Ever met one of those people who seemingly can do everything? I know a guy like that.
He speaks 47 different languages fluently—including Esperanto.
He can play fourteen musical instruments—simultaneously.
He is a master in woodworking, auto repair, computer science, world history and literature—including the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Ann Coulter.
He knows the difference between the words turgid, tumid and turbid.
He’s the kind of annoyingly smart person who could probably name every bone in the human body—even as you were wishing to break all of his.
And yet, I recently found out something he does not know how to do—at all. Amazingly, he doesn’t know how to swim.
He’s not versed in the sidestroke, breaststroke, or butterfly. He can’t even do the dog paddle—not any version of it, from Shepherd to Shih Tzu. As a result, he’s about as comfortable around water as Superman is around Kryptonite.
How could this have happened, I wondered? He says that during his busy childhood—which even included learning to sail a boat—no one ever thought to teach him what to do if he fell out of one. And now, all these years later, his inability to swim is one of his darkest secrets and embarrassments.
I always wondered how Tarzan learned to swim. Apes raised him—but what did they know about the water? (Although I did see a monkey waterskiing on Evening Magazine last night.) But however he learned it, Tarzan was fearless diving into rivers that looked murkier than bean dip.
He always swam effortlessly—even with a hippo nipping at his loincloth. And he always knew how to tell a pond from a quicksand pit. That seemed like a good thing to know. As a kid, quicksand always gave me the creeps. I can still remember old movies where bad guys sank into quicksand—until only their hats were floating. Unless they fell in upside down. Then, only their shoes remained.
A well-known local TV sportscaster I know can’t swim. He’s great at backgammon, but not a backstroke. Luckily for him, most TV news sets don’t include koi ponds or waterfalls.
My wife’s mother was a non-swimmer too. For several years she would never come to our house to visit us. Then I removed the moat.
If left on my own, I would probably be another of those who can’t swim. But my mom and dad didn’t allow me that choice. They equated learning to swim with all other crucial life preparations: Watching for cars, learning first aid and putting the toilet seat up. (Although to me, as a non-swimmer, keeping the seat down seemed safer.)
When I was eight or nine, my dad decided that I needed swim lessons. Only problem: I was terrified of the water. Even large containers of Snapple scared me.
And every time I’d been to a public pool previously, I sank like a bowling bowl. And that was just in the showers.
So one early June morning my dad dropped me off at the entrance to the city pool for my first lesson. I waved goodbye as he drove away. But I had no intention of going inside—and as soon as Dad’s car was out of sight, I began walking slowly home, skipping my swim lesson altogether.
We didn’t live far from the city pool, so I took my time. Before arriving home, I used the garden hose to get my suit and towel convincingly wet before hanging them on Mom’s laundry line. It was, if I may immodestly state, a perfect plan.
It became a daily routine: Dad dropping me off at the pool, me pretending to walk inside—and then strolling home. It went on for almost two weeks. Then the old man bumped into my would-be swim instructor at a Rotary Club meeting. “How’s Pat coming along with the swim lessons?” Dad asked the guy.
The answer spelled curtains for my stay-dry scheme.
The next day, my perturbed pappy walked me all the way into the changing room—and then out to the pool where swim classes were underway. Then, as he watched sternly from the sidelines, I shakily waded in. I was sure the instructors would soon be dragging the pool for me—but by the end of the lesson, against all odds, I was actually afloat.
By midsummer, the lessons long over, I went to the pool every day—jumping around in the water, twisting and struggling while battling imaginary alligators Tarzan-style. The fear of being in the water was over forever.
Now if I could just screw up the nerve to take quicksand lessons.