When I was about 6 years old, my mother was a Water Safety Instructor (WSI). And, since I had to go where she went most of the time, I learned to swim. Not from her, you understand. It is a well-known fact among aquatically inclined people that you cannot teach your own children to swim. Your own children will cling to you like a second skin and refuse to let go. They won’t do that to a total stranger – at least not until puberty.
So, Mom was teaching swimming to Intermediates which includes a child of the other WSI who is teaching Beginners – myself one. It makes for a free child-care situation which was good because Mom had a way of spending money on things…actually many things…actually everything.
I remember once when I was being dragged out to a department store while Mom was shopping. That happened a lot, you see. Mom was using the ancestor of a credit card called a “Chargaplate” – a thin metal plate with Dad’s name and a number embossed on it. By this time, I knew that this was just an IOU and Dad would pay later. Mom might have seen me eyeing the chargaplate and said to me, “Now, don’t tell your father I bought this.”
You might say I was a clever child, but this one seemed a no-brainer to me. I knew darn well that Dad would be writing a check for this amount later in the month – and he wouldn’t be smiling. One of my earliest memories was Dad cutting up credit cards with a pair of scissors (Chargaplates required tin snips). Mom would then go back to the store and say she lost them and ask for new ones. How do I know? Didn’t I just tell you she dragged me along on shopping trips? It all ended in Divorce not long after that.
We are trying to get back to swimming here and so, just to even out my criticism of my mother’s spendthriftery, I’ll relate a true story of her Water Safety credentials. She and Dad were at a party down at the Galveston Yacht Basin where our doctor kept his boat. Dad was an early adopter of “Bartering” – way before it became a hippie status symbol. If you wonder why, re-read the paragraph above.
For example, Dad repaired our Doctor’s boat motor in return for the Doc sewing up the wound in my arm. It took five stitches – I was swinging on a rope tied to a telephone pole. The rope parted and I wound up hanging by my impaled right arm from a hurricane fence. All the other kids who had encouraged the Big Guy to swing on that rotten old rope ran like thieves. Mom came out and “plucked” me off the fence and took me to the Doc.
File photo detail of a hurricane fence. These were universal around the houses in my neighborhood. The “barbs” at the top were intentional to discourage climbing. We climbed these pretty much on a daily basis in the summertime. These days they install the fencing itself “upside-down” so there is just a blunt corner at the top – for obvious reasons.
When Mom brought me home with my arm stitched up, the “backdoor” neighbor had hammered down all those barbs along all her fences – not just the common one. She was a Catholic with about 8 children.
Anyway, Mom and Dad were – at the Doctor’s invitation – attending a Yacht Basin party. There was a little boy – maybe three years old – playing with a dog. Actually, he was trying to push the poor animal over. Doggy departed suddenly and the boy plunged into the water of an empty boat slip. The water is quite deep there, as these were big boats.
My Mother immediately and instinctively jumped in, grabbed the kid and handed him up to Dad who was by that time prone on the deck and reaching down. The party-goers were stunned and amazed. The parents of the kid were very thankful. Mom had her faults, but Dad and I both were very proud of her that day.
Swimming, we were talking about swimming, right? I learned to swim at an early age and it became a habit. I was good at it, unlike other sports and swimming does not require a lot of equipment. Plastic goggles go for about $10 these days. It is not hard on the ankles, dogs don’t chase you and instead of sweating through a 105° day in Houston-August I was in a pool full of water.
There was swimming in Charles F. Hartman Junior High School (grades 7, 8 and 9), but it came with a very weird requirement. The excuse was that they did not want wet bathing suits in the lockers because they go all moldy and stink. The requirement was that you had to swim nude…unclothed, in the buff, in your birthday suit. So, I would have to strip down and “cavort” with a bunch of naked boys if I wanted to swim? No thank you very much. This was not “co-ed”, of course, or I would have reconsidered. That wasn’t the only weird thing about Junior High School, but we are trying desperately to get to the swimming story as the title suggests.
I still went swimming outside school, though – properly attired of course. We had a membership for a pool club called the Tropicana. I was actually on their swim team for a while. Pool clubs were quite common in those days because few houses had anything resembling air-conditioning (Yes, that’s what I said) and summers were Murder in Houston. The Summers still are, but everything that can hold a living human body inside has A/C now.
The Tropicana was a unique aquatics venue. It was an indoor pool in a metal building. If you looked closely, you would find that the building was supported by steel wheels on a railroad track. When the weather was appropriate, the entire building rolled back and the Tropicana was now an outdoor facility.
