- Age seven or eight — Fell into my aunt's pool, finding the edge only with a lot of death-panic flailing. My younger cousin, thinking she was being treated to a planned comedy rather than real tragedy, laughed.
- Age eight — Finally put my face in water, on purpose, at my older cousins' encouragement one summer at their neighborhood pool in northeastern Washington. Discovered a brave new world.
- Age nine — Took swim lessons at the high school. Liked it, except for the 200-yard test swim, which I never completed. The regret of never having become a Shark, and settling for Sea Lion or whatever the penultimate swim lesson designation is called, is a burden I carry still.
- Age 10 — Bested my older cousins in one thing only: Being able to keep my clenched fist in a bucket of ice water for far longer than they could. They are amazed, or adept at ladling out compliments on their visiting twerp. The moment prefigured events far away in time and distance.
- Teenage — Swam about once a year, in pools.
- High school —Tried out for the water polo team. Owing to embarrassing inability and unwillingness to wear a Speedo®™, I lasted one day.
- Young adulthood — Continued to swim once a year, or less, into adulthood, but only if I really had to. The public and I couldn't abide my going shirtless.
- Fatherhood — Participated in the daily Polar Bear Swim at son's Boy Scout summer camp, mostly trying to be a role model in getting up very early, getting organized, and braving cold water before the rest of camp arose. Realized I absolutely loved it, and swam the 50 yards as slowly as I could, savoring the cold while all around me boys yelped in agony.
- Further fatherhood —Crawled onto shore of a tiny lake somewhere in the San Joaquin Valley, absolutely sure my heart was going to explode and I would die in front of other adult leaders after swimming a 50-yard test for a Boy Scout canoe training campout. After my heart didn't, in fact, explode, I decided I must take steps to prevent nearly dying in this manner ever again.
- Fatherhood still — Swam the mile at next summer's Boy Scout camp. It felt like 100 miles. But I did it.
- Older fatherhood — Certified as a lifeguard at the next summer's Boy Scout camp, just in case our Troop ever wanted to go swimming or canoeing, which it mostly didn't.
- More fatherhood — Swam a mile at the next summer's Boy Scout camp. And the next.
- Older adulthood — Decided I like this swimming business, as the only thing I can do regularly in hopes of getting in shape. Start in a pool, a mile a morning.
- Nearly five years ago — Tried the open water of Lake Natoma on a cold February morning.
The Mile Swim, BSA®™, though, makes me laugh.
Among the Big Deals for the average Scout — and the average adult leading the average Scout — the Mile Swim, BSA©®, has to rank high. Most adults, I'm guessing, would balk at the idea of swimming a mile, and involuntarily shiver at the thought of swimming a cold lake.
Yet when a Scout or adult leader completes a mile under official supervised conditions, he or she receives a wallet card announcing:
Excuse me?! "Working toward physical fitness?" I read the back of the card for the first time after my third Mile Swim, BSA ®™and immediately wanted to throw the writer of these two paragraphs into the nearest lake and tell him/her to work toward physical fitness.You have proved yourself to be a strong swimmer and are commended for this fine accomplishment. It means that you are making yourself prepared for a possible emergency in the water and are working toward physical fitness. The emblem shows that you have reached a worthwhile goal. Don't stop here. Continue to improve your stamina.
Please remember to never swim alone.
I can't climb rock faces, but I doubt a rock-climbing Scout could swim a mile. Give swimmers some credit, BSA!
The front of the card puzzles me too. It verifies that I swam under safe conditions and qualified for the Mile Swim, BSA.
Qualified? I swam it, damn it!
The first mile was at Camp Winton along the Lower Bear River Reservoir, as close to natural as a human-made lake could come, blue and sparkling as sapphire, high in a granite Sierra cradle. I didn't wear goggles, couldn't see the far shore except as a shimmering gray-green mass above a shimmering blue mass, could barely see my canoe support, the life-vested Scouts leaning over the thwarts and constantly pointing out my course.
One Scout finished in 19 minutes. I didn't know anything about swimming a mile, but I knew that was fast, especially since it took me three times as long.
We got hot chocolate on shore and first dibs for breakfast in the dining hall — the Nobel Prizes of swimming, as far as I was concerned.
My second mile was at Camp Whitsett in the southern Sierra Nevada, where the camp dammed up a creek in the summer to create a lake. It was narrow and grassy and we had to swim back and forth between pylons to get our mile in. At the end, the swim director signed our yellow cards and literally ran off to do something else, camps being chronically understaffed. We were left alone to return to our campsites, no fanfare, no reward, except internal.
My third mile was at Camp Royaneh in the redwood ridges north of San Francisco. It used to dam up a creek, too, until environmental regulations prohibited it. The swim was in a pool of the oddest design, about 1 1/2 feet at the shallow end (despite all kinds of space in which to build a pool!) and finished in skin-scraping stucco. I lost a few knuckles earning that card, and really really missed the Lower Bear River Reservoir.
It took a long time, many stops and starts in my Lifetime Fitness Plan®™, but I have my own reservoir now, more of a serpentine in color and shape, and I took the card's words to heart. "Don't stop here," it admonished, and I didn't.
Though I often swim alone. Don't tell the BSA.