Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Being water

Right where a man had drowned 14 hours earlier, David and I guessed at the time.

"8?" I said.

"You think it's that late?" said David. "Quarter to eight, maybe."

I hoped he was right. We were halfway through a five-mile swim, and I had to be back in time for work by late morning.

The time and our tenuous grasp of it worried me, but not the swim. I could make the swim, even as the destination seemed to drift farther and farther away with every stroke.

The drowning, which I read about the morning after our swim, gave me gloomy pause … and made me wonder how I had come to this strange and happy place:

Almost all my experiences in water had been bad.

Before learning to swim, I once fell fully clothed into the pool at my cousin's house. Above the white panic and the chlorine froth and the ka-chucketa whoosh of blood in my ears and my own screams, I could hear my cousin laughing, could see her face red as she convulsed in guffaws.

She had no idea I couldn't swim, having learned how long before me. Of course she thought her older cousin must be able to swim! Of course everyone older than she could swim! She thought I was just putting on a show, so she had no reason to call for help. She meant no harm. The locomotion of thrashing and sheer will to live somehow bobbed me in reach of the edge, where once I vomited water I made her cry with my angry yelling.
During swim lessons as a kid, the coach said I was doing well enough that I might even be good at swimming distances. One set of lessons progressed into another, each with bigger challenges and requirements than the one before. At one point in the summer, I was to swim a long distance; I bet it was 200 yards, or eight lengths of the pool. I felt condemned to failure.

My dad told me to pace myself. I learned after his death he was an accomplished open water swimmer. He never told me this, never got in the water and said, "I'll show you how." I learned to swim from the girl teaching at the Cabrillo High School pool.

Such a little piss-ant kid, prone to tantrums and quitting over board games and games of catch, I'm sure I gave my dad plenty of reasons to let someone else suffer the trials of trying to teach me to swim. Tantrums in the water are unsafe.

I don't think I ever swam those 200 yards. I probably quit the lesson before then.

At a lake in Idaho where an uncle had a cabin, I was supposed to learn to water ski. My uncle was a man's man, the prototype of mid-century American men, taciturn, tough. The process of teaching me to water ski was to put me in a life jacket and into the water, put the skis on me, give me the end of the rope and pull me around with the boat, until eventually I was to figure out on my own to put the skis up just so and rise to a standing position.

But I didn't. I hung onto the rope as long as I could, as many times as I could, drinking water like soup, as they say, from a fire hose, before I couldn't take it any more and let go, bobbing in the water, blubbering. My uncle offered tips such as, "Oh, fer cryin' out loud! Just stand up! Just stand up! Is he cryin', now? Hey, quit cryin', ya baby!"

He left his two sons, my older cousins, in charge of the crybaby for the rest of the weekend.

In high school my drivers' ed teacher was also the water polo coach, Bob Boyer, who asked me during class to try out for the team. I can't imagine why.

He described water polo as a cerebral sport; maybe he knew I got good grades. But book smart ain't street smart. Book smart ain't toughness. As I would prove.

Still, Coach Boyer recruited me! How hard could it be?

Really hard, he neglected to say. Just staying alive required constant effort. It was sink, literally, or swim.

I showed up in my gym shorts over a jockstrap. All the water polo players had Speedo®™-style briefs; that alone should have compelled me to call it a day. But I jumped in. A coach showed me the egg-beater kick, a circular outward flailing of legs designed to keep players stable and afloat; that was the extent of player development; the season was already under way and most of the players had been together a couple of years.

I don't even remember Coach Boyer asking me if I could swim.

Immediately after being shown the egg-beater, we were to egg-beater around the perimeter of the pool, our backs against the wall, hands up.

The goalie was the classic Charles Atlas ad, a 97-pound weakling I knew in junior high who had transformed through water polo into the Muscle Beach body, shoulders out to there. He could egg-beater at high speed, lifting his torso from the water past his navel for several seconds. He made the sport look easy. It isn't.

Sputtering and sinking, eyes inflamed by chlorine, psyche rubbed raw by reality, I didn't last one practice.  

As an adult 12 years ago, I crawled onto shore during a swim test at a Boy Scout canoe training campout, and crept behind the group of other adult leaders who'd also finished the test. Dizzy and heaving, I was sure I was going to die, and wanted to do so quietly. I lost one of my new water shoes in the schlumping attempt to reach shore.

After another canoe outing, I dipped into upper Lake Natoma to cool down. Instead the freezing water shot through me and I arose as if electrocuted, splashing to get out as fast as I could, resolving never to do that again. This was late June, the water temperature in the low 60s.

Yet, I swim.

Why? It became the exercise I could stick with. For all that water drama, I still liked the water. Though not the best swimmer, I enjoyed it for its solitude, a sort of Benjamin Braddock kind of solitude.

As a kid I even invented a new swimming stroke, the corkscrew, the body twisting front to back, front crawl to backstroke. I imagined the Olympics would eventually incorporate the corkscrew. It didn't catch on.

Five years ago, I learned a new swimming technique in the pool, one that would get me from Alcatraz to the mainland with vigor. Gradually I left the pool completely for the open water. It wasn't easy — the first chop I encountered immobilized me with the same childhood feelings of collapse and panic. But friends bade me go on. Now I swim year 'round without a wetsuit, gathering distance. A pittance compared to many swimmers I encounter, but a lot for me.

It's hard to picture the panic and disorientation the drowning man felt the day before our swim. His name and age are known. Beyond that, he has become law enforcement's cautionary tale about respecting the cold water and one's swimming ability.

The water feels warm to us, about 55 degrees. David downed a sport gel and I ate a slimy cranberry-orange bar with a couple of gulps of coconut water, and we headed back into green water. Texas Hill, the little island, was next. Then the marker buoy. Around the bend, then a diagonal across the dark wide stretch back to the boat dock. David zigzagged far ahead of me.

I could make this swim.

(Rest in peace, Bob Boyer.)


  1. Shawn, I'd like you to consider A Natoma Log -- that's Log as in "Log From The Sea of Cortez".

    You take your blog, assemble your posts on Natoma -- A Natoma Blog -- then lop off the B.

    It floats, eh? (HaHa)

    Too many blogs! Not enough logs.

  2. sounds promising. we could charter a boat, lay in supplies, then explore the far reaches of the storied lake …

  3. I was having fun (self-amusing) with the "log" part, but seriously: I thought a compendium of Natoma notes -- a kind of "best of" -- would be a cool thing.