
People at the beach could tell that I was an uplander just by my feet. I envied the guys who looked like they lived there. Mr. Coppertone Toes would take one look at me, point at my feet and snicker to Miss Coppertone teenage beauty-queen. They’d walked off down the beach and I felt like a dweeb.
So, I asked my granddaughter, “How you like the swim lessons?”
“I was sooooo scared to start with, but now I’m not scared at all anymore. I can jump right in and swim to the other side.”
“I heard you don’t like opening your eyes under water.”
“Yeah, at first but now I open my eyes all the time. I can hold my breath underwater, too. I like to swim down to the bottom to pick up sinkies.”
“Oh Grandpa. Like little pool toys that sink to the bottom.”
We tossed pennies around the pool at Panama City Beach. If you were brave, you’d toss one right in the middle of a gaggle of girls. Go down, pick it up and swim right through the middle of them. Tan legs and poka-dot swimsuits. I got too close to some older women one time. They were probably 16. They took my penny and tossed in the deep end and told me in no uncertain terms that I was a creep. I was 13 and ‘Born to be Wild’ was blasting on the juke box by the pavilion. It was a great summer.
Ding. New text message. It’s a video of my little swimming champ. She’s on the diving board. Oh, good grief. I hear the instructor count. 1, 2, 3. And she leaps for all she’s worth. Splashes down and is working the dog paddle like a pro. “Take a breath”, I hear. She raises her head, gulps and goes right back at it. She’s no Mark Spitz, but she has come a long way in one week.
I took lessons once over at the community pool in McDonough. A teenage lifeguard was giving lessons in the mornings. The only thing I recall is the day he wanted us to jump off the diving board, maybe 3 feet above the water. My knees were weak walking out to the end. There was no spring in my step. “Just jump. I’m here to catch you if you need me. You can do this.” I wasn’t budging. I finally squatted and hooked my little hands under the bottom of the board and held on until he came up and pried me lose. I was bawling like a baby and begging him not to throw me in.
I’m not sure how I overcame my fears. I know it wasn’t with my Mama’s help. She never learned to swim at all and was deathly afraid of the water her entire life. But somehow I came to love the water. I won a mask and a pair of yellow flippers in a Bingo game one time up in Hiawassee, GA. Sea Hunt was my favorite show back then, and for one summer I was Mike Nelson, former Navy diver. Go ahead and throw my pennies in the deep end.
There was one summer, my buddy and I learned that if we tossed a couple of basketballs out on the lake at home, we could stay out there for hours. Swim. Dive down in the dark cold water where there lived catfish the size of Volkswagens. Sit on the basketball for a spell, then go at it again. It was like we had discovered air conditioning, or color TV. The most brilliant thing we had ever done, which tells you what kind of exciting life I lived.
I can’t wait to get my granddaughter in the pool this summer. I don’t own one, but we’ll find one somewhere. I know people. I hope she keeps loving the water. Swim and dive team if she wants it. Or, just a lazy day at the pool, which is what summers are made for when you’re a kid.
My wife practically lived at the community pool in Selma the year she was 14. “Best tan I ever had.” She still brags about that tan. “You should have seen me in my poka-dot suit with the short skirt”, she smiles. I didn’t know her back then, but if I had, I would have tossed a penny her way. I’m sure of it.