Who was that masked man?
I don’t know how far back members of our family have been swimming in the sea. Shortly after the WW-I, my mother’s grandparents on her father’s side lived on Sanibel Island and they collected shells. Odds are, they swam. Her mom and dad were, respectively, a sun worshipping beach lover and first mate to her sailor husband, a naval architect who later designed boats for Chris Craft and built at least seven wooden yachts singlehandedly. On my dad’s side, his father captained a wooden cruiser on the bay, and both of his folks were committed anglers – I have pictures of them on boats and riverbanks. They probably swam, too. So far though, I haven’t seen any photographic evidence of ancestral swimmers beyond the generation of my parents. Not that this really matters. It is enough to know that my children and I are descended from water rats, captains, sailors, and anglers, on both sides of the family. An affinity for water seems to have been passed down, generation to generation.
Anyway, who is that masked man pictured above? It’s certainly not the Lone Ranger. The first family picture I have of a swimmer dressed for immersion is that Viet-Nam era shot of my father in his wetsuit, weighted down. You’d expect him to be outfitted like this if he were perched on a boat’s gunwale, about to roll into the water, but he’s not. He’s sitting, rather incongruously, in a sewing room or gear repair room (I cropped out the sewing machine so I could zoom in on the masked man). Maybe there was a very large fish tank in the next room. Maybe he was modeling for his mother or his wife, having a photo taken to mail back home since he was down at Fort Benning in 1968 when this was snapped. Regardless of the wetsuit, Dad’s former existence is not nearly as parodisical as Steve Zissou’s, which is probably why Bill Murray never offered to play dad’s role in the TV adaption of his semi-aquatic life.
Ever since I could remember, Dad would suggest, cryptically, that he once dove with the Army. One dive, or one tour of duty? I don’t know. And there’s only that single photo, recently discovered, in an old family album to suggest that the diving was historical, but the mention of diving was enough to make my much younger self curious about the life aquatic, if not Dad’s personal history. There was also an Omega dive watch hiding, unused, but its band well scratched, in his top dresser drawer, alongside the loaded revolver. As a kid, the Omega was loose on my wrist, but I knew I wanted to wear a dive watch someday. Strangely, I wasn’t as curious about dad as I should have been. Familiarity, at least during my pre-teen and teen years, tended to breed more contempt than intrigue, though here I am getting ahead of, and outside of, any story about swimming with the fishes.
Let’s start again, as each generation does, closer to the beginning. Fiat lux! And there were glaring hospital lights overhead, but that’s only surmise and not memory. I was born, leaving the waters in a gush. It wasn’t long until my cigar chomping, Genesee swilling, Dad had enough of me padding around on dry land. By the time I could reliably sit upright, he strapped me into a life jacket and sat me on the floor of his canoe to wallow in the muddy water, among the escaped worms, dropped corn kernels, cellophane wrappers, and other angling detritus. Here I am, at a walking age, about to board the Grumman. According to the back of the photo, I’m two and a half. I wasn’t allowed to wear shoes back then, something about toughening my soles. At least dad practiced what he preached when he wasn’t in the office.
Life jackets were for babies. His rule to ditch the life jacket: learn to swim. I’d only been walking, and sitting in the bottom of his canoe, for a year or so before I was force-fed a pool full of night-chilled water and given the initial option: tread or drown. Given his druthers, Dad was the sort who would have tossed me off a dock to see if I could make it to shore. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been worthy of continued feeding. The year my Dad decreed it was time for his firstborn to swim, my mother saved me from an ignominious end in the Cocalico Creek by driving me, shortly after breakfast each late-spring morning, to the Woodridge Swim Club. Our family ate breakfast at daybreak, or earlier. By the time we arrived at Woodridge, the sun was rising with stretch and a yawn, but the dew lay thick on the chilly grass and the wooded ridge blocking the low sun threw shade across the waters. That shadowed pool was anything but inviting for me and my fellow victims, all being taught to swim by a sadist who should have been reincarnated as a polar bear, not a human. He was indifferent to the frigid water, and determined to make us swimmers. Miserable way to earn a paycheck, dealing with fussy kids, and he made sure our misery kept company with his. My guess is that the flipper-footed individual at the top right of this next photo is the dread Dawn Treader of Woodridge, and we kids were the flies thrashing, rather than lurking puckish, in his red-eye soup.