There was another quite interesting pool in town, as well. The part under the diving boards was actually about 15 or 20 feet deep. That left room at the bottom for a clear plastic hemisphere about five feet in diameter. This dome was held down by chains connected to the concrete below and air bubbled up from a hole in the bottom beneath the center of the dome. By that time, I was an accomplished pool denizen and was quite comfortable descending to pop my head in the dome and watch the swimmers around me. I would occasionally make forays out into the water when I saw coins tumbling down from the pockets of the diving board users. As often as not, I could re-coup the admission fee and once I had enough left over for a hot dog. It was best to get there early, because the dome usually filled up with other wannabe scuba divers and became uncomfortably claustrophobic.
This is a “file photo” of something like that pool dome.
The pressure was considerable higher that deep and ears had to be “popped” by attempted exhalation while pinching the nose. Ascending afterward also required re-adjustment of the ears and discharge of the expanding air in the lungs. All this would, of course land the pool’s managers in Court with a cornucopia of lawsuits, these days. I don’t remember the name or location of this place, but I am quite sure that the “diving bell” feature is no more.
I swam in Austin at the University of Texas in one of three pools there. In my last semester, I was working in a metal shop and showed up at the dressing room in rusty old jeans, a dirty army-surplus jacket that I wore while welding and worn, old steel toed boots(I had them resoled and I wore them on the Walkabout). I showered and dressed out for swimming and then afterward, I walked away to class in slacks, a Hawaiian shirt and boat shoes (my Clark Kent mode).
I am still swimming today. Since we still have the gym membership until unemployment bankrupts me, I swim every day. I have been building up in distance and I swam 63 laps only this morning – it’s some old guy’s age. To be clear, a lap is two lengths of the pool (one northbound, one southbound) to arrive at the starting point. The pool is 25 yards and the total distance is one and three-quarters of a mile. It takes about two hours. I am quite sure that the twenty-somethings swimming around me are utterly incapable of such effort.
As you might imagine, swimming laps is extremely boring. The mind tends to wander and I used to lose count of the laps quite often. I have a rule that when faced with uncertainty over whether it was 10 or 11 laps (e.g.), I always choose 10. That way there can be no doubt of the final count as a minimum. While this has the effect of maximizing the exercise, I found myself forgetting every few laps as my attention drifted. The logical extension of this problem would have me swimming excessively with a dismally small count.
To remedy this, I have developed several strategies to force myself to remember the correct count. Visualization: The brain – or at least MY brain -seems to remember visual clues much better than mere numbers. So I adopted the habit of counting laps on my fingers in front of my goggled eyes.
So, what do I do when I get to 10? There is a really clever way to count – unambiguously – to 99 on two hands. It is a system used by Korean schoolchildren and it is called, “Chisemba” if I remember correctly.
One moment please…
Okay, I don’t find it online, so I will explain it, myself. Or, rather I will visualize it for you (see photo below)
So, we got to 9 on one hand. Next is a “1” on the left hand to indicate 10 and so on up to 90.
You see that we can count all the laps we are likely to need on two hands. Only for a brief glance at the push-off, I don’t swim with my hands like that, in case you wondered. It does make an amusing mental image though.
Now the problem is that sometimes, when distracted by neighboring swimmers (or talkers) I forget to make the visual count. So, another form of memory aid is needed to back this one up. Say we have decided to swim 30 laps. By the time we get to lap number 3, we have covered 1/10th of the total. At 5, one 1/6th is done. Then at lap 6, 1/5th , at lap 7 ½, 1/4th at lap 10, 1/3rd, at lap15, one half. If you need something to fill the long gap between 10 and 15 laps, then 12 laps is 2/5ths. I might forget the count but remember that I just passed the half mark, and so on.
There are also points along the way that represent fractions of a mile (9,18,27 and 36=1 mile). I used to work in nautical miles so (10,20,30 and 40 =1 nm). I can also “go metric” and come up with kilometers (11, 22=1k, 33, 44, etc).
In the higher lap counts, there are oddball combinations like ½ a mile and half a kilometer (29) and in case I really get bored (everyday!) there are integer squares (4,9,16,25…) and prime numbers (1,3,5,7,11,13,17…) and 42 (the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
And at the end of the swim, we count down by fractions as well, when 2 laps shy of 30, there is 1/15th remaining, 1 lap is 1/30th, a half lap is 1/60, then 1/120, 1/240, 1/480…etc. Each of these distances – while small – must take some finite time to accomplish, right? So, I never finish and I am still in the pool right now reaching out with my index finger toward the side of the pool, trying to cover that infinite series of fractions, yes?
File photo* of a swimmer reaching to finish that infinite number of fractional laps
That is one of Zeno’s Paradoxes. Zeno was an Ancient Greek who evidently got paid to think up goofy stuff like that. Where do I sign up for that position? I may be overqualified!
*Art Nerds among you will recognize Michelangelo’s God Creating Adam currently on permanent loan to the Sistine Chapel. That is the image that popped into my head when I imagined the infinite series of fractions. I would have used the Adam portion of the image, since Adam doesn’t have all those Cherubs around him – but Adam is doing the backstroke and is attired for the Charles F. Hartman pool, if you get my drift.