OK, OK, I know..... in my previous blogs about my adventures in Panama I promised to tell the tale of how my Father attempted to teach me to swim and I always try to keep my promises. Sadly, I have been unable to find a single photo of the episode of my life as a fish, but I will try to draw an accurate picture with words alone. However, before I launch into my expose I really must explain a bit about the personal dynamics between my Father and me lest I come off as being the world's worst wimp or, worse yet, the world's most monstrous masochist.
As I have mentioned before, my Father was a brilliant, talented but very immature and unstable person and I think I knew it even before I emerged from the womb. Consequently while other infants were busy filling their days with guzzling milk and pooping and testing out various screams, roars and bellows to find out how to best get their way I was wrestling with the problem of how to deal with Pappy without becoming the first infanticide victim on Christian Street. My Father had no time for children in general (they couldn't pay their way, they couldn't held an intelligent conversation, were totally useless at Bridge and the worst part was that this infant that had moved into the house and threatened to trap him in a boring middle class existence was not even a BOY.)
I think I always knew that my prime mission in life was to NOT irritate Pappy. I am sure I did my share of bellowing and screaming initially, but I am told I was really quite restrained for the first few years. Then when I was about 2 there was the defining incident when Pappy told me to do something which was, to me, totally unacceptable and I remember vividly that I drew myself up, stamped my little foot and shouted, "NO". There suddenly appeared at my eye level an enraged purple face with veins throbbing at the temples and eyes bulging from their sockets, and a strangled voice hissed, " If you ever say no to me again I will kill you." And I knew then and there that I had to adjust my approach. After all, my Mother, with all the good intentions in the world, try as she might, could not be expected to protect me every moment of the day and nite. Obviously the wise path would be to never intentionally irritate this dangerous madman again. And you must remember that we lived with my grandparents so the welfare of 3 other people was also contingent on my executing flawlessly my effort to become invisible and non-irritating. This worked fairly well for the next 14 or so years (until I learned to type and suddenly was seen as a useful commodity). Unfortunately, the plan had a huge flaw in that one could not always tell what in the hell would set the wild guy off and consequently there would be unexpected explosions, fireworks and demolitions which would cause us to rush madly through the rubble for cover and send me back to the drawing board to try to refine the methodology of Not Irritating Pappy.
So......when we confronted this gorgeous Olympic size free swimming pool in the Clubhouse in the Canal Zone and my Father proclaimed that he would teach me to swim I groaned inwardly but knew that I would have to cooperate while finding some way to avoid ending up stretched out lifeless and blue at the side of the pool with everyone gathered around staring down at my waterlogged corpse. I had no idea how I was going to accomplish this, but I was brave and confident in my ingenuity and my ability to absorb an enormous amout of psychological punishment before giving up the ghost.
My Father and I proceeded into the shallow end of the pool , my Mother, (who could not swim) with a watchful eye and some uneasiness took a seat in the stands. For about 2 minutes my Father demonstrated the art of holding on to the side of the pool and kicking one's legs forcefully and suggested I copy his actions, which I did with great vigor and many misgivings. Then he showed me the proper method of stroking with one's arms as he paddled across the shallows. Next he seized me by the waist and ordered me to put the 2 lessons together while he supported my body horizontally in the water. I managed that part fairly well considering I was stiff with terror already.
Next, feeling that I had had sufficient instruction and practice he ordered me to swim whereupon I naturally sank like a stone and rebounded off the bottom spluttering. My father was frowning, but it was not a dangerous frown...yet....it was the ruminating frown. "This is not working", he muttered. I have another idea......I will teach you to dive and you will learn to swim in the process." Whereupon we adjourned to the side of the pool at about the 4 foot depth level and I was told to bend at the waist, arms outstretched, and to fall gently into the water. Yeah, sure. There is no "gently" in a belly flop and that was all I could manage. This process continued for 10 or 15 minutes with me totally unable to "relax and fall gently" into the pool but at least I could touch bottom with my feet and climb the ladder to the take off point each time.....tummy smarting a bit from all the flops but still breathing on my own. Finally, I bgan to get a bit tired and unknowingly relaxed and accidentally did it right. And promptly went straight to the bottom head first in a perfect dive and bonked my head on the floor of the pool with a dreadful thunk.
"Aha", he exulted, "you've got it.....but this is too dangerous in the shallow end.....let's have you dive off the diving board in deeper water." "But", I protested feebly, "I can't swim". "Never mind that", he responded. "You will probably learn along the way and in the meantime I will be there waiting and will grab you by the bathing suit straps and pull you up if you don't pop up on your own." I was still seeing stars, but dutifully shlepped to the diving board, leaned over, stretched out the arms, said desperate prayer and fell in with the most exquisite of belly flops ever executed. True to his word, as I flailed around under water Pappy found me and pulled me up to the surface. "Let's try that again" he said......."I think we are getting somewhere."
I will not prolong the agony for you and force you to experience with me the subsequent 4, 327 belly flops from the diving board as the afternoon continued without success. At this point I was praying a different prayer. "Oh, Lord, please take me now !" There were still a few hours of daylight and I was really, really tired and smarting mightily. Then a miracle happened. No, I did not properly execute a dive off the diving board.........this ain't the movies. My Father got bored. "That's enough for today", he said brightly. "We'll try this again next weekend."
Ah, reprieved ! I would live to see another day and so on the following blessed day I signed up with the swimming coach, Mr. Greiser, for his class on learning to swim. By Wednesday I was graduating from the class with honors, leaping into the deep end of the pool and swimming across and back, arms flailing and feet kicking...not the prettiest stroke in the world, but no longer sinking like a stone......By George, I could swim!
Nothing could stop me now.