By David H. Werrett
I have always wondered what possessed my mother to sign me up for swimming lessons. She had her reasons: perhaps in her day, more than sixty years ago, being well-rounded meant a child should be able to swim. Perhaps she wanted me to be able to keep up with my Canadian cousins, all of them very able swimmers. Perhaps it was the “thing” to do. Or, perhaps she just wanted to do her best for her only son.
My mother was fifty-one-years-old and I was just eight. I had come along very late in her life, a great surprise and inconvenience to her I am sure. Unpredictable events always arose at our house. We had recently moved and I was enrolled into a new elementary school, which offered outside activities for the students including lessons. This was also the third elementary school in three years.
The first two elementary schools were in Philadelphia, I was never comfortable in school, but those two schools were friendly places and I knew some of the kids. We all walked to school, the classrooms had a place in the back for our yellow slickers and rain boots. There were no lockers, the facilities were old and warm, in a homey sort of way. Adults looked out for us on our way walking back and forth to school. The walk itself was fun, I had a purpose, something to do each day, and when I was alone, I got to fly my make believe jet plane along the endless brick walls.
The new school in Pottstown was different, it was structured. I took a bus each way, it was miles from home. Taking a bus was a disappointment to me for I enjoyed walking to school. I stoically waited for everything, for all the coming and going and the lines to the hallways and classrooms. The school had individual lockers; everything was regulated by the ringing of a bell. I had to have a pass to be in the hall. The bathroom was called a lavatory, which I initially misconstrued as laboratory. Because of my confusion over that name, it took me half of my first day at that school to ask to go to the bathroom.
You see, at that stage in my life I was painfully shy – not just shy – abnormally shy. My daily plan was to take the bus to school, attract as little attention as possible, then go home and play with my trains. In class, I sat in the back, seat assignments were alphabetical by last name. Once home, I was free for a while before the pain started all over the next morning. My mother, with her good intentions, had thrown a wrench into the works with these swimming lessons.
I had very little to say in the process of setting up the lessons. In those days, children at school acted as couriers, important documents between the parents and the school were delivered by hand by the child and signed off on and executed without evidence, complaint or knowledge by the child. In this way, my mother was able to set up and execute her plan.
For me, the plan was fatally flawed. One of the flaws was I would have to change my carefully crafted daily plan. Once a week, I was to wait after school for a special bus, which would take us to swimming lessons, and after the lessons, drop us off at our regular bus stop. The second flaw was that the swimming lessons were to be at the YMCA, a place I had never heard of and didn’t want to find out about. By far the biggest flaw in the plan was I didn’t have a bathing suit. Bathing suits were optional for little boys, whatever that meant. Many families, including mine, didn’t have the money to buy unnecessary clothing which would be worn infrequently. Did it mean I would be nude? Was I to wear my ratty underwear? What were GYM shorts anyway? What was GYM? What was an athletic supporter, how did you put them on, were they uncomfortable, could they do double duty as a slingshot? I spent hours trying to understand how this might go down. The plan was in place and I wasn’t going to do anything about it.
A month before the plan was to be executed, I began to worry. We had driven by the YMCA to check out the route and satisfy my mother’s curiosity. It was an imposing gray stone building which occupied the lion’s share of a city block. Probably it was built in the thirties; it was old, ornate, and uninviting. The town was an industrial town in decline. The general decay of the town put me in a down mood. As time moved closer to the first lesson I became anxious, the days were painted gray like those gray stone walls on the YM
On the appointed day, I got up in an anxious mood after a fitful sleep. Worn out before the day had begun, I went through the motions of the accustomed routine to get ready for school. I had my bowl of Cheerios, and dressed in the clothes I had worn the day before, only to take the special precaution of making sure yesterday’s underwear was in acceptable condition.
Mom had my lunch pail in hand at the door, and to my relief, a brown paper shopping bag with a brand new pair of blue bathing trunks, and a well-worn but familiar gray bath towel, which matched the color of my present mood.
I trudged out the door and waited reluctantly for the school bus to deliver me to school and perhaps my last day on earth.
I began to worry, I was good at worrying, I could blow up the smallest thing into a catastrophe. If there was nothing to worry about my creative mind would think something up. As I look back at my school years, it was a wonder I received an education, I would lurch from one worry to the next completely preoccupied by their circumstances. This worry was a big one. Things went through my mind: what would happen if I couldn’t find the right bus, what would happen if I missed the bus? Would I drown? Did the YMCA have windows open to the street? Would strangers be able to see me, or worse, would they see I was naked! Yes, I was building a powerful case.
Then all of a sudden the days had gone by and it was the day I was to take the first lesson. On that day my legs turned to jelly, I had loose bowels, the pint of milk I had at lunch was piled up on the baloney sandwich half way down to my stomach. I was losing control of my thought process; I went on auto pilot, moving through the school day as if in a dream.
When the three-thirty bell sounded, I gathered my stuff and like the prisoners in the movie “The Green Mile,” I walked slowly out to the curb and to the bus.
The sight of the bus gave me fresh hope that the day was not going to end badly. You see it was not a regular yellow school bus; no, this was a real bus, a bus people went places in. It was streamlined with fluted stainless steel accents on the sides. The rear windows were inverted, the back end was rounded and those windows gave the back a face like that of the mask of Batman. The front was slightly rounded and a visor came out from the roof to shade the windshield from the sun. The bus was running, it had a powerful low throb which belied the power of the engine tucked away from sight in the back. The front door was open, the clean steps invited entry. A thick nickel steel bar connected the driver to the door so it could be secured from the inside. Teachers and pleasant looking adults stood outside guiding us into the bus. I had my empty lunch pail, my pencils, sharpener, notebook and a shopping bag with my bathing suit and towel in it. This might work out okay if I could stay out of view and not call any attention to myself.
