Not unlike the perceived challenge of living through a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War of the 1950s and '60s, learning to swim in a relatively rural area with two parents who were not strong swimmers was quite complicated for me.
I had imperfect access to public pools, and, although river pollution had not yet been acknowledged, it was still considered as bad as a septic tank to my parents. The choices were: a swimming pool called Lake Forest, the Youghiogheny River and a watering hole where my grandfather lived. Each, unfortunately, had several drawbacks.
Polio was a big deal back in the '50s, and the spread of polio had been linked, either appropriately or hysterically, to swimming in public pools. Consequently, visiting a public pool fell out of favor with parents in our small town. Truthfully, our own family income probably had a lot more to do with not going there than polio. These were not free public pools, and even a family admission of only five bucks was a budget buster. (Let’s see, go swimming or buy food to eat?)
The Yough River presented its own story. Although most of our neighbors’ kids chose to ignore the fact that sanitary conditions were not part of the experience there, I simply couldn't. There was no local sewage disposal plant in our vicinity in the '50s, and because we lived very near that same river to which our outhouse had access, the algorithm was not difficult to figure out regarding where that stuff was probably going. However, on really hot days, I must admit that I did consider throwing caution to the wind and diving into the cool water of the river, but I didn’t. I didn't know how to swim.
The private watering hole that was accessible to us had one major drawback. There were large pine trees all around it, and it was always pretty much in the shade. That meant one thing; it was ice cold most of the time. It could make you shiver like a naked polar bear, and hypothermia was a real possibility for skinny little dudes. Nevertheless, we saved this free experience for the hottest Sundays in August, and everyone from our side of the family would show up for an afternoon of jumping into the water and quickly retreating to heavy wool army blankets. (Not exactly a Charmin soft experience.) I remember more vividly watching the adults smoking and gabbing while we kids checked out the dung beetles in the grass.
Let’s recap. Lake Forest was too expensive and one could possibly get polio. The Youghiogheny was a potential breeding ground for Hepatitis C, and the swimming hole, for sure, felt like the remnants of the iceberg that sank the Titanic. Besides the cold water, there were some big folks who made it tough to survive the waves at age 8.
When we did go there, we always had a wide array of inner tubes and had to pump them up by hand. We had truck inner tubes, car inner tubes and someone even brought an inner tube from an MG, the smallest car I had ever seen as a kid. These tubes could all seriously impale you with their air stems, and usually did.
My dad was a terrible swimmer. He could only swim on his side. (Now I know how Nemo must have felt.) I, on the other hand, could only swim under water. Like a catfish, I had mastered the art of being a bottom feeder. Lloyd Bridges from Sea Hunt was my inspiration. My problem, however, was a lack of oxygen tanks. I could cover the entire length of the pool in one breath, like a torpedo on a mission, but I never did find any good stuff.
When it was all said and done, the only thing that mattered was family fun.
Pass me the tube, man!