by Marilyn Crockett, a member of Get Your Wordsworth
Mother made sure that we had swimming lessons. My older brother had trouble passing the swimming requirement at ProvisoHigh School and Mother was determined that “the girls” would be better prepared. She chose the Nineteenth Century Club in Oak ParkIllinois. The Nineteenth Century Club had water a few degrees warmer than the Y. She also thought that the august private organization would not be as likely to carry the dreaded Polio germs.
As soon as my younger sister had reached the required number of inches in height we began. I would have been eight in 1949 and my sister five. We began by putting our faces in the water and when this was successfully accomplished we blew bubbles with our faces in the water.. The next step was to turn our heads to the left and breathe. All this I found easy but when we were told to hold on to the edge of the pool and let our feet and legs float to the top of the surface it felt hard. There was a fear of losing control. Would the water somehow get me and carry me away? I was afraid at this point and it took time to work up my courage and only when I could observe other children doing it did it feel safe to let my legs leave the security of the bottom of the pool. Slowly we all managed to let our legs float up and relinquished our grip on Mother Earth. It was proven to us that our bodies could float on the water. Letting go of the edge of the pool while in the floating position was also very scary. But slowly all of us graduated to standing away from the edge and pushing and floating in to grab on to the edge. We then flutter kicked our way across the width of the pool holding on the red flutter boards.
I’m not sure how many lessons or series of lessons it took to get us to deep water. It was a lot. Again the instructor was very gentle about easing us down the edge of the length of the pool hand over hand until we were all in water over our heads. The instructor explained that if we let go we would sink only to our foreheads and it would take very little energy to bring us up to the surface to breath. We had been taught to tread water while upright and scull with a little figure eight motion while lying on our backs in the shallow end of the pool, so we were prepared for deep water except for being afraid of it. Our fears about being sucked into the depths of the pool did in fact prove groundless and our possible survival in deep water was assured.
Once comfortable with our survival, swimming became fun. The splashing around in the shallow end had always been fun. Floating made us free of gravity and under the water we couldn’t hear anyone telling us what to do. Some of the girls wore nose clips but no one wore goggles. All girls had to wear swim caps. Blue one piece suits in various sizes were provided. The matron would tie the back straps together if the suits did not fit snugly enough and the shoulder straps fell down over narrow shoulders. She also did the laundry as we swam, white towels and blue suits endlessly spinning in the dryer. I don’t remember boys in the classes. If they were there I paid so little attention to them they are not in my memory. Boys did not exist for me at that age.
Every Christmas the Nineteenth Century Club threw a swimming party for the children. We were divided into beginners in the shallow end and advanced in the deep end and the pool was laced with coins, glittering pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. In the forties and fifties these coins were worth a lot. A penny would buy a penny candy and a nickel would buy a candy bar. The sight of the still pool reflecting the lights on the top and the coins on the bottom depths remains in my mind as one of the glorious visions of my childhood. Children lined up around the edge of the pool and at the sharp sound of the whistle everyone dove or jumped into the water and grabbed at the coins on the bottom of the pool. I do remember boys at this point because some were rude and grabbed the coins before I could get them.
The Nineteenth Century Club nourished my childhood. Mother never considered that we might quit and my sister and I proceeded all the way to Junior Life Saving and Synchronized swimming. Synchronized swimming was choreographed group movements to music much like dance or figure skating. We preformed in special white swim caps with colored flowers on them, swimming in patterns like the patterns of the dancers on the Ed Sullivan show on TV.
But by high school adolescence I was up for larger challenges. My best friend wanted to try out for the Y girl’s competitive swim team. Carolyn passed the timed test with her crawl stroke but my time was too slow. I was mortified at my failure and argued politely with the male coach that my breast stroke was faster than my crawl. He was doubtful but tested me on the breast stroke. It was faster I think, and he agreed to put me on the team. Perhaps he just saw my intensity and my potential for hard work or maybe he saw us as a pair and really wanted Carolyn. Anyway we were both on the team.
We practiced on Tuesday and Thursday and usually had swim meets on Saturday. The practice required twenty two laps of the then Olympic size swimming pool, and relay races. The Y was colder than the Nineteenth Century Club, the theory being that the cold made you swim faster. Some of the very best swimmers were given extra coaching for possible Olympic swimming. My crawl never got all that much better. I couldn’t do the butterfly breast stroke at all. But I learned the racing dive and the flip turn and specialized in the fifty yard breast stroke. I never came in first or second in the six or eight lane pools but I did pick up an occasional third when the faster swimmers got disqualified for not simultaneously touching both hands at the turn and the finish, and my frog kick was always level. I was never disqualified. What I lacked in speed I made up in precision, at least enough to stay on the team. Carolyn had an excellent back stroke and was more of an asset than I was. We bought our own recommended black tank suits that weighed almost nothing and felt as if we had nothing on at all, and smooth slick tan caps.
As a Senior Citizen, I have a small business that involves hotel shows three or four times a year. I always look for the possibility of a pool and what times it might be open and how I might fit a swim into my show schedule. My favorite is the Marriott in Teaneck, New Jersey, which has an agreement with a spa that has a beautiful sixty foot pool with roped off
lanes. I wear an old suit with a fluttery skirt and I do laps of breast stroke with, alas, my head up, slowly but steadily slipping soundlessly down the lane. Perhaps it is the chronic asthma that makes me now reluctant to put my head in the water. I am not thinking of exercise. I am thinking of the twenty two laps of my high school days and the steamy showers after my swim. I am free: momentarily gravity and age do not touch me. The lights sparkle in the water with flickering reflections and I feel returned to my adolescence for the length of the pool.