Had I known the bus driver today, I would tell you he was a nice man. He probably had a wife and children, perhaps grandchildren. He had a happy demeanor; he stood up in front of us and gave us instructions. Stay in our seats, do not stand on the seats, do not place our shoes against the back of the seat in front of us, and if we caused trouble he would pull over and put us off. This was his bus and those were his rules. After charging us with his remarks, he swung into the driver’s seat, deftly pulled on the nickel steel rod, the door went satisfyingly closed and we were off.
I had never been in a bus like this; up until that moment, bus travels had been restricted to the yellow school bus. The school did not have enough yellow buses to complete a regular school day and still have buses for extracurricular activities. Whatever the reason, I was enjoying my ride, which helped to ease the burden of the thoughts of the impending swimming lessons.
After a short comfortable ride, we swung up to the curb at the YMCA and one of the adults got out to guide us into the building and block traffic while we unloaded. I went into the main doors with the others and up a short wide flight of steps, a left turn put us at more doors and then into the room that contained the pool and locker rooms. I could smell the chlorine from outside the first set of doors. The large pool room was well-lighted, every sound echoed, a low hum of the pumps that circulated the pool water was hardly audible over the sounds of the boys from the first class making loud noises in order to hear their echoes.
The pool was very large; the surface was still in motion from the last occupants who had just finished their lessons, the tile floor wet from the exit of the last swimmers. I didn’t see any bodies floating in the pool so I imagined everyone had made it out with their lives. However, this may not be my luck.
The thought of having to undress in front of other people in a locker room was weighing heavily on my mind. The thought of others being able to see my skinny body, with my private parts being covered only by a blue pair of swim trunks that may fall to my knees unexpectedly at any time was dominating my entire thought process.
We were directed to an open doorway leading to the locker room, only a painted block wall barricaded the view of those inside from prying eyes, I felt very uncomfortable as if all in the world were able to see me. I made a beeline to a locker at the very end of the room and well out of the line of sight of the open doorway. The locker was unlocked, I put the paper bag containing my bathing suit and towel on the long wooden seat, which lined the wall of locker and swung the locker door open.
Carefully hiding as much of my body that I could, I began to undress and hang my clothing on the hooks inside the locker. Others stood blatantly out from the lockers and removed all their clothing and revealed themselves stick, stark naked to everyone who cared to look. Occasionally, I stole a glance at the other nude boys in order to determine if somehow my body was different. Being satisfied that we were all mostly the same, I removed all my clothing except my underpants. At that point, I was tempted to pull my bathing suit on over my underpants, but I reasoned out that I would then have to put my clothes on over a wet pair of under drawers after the lesson. I had procrastinated for so long that most all the boys had slipped into their bathing suits and left the locker room. I heard one of the adult men call “is anyone still in here,” and with that I made a lunge out of my underpants and in one well-rehearsed slick move donned my swimming trunks and yelled back, “I’m ready, will be right out.”
Walking from the locker room, I saw that the other boys had lined up at the edge of the pool. I found a place at the edge and lined up with them. A serious looking adult man proceeded to give us instructions about the first lesson. We were to stand at the edge of the pool and hold our arms outstretched over our heads, and with one hand hold the wrist of the other arm. When commanded, we were to take a deep breath and simply lean forward and fall face forward in an arc into the water, arms first.
I did as instructed and on the command fell into the pool, not arms first, but more completely flat onto my belly. When I hit the water, I took the deep breath and inhaled an entire boatload of pool water into my lungs.
I was going down. I heard the words from the submarine movies, “Take her down, dive, dive!” As I descended, I knew I was drowning and made the decision not to resist my inglorious fate and just go with the program my god had laid out for me.
Resting on the bottom of the pool in a bathing suit two sizes too big for me, I took a moment to assess my plight. All of a sudden, nature’s plan for my survival took hold of me, and rejected any thoughts I had of resting on the bottom; in one powerful move my little legs sprang my body upward to the surface. I paddled as hard as I could and when I was almost to the surface, a powerful arm plunged down through the water and grabbed me and pulled me forcefully from the pool. I lay at the pools edge coughing out the water and struggling to get air into my lungs.
I lay coughing and crying in a puddle of pool water, when the owner of the arm sat me upright next to her warm chlorine and suntan lotion smelling body and with her life-saving arm, wrapped a towel around my shivering little body and held me close. She became my Mother Goose, and I was the ugly duckling cowering beneath her wing.
Time, as they say, heals all wounds and when I stopped shivering and crying, my guardian angel-savior asked me if I thought I may want to try diving into the pool again. Since I was still living, and the other boys seemed to be having such a good time, the fear left me and I stood beside her and with arms stretched high above my head, I took a big breath in, folded over and in a graceful arc, entered the water perfectly.
And that my friend, is how I completed my first swimming lesson.
David H. [d. h.] Werrett, a former professional pilot and businessman, successfully incorporates both skills into his writing, but with a quirky twist, in real life he never had to push the throttle of a DHC2 Beaver seaplane to 37 inches of manifold pressure while getting shot at by fake scientists and listening to an angel impersonate Elvis! d.h. is fascinated by the universe, astronomy and creation, specifically the creation of the conscious mind. His rudimentary knowledge of how the universe is ordered is passed on to his characters, although they often do not know it, do not care or would rather follow behind the Yoga Yogurt Hottie down the yogurt aisle of the Giant supermarket.