COLUMN ONE, a regular feature in the LA Times, is very often the first item I read each day. Always good, sometimes it is touching, bringing tears to my eyes. Other times it moves me to anger, and then, like today’s, it just downright makes me laugh.
Today’s column by writer Kurt Streeter wasn’t intended to be funny. It is about how he learns to float in water, a feat he believes to be totally necessary so his young son won’t grow up with the fear of water that he himself had. The column shows us the emotions he experiences as he participates in a class of five women and one man (him) taught for 5 nights by a fellow referred to by his students as “the Swim Whisperer.”
What made me laugh is that I was reminded of my mother’s efforts to float, and how, throughout our whole life, if my sister and I wanted to illustrate the dramatic end of a success story, we’d say a cryptic “She floated!” and then we’d burst out in laughter.
Here’s our story
Mother was a Kansas girl, being raised in the little wide spot on the road called Caldwell, a mile north of the Oklahoma border and almost due south of Wichita. I know when she was 7 years old, about 1918, her family came out to Newport Beach, CA for a week-long vacation to see if California weather would help her father’s health, but apparently it did not, and until she moved to Long Beach in 1930, whatever water she played in (and I don’t ever remember her talking about it) was either a lake, a river, or a public pool.
I was born in Long Beach, California in 1935 and my earliest recollections of being in the water were from the time I was about 5 years old. I don’t know if my father could swim either; I think not, because we always were taken to some kind of a lagoon when we went to the beach, an area where there were no waves, just still, shallowish water where we could splash around to our hearts content, watched carefully by mother and daddy.
At that time Long Beach had a very sheltered lagoon that bordered the Municipal Auditorium. (See above postcard.) That is where we always went if we took an outing to the beach. However, for most of our swimming lessons mother took us to the Long Beach Plunge down near the Pike. She especially loved the Plunge, because she didn’t have to worry about sand and sunburn. She never was crazy about the beach or about getting a tan.
I can see my mother so clearly in my mind’s eye. While those old bathing suits of the 20s that covered everything up from the knees to the neck were out, 1940s suits were modest one-piece Jantzen or Cole form-fitting suits. On mother, who was quite thin, they really weren’t very form-fitting. I looked around on the internet and found a suit that was something that my mother would have been wearing about that time; she also never got in the water without a bathing cap with a strap under her chin to hold it in place. Here’s what she would have been wearing:
Of course neither my sister nor I could remember the specifics of our swimming lessons. But always it started with mother demonstrating to us how to float. The problem was that she herself wasn’t very good at floating and, in fact, couldn’t swim. While trying to float, she would always raise her head up to make sure we were watching, which caused her “center of gravity” (her rear end) to point down toward the sandy bottom -- and under she’d go! Not wanting to scare us, she’d always turn her back to us and wipe off her face so when we saw her we’d see the smile, not the fear of drowning, in her eyes.
She would do this several times, and then she’d say it was time for us to try. Of course we were little and really didn’t know what it was we were to learn, but she’d stand next to us, keep her hands under our little fannies, tell us to “keep our head back” (which of course was exactly what she couldn’t remember to do) and after a few tries, she would tell us to practice by ourselves. She’d go get daddy to come watch us while she put herself through her self-taught routine. At some point she actually became able to float, but it was long after we mastered it.
Until we were old enough to go to the beach, or the YWCA swimming pool (the Plunge was shut down before we ever became old enough to go by ourselves), she always accompanied us and always gave us a demonstration of how she could float. Ginnie Lou and I weren’t particularly interested in floating, since we picked up dog-paddling very quickly and later added a few more efficient strokes to our repertoire.
But mother was as proud of her float as she could be. She never learned to swim – I think probably it just wasn’t all that important to her, not having grown up around water. She certainly didn’t see that the rest of her life was going to be focused on the beach, the way my sis and I saw our lives heading.
Many years later Jer and I bought a house with a swimming pool. Mother came out to see it, and I invited her to bring her suit so she could take a dip. Well into her late 60s by that point, she no longer even had a swimming suit and not being a very brave or brazen woman, wisely declined to go skinny dipping. I phoned my sister that evening after mom went home and told her that I’d invited her to go swimming. My sister burst out laughing and said, “Can she still float (It makes me wonder what things I don’t know about that my kids are going to get a laugh over when I’m gone!).***
So today when I read about Kurt Streeter and his efforts to float (yes, he was successful too!), I just had to remember that it just isn’t all that easy for some people, and Kurt was to be commended for tackling a thorny problem and then telling us about it. “Congratulations, Kurt,” I say, “Way to go!.”Here’s his story; it’s worth reading.