As the days grow longer here in the Sierras, memories return of childhood summers. Back then, summers were long lazy days, spent at the beach…except for the two weeks of terror each July. For July meant swimming lessons and swimming lessons meant failure.
We lived in the post-war suburbs of New York, quite close to the beach. Our mother dutifully drove us to the beach each day, packing our red Rambler with blankets, pails and shovels, bottles of Coppertone (we were a pale Irish lot), and a cooler crammed with plums and sandwiches. Off we would go to Tobay Beach, a mere 20 minutes from our home. We loved those days spent building sand forts and eating paper-wrapped cylinders of ice cream that we painstakingly unwrapped into wafer cones. If you weren’t careful, the ice cream would roll out of its wrapper into the sand. Tears would follow, accompanied by pleas to our mother for another quarter for another ice cream.
Every July, she would put us into the Red Cross swim class offered at the beach. Everything would start out fine. We’d learn the basic strokes, the dead man’s float, the breast stroke. All this would be taught in water that barely reached our chests. The classes were held in the calm bay, close to the safety of shore. Daily, we would march after our instructor into the water, like a flock of baby ducks, eager to learn that day’s lesson.
To pass the class and receive our Red Cross certificates, we had to pass the final test. The instructors would pile us into the lifeguard dingy and row us out to the buoy and ropes that marked the farthest edge of the bay’s protected swimming area. It probably wasn’t more than 20 yards from shore, but to me it seemed like the middle of the ocean.
Every year, when it came to my turn, I would jump into the water, hoping, praying that this would be the year that I earned that coveted certificate. But something about the deep water would put me into a panic. I didn’t like the loss of the security of touching the sandy bottom with my feet. Without fail, the moment my mind registered that there was no bottom, I couldn’t breathe. My arms would flail and my head would sink under the water. Gasping, I’d swallow mouthfuls of salty water. I would kick wildly and sink further below the water’s surface. My mind would go blank and I’d forget everything I’d learned for the past 2 weeks. I would start to sink like a stone. The instructors who accompanied us in the water would haul me out and place me back on the boat, where I would remain as one instructor rowed ashore
Now, we live in the high desert, where my children learned to swim at the now-closed Y, far from any body of water. Their swimming is limited to summer camp or our annual camping trip to an icy alpine lake. They are fearless, diving off rocks into the clear water, bobbing up for air yards away. I lounge on the pebble-strewn shore; reading and watching my children splash and shout. If I do venture out on the lake, I stay in the kayak, paddling close to the shore. And I am fine with that.