March 25th, 2008


Summer Swim Club

I was just reading an article from "cool tools" about a cheapo replacement for an endless swimming pool. For just a second I caught one of those odd-ball sense memories that occasionally come flying out of the ether and present themselves as, for just that bare fraction of a second, more real than the reality of the moment. So for just a second, I smelled the chlorine-y smell of the water at the swim club near my childhood home in King of Prussia. For just a second, I wasn't sitting at a dignity-stripping cubicle in Santa Monica, with Queen Anne palms half-disappeared out the window in the waning light of a foggy day. Not 36 and feeling decrepit, but about 11, as thin as a reed, and somehow magically immune to the tanning properties of the summer sun.

My mother would send my sisters and I to the swim club every day during the summer, to get us out of our grandmother's hair. Mostly it was me, really - I was the noisy one, the trouble-maker. There was a swim team at the club, the Upper Merion Stingrays. We had team suits in black with red stripes at the sides, and my sisters and I both wore them every day. There were pine trees that half-shaded a shuffleboard court, and benches made of planks between concrete risers about which I once had a dream God taught me how to pick up and twirl around like they were weightless. There were volleyball nets and lounge chairs, and a basketball court. It was here that I first learned to swim - a traumatic incident in which I just jumped unattended into the "medium pool" before my mother or the lifeguard noticed. I thrashed wildly, flailing my arms around and getting water in my mouth and lungs, but before the lifeguard was half off of her chair, I figured it out and started treading water. My mom rushed to the side of the pool and asked what had happened, and I shouted, "I FLOUNDERED, Mom!"

Every morning we had practice for the swim team. The coach was a ridiculously fit guy with a gigantic moustache (it was practically the 70's, after all...) named Rich who later became a Navy SEAL and was killed in a training accident. Rich ran us ragged, taking a gaggle of noisy kids and making us "warm up" until all the pluck was out of us. Then we ran drills of every sort - no-breath laps, relays, kickboards, you name it. It was a big pool, too - full-sized Olympic with lane markers and a huge black stingray painted on the bottom of the deep end. After a couple of hours of practice, we moved the lane-markers out of the way so the diving team (which I later also joined) could practice on the high and low boards. By lunch time we were free to go home, considerably more tired than we were when we arrived - which I now realize was the whole point. I remember our team photo that year, which I still have somewhere - about 50 or 60 kids, all of them as brown as hazelnuts, except for me, gleaming a perfect unsullied white right in the middle. Say what you will, but I'm easy to find in the line-up.

I loved swimming, but like a lot of, if not all, athletic endeavors, I'm at best indifferent. I showed up, and I tried my hardest, but other kids who were more naturally athletic could work half as hard and still beat me at even the things at which I was strongest. The only event I ever won in was the 400m individual medley, because I was one of the only kids on the team who was so unimportant to any other event, that I could be spared to do the gruelling marathon. True about so many things, really - I have two speeds, stop and go - but I'll go and go and go and go and I won't stop because I have to, ever, not ever; I'll stop when I'm finished, or because I want to. Still true. I won a few trophies and medals at the 400m IM, but only ever because the other team forfeited by not having someone that could finish the event, which when you're 11, is a pretty long swim. I always finished, but if anyone else showed up, they'd finish first. Still got me second, as often as not, because there wasn't a third to be. But I showed up, and I finished. "Though defeated, not without glory fought." Someday, like Leander across the Hellespont, this skill of mine will impress a girl and she will be romantically inclined in my general direction as a result of my swimming stamina and refusal to quit, but that never happened then, and certainly not since.

So for just a second this morning, I smelled the water of that swim club, felt the hot sun, the breeze that mingled hot concrete and pine-sap, and heard the din of kids chattering away carried across the pool's surface with that tinny echo that happens over water. Go Stingrays.
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