When I was a little girl, I loved to swim, almost as much as I liked to dance. Every summer, Mom signed me up for swimming lessons at Myers Lake. All through grade-school I took swimming lessons. I learned to swim the first year, still, it was loads of fun to go back each year. I’ll never been to Myers Lake. I’ll never forget swimming lessons.
Nobody swam at a pool around my house: there were no public pools around me, and for sure nobody had a pool big enough to swim in at their house. For Pete’s sake, everybody knew that kind of stuff was just for movie stars and millionaires. Around me, pools were just for the Little Kids. Mom bought one of those, but it was a pain in the neck: grass got kicked into it, the our dog Nikki, drank out of it, Frankie went #1 in it, I think our lamb, Jack, went #2 in it, and finally it sprang a leak and failed to hold any water at all. Like I said, Mom bought one. Once.
To get to swimming lessons, Mom drove me to school, where I got on a school bus with a whole bunch of kids. My friends Daylene and Connie walked to school, so swimming lessons was the only time they rode a bus. It was different from school. For one thing, everybody had on shorts and jeans over our swimsuits. No dresses, not one. Nobody knew where to sit, cuz of lots of different kids and no high-schoolers, so everybody just got mixed up and in different seats than on the way to school. On the way to school, it was like assigned seats with nobody telling us which seat to take; we just knew. I liked to sit on the bump; the wheel was under there, so if the bus driver went over a bump, I flew way up high, like a fairground ride. Connie didn’t like that jouncing around so much. It made her want to puke, but she sat with me anyway, ’cause she was my best friend and my blood-sister.
“Get your heads and hands in the bus,” the bus driver eyed us in his giant rear-view mirror. I tell you, that guy could see everybody in that thing. He let us put the windows down to the bottom latch as long as we kept our body parts inside the bus. I laid my head on the window and let my pony-tail stream out the window behind. Ponytails don’t count as body parts. I liked to feel my hair blowing back in the wind, like one of those girls in convertibles I saw on TV shows. I wished boys had longer hair like Efraim Zimbalist Junior or Kookie, instead of those goofy looking crew-cuts. I liked boys with longer hair, like from 77 Sunset Strip.
I kept sniffing the air for signs that we were almost there. I wanted to be the first one to say, “I smell the lake.” That’s one of the best smells, the smell of lake water mixed in with pine and wet sand. Umm, mmm, there’s something about the smell of the lake that just makes my heart happy.
It turned out learning to swim was a whole lot like learning to dance. First I had to learn a bunch of stuff that hardly seemed a bit related to swimming: blowing bubbles, jellyfish float, dead man’s float, and back float. First just blowing bubbles, standing waist-high in the lake. Jeez, anybody can do that; it’s just like blowing bubbles in a milkshake with a straw, only with my face in the water and I heard and saw the bubbles going up all around me like a fish. Next the jellyfish float. For the life of me, I never figured out why we learned that: just hold on to your knees and roll forward, like a ball. Yeah, I floated, but I couldn’t go anywhere like that. Next the dead-man’s float: stretched out flat, face down, no moving. Very long at that, and a person would be a real dead man. Finally, the back-float. For some reason, the class got moved up to super shallow water for this one: just flat on your back, no movements. The water was only about up to my ankles when I stood up; trying to float in that was next to impossible. Either my head hit the bottom or my butt did. I had to master all of these floats, plus bubbles before I could learn the dog-paddle. Finally, I got to move my arms and legs. Now I was really swimming.
Once I mastered dog-paddle, I got to swim all the way out to the dock, jump off in water over my head, and swim back to shore. A graduate. I wondered if Teachers of all sorts, dance, swim, reading, band, just liked to think up ways to make everything slow down. None of these floats helped at all with the dog-paddle. Not one lick. Still, I sure did love to swim. All that water just washing over me, the sound of the waves, kicking up a wake in back of me. Yes-sirree, that was the berries.
Before everybody piled back on the bus, I wrapped my towel around me, wrapped my shirt around my shorts and headed for the concession stand. I got a dime to spend before we headed back to the bus. Most of the time, I got a Slo Poke and Lik M Aid sticks – A nickel a piece. Those were my favorites. Lik M Aid sticks were like Kool-Aid without the water to dilute it all down. I liked to dump some in my mouth and hold the stick between two fingers, then blow some of the powder out between my lips like cigarette smoke. A Slo Poke could last me all the way home and maybe then some, if I was careful to keep it out of Connie’s hair, ’cause she got to sit by the window on the way home. She was my best friend, after all.
My cousin Debbie lived in a bigger town that had a public pool. Sometimes I stayed over at her house and went swimming with her. I had to get dressed in a locker room and step on some springy thing that squirted powder out on my feet. Debbie said that was for athletes feet, whatever that was. The kids just bounced around in the water right up next to each other, ’cause there were too many kids in there. I wondered why they called it a swimming pool. I could hardly even do the jelly-fish float; if I tried to do a dead-man’s float, I would probably be one. Besides that, I was pretty sure that’s where you got polio. Nobody told me that, I just figured it out on account of all the March of Dimes advertisements showed kids in swimming pools all crowded together, same as at Debbie’s.
Now I am lucky that I live a short bike-ride away from a little lake. Because I still love to swim. And I still love to bike. The pines and the sand and the lake all smell as wonderful as ever. The wind blowing through my hair, and the water all around me, kicking up a wake behind me, make me feel free as a… well, free as a child. Now if I can just keep moving so the fish don’t bite me. I don’t remember that happening when I was a child.