My Irish Up: To swim, perchance to sink

Mike Corrigan

Mike Corrigan

By Mike Corrigan

BN Columnist

“Is he supposed to turn blue like that?”

“He’s been practicing,” my mother primly informed the concerned swim instructor, not quite answering the girl’s question.

And then, to me in an aside: “Michael Thomas Corrigan, cut that out! You’re scaring the other swimmers.”

I attempted to nod. I was shivering so hard the small whirlpool I whipped up threatened to drown several of the smaller tots in my group. But did my cyanotic condition shame my mother into withdrawing me from swimming lessons for good, as I so fervently hoped? No! For an American child of the Fifties, “to swim” was part of the job description. You ate candy. You complained about there being nothing to do. You rode your bike and almost got run over by an Oldsmobile. You learned to swim.

And anyway, none of Mrs. Corrigan’s other, nicer, more considerate children turned blue after only a few minutes in the water. Why did I have to be so stubborn about everything?

I thought of this the other day, when driving past two six-year-olds “running under the hose,” as we used to call it. The two hopped and dashed and screamed and laughed and tried to avoid individual water droplets. And screamed. And laughed.

When first learning to swim I screamed, but I didn’t laugh. Libby Pool, Gorham, N.H.’s recreational hotspot, was actually a dammed brook, whose source even in August was probably edged with ice. My mother hated winter and cold and should have empathized, but her duty was clear: all four of her offspring must be subjected to perfectly normal and equal opportunity childhoods. If that meant one or two of us ended up frozen to death in the midst of summer, there was really very little anyone could do about it. The rules were inviolable. When it was time to learn to swim, you swam or you sank.

Our first lesson was the Dead Man’s Float. (Why did that nomenclature not seem portentous to anyone else?) “Oh, fiddlesticks, it’s fun!” the instructor, a large girl in a bulging one-piece suit insisted. “Just lean forward, put your face in the water and push off.” She pointed at a boy with gills and told him to demonstrate for us mouth-breathers, which he did. He leaned, pushed and arrowed underwater, not even the crown of his head showing until he surfaced ten or twelve yards away, shaking water off his scales and fins.

“See?” the instructor said. “See how easy that was?”

The other eight or nine children lined up, leaned and pushed off. I was left behind, still leaning. In fact, I quickly became accomplished at leaning. Here I go! Okay! No? Now! Here I go! No? Now — here I go! No?
“Don’t be scared,” the instructor said.

“I’m not s-sc-scared,” I said. “My f-fe-feet are f-fr-frozen to the b-b-bo-bottom.”

My classmates came up sputtering and dripping and squealing and gasping. I was still leaning when they splashed convivially back to lineup again. From there we all leaned together, and everyone else pushed off and came up shaking themselves like eager puppies and calling to each other in companionable tones while planning hikes and swimming parties and bike rides and future marriages as I stood there, still leaning.

After several lessons, I was able to duck my head completely underwater, but only for the first splash; after that I moved like a foundering submarine with its periscope stuck in the Up position. I learned to Dog Paddle before ever once successfully executing the Dead Man’s Float. Eventually, by cheating, I made it all the way to Intermediate Level. My backstroke wasn’t bad, though, lacking a rudder, I tended to splash around in a circle. The Red Cross, an appropriate accrediting organization given my condition, issued a certificate and told me to get the heck out of their pool, which I did.

My father enjoyed “a dip,” as he called it. He churned manfully along, a side wheeling steamboat, huffing and gasping and slapping the water like a walrus doing the Australian crawl. Dad kind of pushed the water away from in front of him, then his thrashing limbs filled the gap he’d made and so parts of him emerged from a swim still dry. My siblings were pretty good in the water. Mom didn't go in. Once in awhile she'd go down and look at the lake, mournfully, as if it were a prize denied her. She felt about the water the same way she felt about beer. She’d tell my Dad, “I wish I liked the taste of that stuff. On a hot summer day, beer just looks so cold!”

And yet, on a cool early summer day, Libby Pool didn’t look “so cold?” Cruelty, cruelty…

Mike still doesn’t like beer either.

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