Mom and Dad insisted I take swimming lessons

Mom and Dad insisted I take swimming lessons

One of the first things that happened after I’d finished fourth grade was I was signed up to take swimming lessons … out of one school and into another.

Which was fine, in the abstract, I suppose.

The classes were billed as “lifesaving” and had the imprimatur of the local chapter of the Red Cross, which gave the whole enterprise gravitas, from my parents’ point of view, anyway.

I was a less-than-enthusiastic enrollee, however, and voiced my opposition in typical Wretched Flea fashion.

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked my mother when she informed me I’d begin my two-week session on Monday morning. “C’mon, I just got done with getting up early every darn day.”

“You mean ‘finished,’” interjected Mom, a consummate grammarian. “Cakes are ‘done;’ people are ‘finished.’”

“Whatever,” I mumbled. “I don’t think this is the right way to start my summer vacation. I want to sleep in.”

“People in hell want ice water,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they’ll get it.”

It was very hard to argue with that logic.

Ironically Mom never learned how to swim. She could float, after a fashion, and was marginally adept at propelling herself through the water, employing some weird sideways crawl stroke.

I think she borrowed it from those Esther Williams movies that were all the rage back in the day. That didn’t dissuade her from insisting that all three of her children learn proper water safety.

Speaking of nautical irony, I should state I have decided to basically stay out of the ocean this summer, owing to the fact that the Carolina coast has already had something like eight fatalities.

And, technically, it’s still spring.

The stories are uniformly tragic, each one a grim reminder that the Atlantic has no conscience and no memory and will drown you in a matter of seconds if you allow it the opportunity.

It simply doesn’t care if you live or if you don’t.

Faithful readers may recall whenever friends or family members visit, I make it my business to sit down with them and spell out the facts of life and death.

“I know that you didn’t come all this way not to swim in the ocean,” I’ll say, hooking a thumb over my shoulder at the vast expanse laid out before them, so inviting, so beautiful. “I get that. But I also know that it’s serious business out there,” I’ll continue, trying my best to strike the proper balance between caring and scaring the bejeezus out of them. “You have to be aware of where you are at all times. Because if you’re not vigilant, you could die.”

It’s usually at about this point in my presentation that my wife will intervene, saying something like, “What Mike means is that we’re so happy that you made the trip and we want you to have fun.”

Then she’ll punch me in the arm, playfully but painfully.

“She’s right,” I’ll say, “but watch out for the rip currents — and the undertow — and don’t forget about the sharks because this is their habitat and we’re in the their world.”

Just last week, a 17-year-old girl sustained bites to her leg and hand while swimming at a beach not 2 miles from where my wife and I go at least once a week.

She survived the attack but lost the leg.

Again, a stern reminder that tragedy is only a matter of moments away and that sometimes there is no worse place to be.

But we’ve all seen “Jaws,” right?

Released in the summer of 1975, the landmark Steven Spielberg film frightened an entire nation and retains, to this day, a psychological grip on anyone who ventures into the ocean.

I still hear the ominous “duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh” strains of the soundtrack whenever I swim past the breakers into the smoother waters, my head on a swivel, looking for that tell-tale dorsal fin.

And whenever a strand of seaweed brushes against my leg, I experience an immediate spasm of fear, flashing back to that scene in “Jaws” when that little boy gets shark-chomped and his yellow life raft washes onto the Amity shore, shredded and bloodied.

Which brings us back to when I was a kid and Mom and Dad insisted I take swimming lessons.

The first thing I remember — aside from having to get out of bed far too early for any 10-year-old boy — is the lifeguards, those teenagers into whose hands parents all around town had placed the well-being of their children, were all bundled up.

They wore hooded sweatshirts and heavy sweatpants, towels wrapped around their necks to ward off the early-morning chill.

Because at 8 a.m. in Northern Ohio in early June, guess what?

It’s cold outside.

I supposed it should have occurred to me that if I or any of the other students who stood shivering in the shallow end of the municipal pool should get into trouble, it’d take a while for any of our instructors to peel off all those layers of clothing to lend a hand.

But that thought never entered my mind.

All I was trying to do was master the art of something the lifeguards called “The Dead Man’s Float.”

I kid you not. Talk about wicked irony.

The idea was to let your body go completely limp, face down in the water, and to allow yourself to bob to the surface.

But as a skinny little boy — I might have weighed 99 pounds, distributed on a scarecrow’s frame — I had no real center of gravity and tended to list to one side or the other, never really achieving the perfectly prone position.

Still and all, those lessons were valuable, if only because once I’d earned my certificate, I began to explore the really fun stuff, learning how to execute a Figure Four, a Cannonball and something called the Jack-Knife, all of which produced big splashes off the diving board, showering the lifeguards.

Now more than 50 years later, I can still swim and I can still dive, but I understand the ocean is a dangerous, if tempting, place.

Enter at your own risk.

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