He won. “He” can be read here either as my father, or as that life-threatening life guard of Woodridge. I swam, reluctantly at first. It was the only way to get out of the pool so that I could shiver my timbers on the cold concrete pavers alongside the water’s edge. In the image above, mom had wrapped me in a towel so that my teeth wouldn’t shatter from the shiver induced chattering. One hour every morning I transitioned from misery A to misery B, from being dunked to watching others getting sloshed, only to wind up looking like a brined turkey: pale, plucked & goose-pimpled, and soggy to the point of dissolution. Much later in life I learned that Spartan children were treated in similar fashion (they were tougher since terrycloth towels weren’t manufactured until the mid 1800’s). My dad didn’t read many books, so I’m not sure where he became predisposed to tempering children in vats of chlorinated water before the sun rose high enough to tinge the water with warmth. Perhaps his mother. She was one tough old lady. If you know Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, imagine his mother, Volumnia. That was the closest Will Shakespeare came to prefiguring Grandma Gooding. “O, he is wounded; I thank the gods for’t.” No blood, no tears – it must have started here, or at least continued through her from some darker, distant past.
My rewards for finally swimming the full length of the pool were an end to formal lessons, being shed of the life jacket on flatwater canoe trips, plus my longed-for carrot: a child’s set of snorkeling gear with rigid, blister-inducing, plastic fins, foggy mask, and a short, leaky snorkel. No complaints about the gear then…I didn’t know any better, and it was the early 70’s, so ‘better’ little kid-sized gear probably didn’t exist. I also received permission to swim in the big pool without a parent by my side. Mom may have been paranoid about cramps, and if we ate a snack or lunch at the pool, there was thirty minutes banishment to dry land afterwards, but she got us to the pool regularly. Practice isn’t work if you’re playing and I learned to swim well.
This entire experience may have been a prelude to one major theme of my life’s cycle: submission to authority, resentment, independence. Dylan knew – you’ve gotta serve somebody. Serve somebody, but only long enough to learn what you need to learn, then move on, at which point my trend was to jump out of an uncomfortable skillet and into a hotter fire.
Shortly after learning to swim, I swam farther, and treaded longer, and earned the right to use real diving boards – Cannon Ball! – and slides without sides, so unlike our milquetoast times where diving boards are banned from most public pools and the slides are safely enclosed tubes. I loathed those morning lessons, but I’m glad I was forced to endure them. The snorkeling gear proved to be a worthy reward, and a goad to further adventures.
(Three Hour Beach….snorkeling in waves)
I learned to dive “through Boy Scouts” but the Scouts used Smokey’s Diver’s Den in Lancaster for lessons. Smokey Roberts owned the dive shop and at some point he worked out of the same building where my grandfather – mom’s dad – built his sailboats, so they knew each other in passing.
(Florida Sea Base to Grand Cayman)
Dad suggested I use Cheez Whiz…and he’s probably the one who shot this picture. Cheez Whiz is NOT an environmentally approved fish attractant. I was sixteen and I’m saying mea culpa, mea culpa. The sins of the father become the sins of the son.
Check out my gaudy Body Glove suit! Watch that garish thing become the sin of my son in twenty years, or in the next image if I can find Angus and the stingray.
…Ahha…three weeks later, I found him:
In addition to swimming with rays at Stingray City off Grand Cayman, we’ve also been in the water with the turtles in a quiet little cove off Curacao.
And there were pelicans floating above the turtles.