Most people grow up knowing how to swim. They learn it naturally like walking and talking or by taking swimming lessons. Whether one enjoys swimming as recreation or exercise, or it is learned merely to avoid accidental drowning, it is a skill generally acquired early in life. Somehow, I managed to reach adulthood without learning to swim.
I remember going to a municipal pool once when I was very young. I loved the idea of the pool and longed to be a part of the splishy-splashy group of gleeful children cavorting about with joyful abandon. All I could muster, however, was a hopeless white-knuckled, desperation, clinging-to-the-pool-edge, filled with terror and dread. As much as I wanted it not to be true, the pool only represented certain death to me.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn to swim. I truly did, but if I went anywhere near the deep end of a swimming pool, I sank immediately like a lead weight. I knew this to be true because I had done experiments on this very subject. Seeing lead weights in my father’s box of fishing tackle, I had placed them in a bucket of water when he wasn’t looking. They sank fast and furiously, just like me.
Years later, I found myself in the majestic Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. I was inspired by the ancient and deep Adirondack lakes and realized then that I must conquer the attitudes and fears that were preventing me from enjoying all the Adirondacks had to offer.
When I was twenty-four years old I acquired a godson thirty years my senior, a psychologist and educator from upstate New York. He was my wife’s godfather but had no godfather of his own. In an effort to fill this void we discussed my becoming his godfather and since I found him utterly charming and we got along famously, I agreed. He has been my godson ever since and we have spent many happy summers together.
We even invented a form of fishing that is 100% harmless to fish. It is called magnet fishing and all you need is some form of transportation on the water, a long rope and a big magnet.
It was in this spirit of love and friendship that my godson, Dr. Emmanuel Bernstein of Saranac Lake, New York, offered to teach me how to swim. He said we should go to the indoor pool at the Howard Johnson in nearby Lake Placid and begin there. I am a fan of adventures that begin inside a Howard Johnson so I agreed without reservation.
My first lesson found me confronting my old fears and attitudes once more. I found again, that if I went near the deep end, I sank like a rock. Curiously, in the shallow end I was a cork, popping around on the surface, unable to submerge my entire body without great effort. How could this be? What was the difference?
I read somewhere that Thai people are able to float in a sitting position while holding their ankles with their legs tucked beneath them. A curious foreigner saw a group of Thai people floating in a pool with their heads just above the water. He could not believe what he was seeing and asked one of them, “Why don’t you sink?” The floater replied, “Because I don’t want to.”
I felt as if the answer to my question, why I sank like a coke bottle filled with cement in the deep end and floated like a cork in the shallow water, must have something to do with the Thai people. The secret to my occasional buoyancy, and inconvenient lack of it, must lie somewhere between my ears. I did not want to sink. I wanted to swim.
It was clear that first I must conquer buoyancy. My godson suggested that I attempt to simulate swimming gestures while he held me up by the back of my swim trunks. This only exacerbated the situation since I discovered that anyone coming near me while I was struggling to swim, immediately caused me to panic and thus sink quickly as I wrote my will and saw the bottom of the pool coming ever nearer. In addition I don’t like anyone grabbing my swim trunks when all I am wearing is swim trunks. After an hour of being chased around the pool by my would-be shorts-scrunching swimteacher godson, interspersed with some failed solo attempts at self-flotation and several near-death experiences, I realized that this approach would not work for me.
The Howard Johnson affair left me with an even greater desire to learn to swim. My dear wife, ever the problem solving autodidact, suggested a methodical and intellectual approach and provided me with several books on “Learning To Swim As An Adult,” courtesy of our local library. We had recently moved to an apartment complex with an Olympic-sized swimming pool; and thus, under cover of twilight, with my stack of swimming books and a firm resolve, I began my self-instruction.
I was determined and dedicated, and slowly but surely, I began mastering flotation and moving into deeper and deeper waters. I still had a few panic moments. One day I found myself in the deepest part of the pool, realized that I did not yet know how to swim and immediately sank to the bottom.
Thinking quickly I realized that even if I was in the deep end with water all around and nowhere near an edge I was actually standing on the bottom of the pool. A rare moment of clarity gave me the idea that as a temporarily non-buoyant object, given the power of ambulation, I could, if I wanted to, simply walk to the shallow end of the pool and save my life.
I began walking and soon felt the water pass the crown of my head, then I felt it touch the tops of my ears and soon it was below my nose and I could breathe normally as I continued walking. It was a watershed moment when I realized I would never die in a pool. I could simply walk out.
Some weeks later, having conquered these mental aspects, my swimming improved until I could swim the entire length of the pool. It was a milestone and inspired by it, I continued my daily swims. For non-swimmers I cannot recommend it enough. It is a tremendous exercise. I felt refreshed and rejuvenated after each swim. I did not think it could get any better until one day it began to pay real dividends.
I was on the fifth or sixth lap of my daily twenty-five. As I neared the shallow end and was about to turn for the next lap, I noticed something floating on the water. As I approached I realized it was three single dollar bills. Instinctively, I grabbed them with one hand, stood up and looked quickly about the pool area for their rightful owner.
Seeing no one, I continued swimming. On my return lap, I saw another bill, this time a five-dollar note. I did the same thing again. Once more, observing no one, I continued swimming. On the next lap, I saw another bill; this one was a ten. I was an experienced money-catcher by now and hardly interrupted my stroke as I collected the bill in passing.
Giddy with delight yet struggling against an incipient sense of guilt, I began to wonder. Where was it coming from? Was someone standing on one of the overlooking balconies tossing bills into the pool just to watch me palm them as I swam? Was I being taped surreptitiously for some new type of television show? What would happen on the next lap? Would there be a twenty floating on the shallow end this time?
I was absolutely flabbergasted when on my next lap there was, in fact, a twenty-dollar bill floating in the water. I grabbed the bill, continued swimming and could hardly breathe from all the excitement. I had no hopes at all of finding a fifty-dollar bill. I suppose Las Vegas had trained me to walk away from a table after modest wins, instead of holding out for an elusive bigger jackpot.
On the next lap there was no money, only a dark rectangular object on the shallow end floor. It was a man’s wallet and I knew at that very moment that I would not keep my “not so” ill-gotten gains. It was a deflating moment. Too many years of Catholic school had impressed upon me the idea that I must return the wallet and all the money to the office of the apartment complex adjacent to the pool.
Depressed by my honesty and short-lived affluence, I decided to end my swim and head for the office. As an afterthought, I decided to look in the wallet in case it was a neighbor I knew. It turned out to be someone I knew well but not well enough. Staring back at me from inside the wallet ID photo display was me.