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Swimming, Now and Then
By Catherine C. Brooks

     “May I get in the pool?” is a common question many times during the summer months in today’s world. Whether to swim or to paddle about on one of the many floats available, the swimming pool entices all ages in hot weather. It’s another way to endure the heat.

     During the 1920’s and 30’s, such a statement would have been questioned. “What pool?” In rural areas few had electricity and fewer had any plumbing other than an open well with a bucket hanging from a rope or a pitcher pump. In the coastal areas, most retreated to the beaches while farther inland, they went to ponds, lakes or a river to ‘take a dip.’

     My early knowledge of the first swimming pool came about when I toured a passenger steamship, advertised as a Luxury Liner, moored in Norfolk, Virginia, with my aunt the summer before I entered second grade. Young women in their full bathing suits, which almost reached to their knees, sat in canvas lounge chairs around the sides of the pool, reading or chatting. Most of the passengers had gone ashore to sightsee or shop.

     Locally we visited what is now known as the “Mathews Public Beach” on the Chesapeake Bay. Back then we referred to the same beach, deeper by 200 or more feet, as “Haven Beach” since it was in the area of the county known as Milford Haven. The beach that has grown very narrow now, in that day, boasted a hot dog stand, sodas kept cold in hot ice in a separate booth and a dance hall where the young people gathered with adults to dance. The manager played phonograph records turned to their loudest volume for dance music. Bathhouses sat beyond the dance hall where some of the adults changed their clothes when they wanted to swim and after they came in to shore. Others saved the small fee for use of the bathhouse, wearing their swimsuits under their clothing and replacing them over the wet suit. My sister and I, like most children, wore our bathing suits to and from the beach. I remember the woolen suit itched as the salt water dried, and the sand particles, which stuck like glue while sitting or playing on the beach, felt like fleas biting. I could scarcely wait to get home, pull the suit off and jump in the washtub of water that we had left to warm.

     In the summer of 1933 soon after my seventh birthday, Daddy worked as quartermaster on a freighter, coming home for short intervals occasionally. The depression had forced him to go back to the job that he had never planned to return. Uncle Wilfred, who had come from Baltimore to visit his folks for a long weekend, invited Momma to take Sister and me to Haven Beach to swim late on Friday afternoon. 

     I donned my red bathing suit that covered my body fully, but without sleeves or long legs, while my little sister put on her blue one. We took old towels to sit on when we rode home to keep the car seats dry. When we arrived in the parking area, we walked a good distance from the car on warm sand towards the Chesapeake Bay where folks swam, laid on the beach or sat out food for picnics. 

     I ran towards the water, ready to jump in with my friends that I saw playing in the water. Momma and Uncle Wilfred, almost in unison, demanded that I hold on, meaning to wait until Uncle Wilfred could change to his swimming trunks. I impatiently played at the water’s edge while Sister hid her face in Momma’s skirt while she chatted with momma's of my friends. Sister would go into the water as far as Momma waded with their hands clasped. At long last, my uncle came from a bathhouse to the water’s edge and took my hand, leading me into the water. He asked, “Can you swim.”

     “No sir, but I can go out up to my waist and flap my arms,” I answered.

     Uncle Wilfred chuckled and said, “I want to take one good swim. Be careful while I do and don’t go any deeper. You know it’s easy to drown if you lose your balance.”

     I shrugged my shoulders. What does he think is going to happen to me, I thought. I’ve never gotten hurt out here before this. I could have gone into the water without him treating me like a little kid, holding my hand.
I watched as Uncle Wilfred threw one arm over his head and then the other, the strokes carrying him farther and farther from shore. I wanted to learn how to swim like that when Daddy came home to teach me
Friends came to join me, and I continued to play until some of the group grew tired and went to shore. But I determined to wait for Uncle Wilfred to swim back to me. I took a few steps farther from shore when a big wave came from out of nowhere, bending me double. I planted my feet more firmly on the bottom, trying to stand still. With my upper body and head almost up out of the water, another wave knocked me over, then on the second attempt the same thing happened. I tried the third time, but the waves seemed to be getting heavier when they struck me, and again I failed to raise my upper body above the water. Daddy had always told me to hold my breath when under water and I had. But I felt a pressure. I had to breathe, but I held on until I tried once more.

     Back on shore, Uncle Wilfred wiped on a large towel that he’d brought with him. “It looks like all the children have come in. But where’s Catherine?”

     Momma, busy with Sister and talking said, “I thought she was with you.”

     “I swam on out, telling her not to go any farther because I’d be back for her. When I didn’t see her, I thought she was with her friends,” he replied all the time both walking towards the shoreline to see if they could spot me in the waters that had become choppy.

     “There’s her red bathing suit,” he yelled, treading water as he ran toward me.
I knew that I must breathe or I’d surely die. Just as I inhaled, someone lifted me above a wave, which whipped high on his chest. Uncle Wilfred began to shake me to see if I had water in my lungs. I tried to scream, “I didn’t breath under water.” It came out as only a whisper, but he heard me.

     Back on shore, no one needed to correct or punish me because they realized I had learned my lesson the hard way. Everyone said I looked like a ghost, being so white—almost a grayish white. All I remember is trembling and thinking, I’ll never go in the Bay again even to learn to swim. I did go in once when in my thirties and felt that I’d smother just walking out almost to my waist, disappointing my husband when I panicked. He enjoyed swimming and wanted to teach me, but I couldn’t face reliving the experience. I had dreamed that it was happening too often.

     When each of our children reached the proper age to take swimming lessons, I saw that they got to take them. I didn’t want either one to go through life with the fear I had of the open water. 

     My son, Kirk, and daughter, Kay, both have enjoyed many hours swimming, first in Garden Creek and later in Kirk’s swimming pool. And both grandsons learned to swim early in life at home in the swimming pool.
If you have young children or grandchildren, don’t let them down when swimming lessons become available for their age group. Swimming is a good sport and muscle builder; make use of it to promote their health. Yet it can be dangerous without proper precautions. 

© 2002 Catherine C. Brooks All Rights Reserved


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