As usual, it was my mother who moved me forward toward swimming prowess. She and my Dad were friends with a couple a few years older than they — and whose two children, a boy and a girl, were a decade or more older than yours truly. The younger of the two, the boy, was a tall, handsome guy of about 17 named Terry. In later years, Terry went on to a notable career in national advertising, propelled by his talent as an artist and cartoonist. But when he came into my life, he was a high-school kid who held a summer job as a lifeguard and swimming instructor at Stephens Lake, a water sports/golf course location owned by one of the three institutes of higher learning in our city that I mention more than once in the book.
Mom had hired Terry to teach her 7-year old how to keep from drowning.
I wasn’t the best pupil. I had lived just enough years to see the dangers involved if you found yourself in water over your head, and with the realization that you were not Aquaman, did not have the ability to breathe it, and were in deep trouble. So when that first teaching day arrived (the plan called for Terry to drop by our house in the morning around 7:30, pick me up and take me to the Lake; Mom would retrieve me later,) I was simultaneously nervous, excited and fearful of the challenge I’d be facing. But in emulating Terry (I wanted to be just like him when I grew up,) my temerity was lessened a bit by just being around him. If I wound up losing my young life, my fear diminished to some degree with the knowledge that the last face I would see before going under for the final time would be someone I greatly admired.
Terry arrived as advertised, and together we drove east, turning north off the primary east-west street in our city, and tooled up the long drive leading up the hill to a parking lot just above the swimming area. We were in the water before 8. What I didn’t think of in advance was just because the air temperature would be in the high 70’s by that time of day during that part of the summer, the waters of the Lake, cooled by the overnight breezes and lack of warming sunlight, would be much less inviting that sloshing around in a warm bath. While it didn’t seem to bother Terry, I was freezing, now facing the possibility of frostbite along with my sincere desire to remain a living person.
The information I had picked up on the dangers inherent in swimming, which had been parked away in the recesses of my still-evolving brain, was now revving up, waiting to hit the road and cause me problems. During my first lesson with Terry, I refused to execute a simple face-down-in-the-water float. Standing in water neck high (to me; waist level for Terry,) as soon as he had me in position, would release his grip, causing me to thrash about, trying to find his body so I could hold on and avoid succumbing to the Lake’s murky depths. Ultimately, Terry had to rely on slight-of-hand, in an effort to trick me into thinking he was keeping me from sinking like a stone.
From somewhere in his lifeguard’s locker, he found (or constructed) a harness of sorts — a belt-like affair of canvas and buckles, which he wrapped around my chest, waist and upper legs. He advised that he would hold fast to this contraption, as he encouraged me to perform my “floating” technique. Giving every assurance that he would not release his life-saving grip, of course that’s exactly what he did. And as soon as he had won my trust, still thinking that Terry had me in his clutches, I was able to float flawlessly. At last I came to the realization that I could do it on my own, and without Terry’s tugs to help suspend my 7-year old body between life and certain death, I soon graduated from the “float” level to greater areas of agility and form.
Ultimately I got the hang of it, and after being told by Terry that he had released my harness, had relaxed and gone with the flow, if you’ll excuse the pun. And as that precarious opening session ended, and ecstatic on having beaten back the Grim Reaper, I felt complete. Even though I still had miles to go, I had achieved, in my mind, veteran status — and as soon as I had a few more years on me, would surely be asked to join the U.S. Olympic Team.
As I advanced through the lessons (though I never got used to the shock of jumping directly into a mass of cool water each morning, every appendage slowly turning to ice until I got used to the water’s temperature,) and as the sun and collective warmth of the other bodies my age with me in the water warmed things up — under Terry’s watchful eye, I became better through practice. I can still remember the thrill of accomplishment when I was able to swim from one dock to the other, and later out to the diving platform that bobbed up and down in deeper water, tipped a little to one side, further out in the lake. It was from here that I even learned to dive, moving swiftly through the water and back toward one of the docks, which poked their way out into deeper water as they came forward from shore and the shallow end.
I never became a skilled swimmer, with other adventures pulling me away from the sport as I grew older, but I was good enough. And I always enjoyed looking forward to those summers of my youth, part of which was reserved for cavorting in and around the cool, clear waters of Stephens Lake with my friends, having fun — content in knowing that my young life and those of my friends were not in any immediate danger.
Another Part of the Story that Missed Making the Book May 2012
In the pages of Thumbs Up, “V” for Victory, I Love You, I mention more than once my love of movies, and how the experience opened up for me a new segment of my imagination – with an impression so profound that to this day it remains a part of me.
I can still conjure up the names of films, actors, directors, production houses, and even at times, dialogue of those that were my favorites. I’m sure I’m not alone with this ability; there are many out there like me, touched by everything that came our way back then, who will never forget how they felt at the time. Whether the movies we saw came to us in black and white, color, regular 4:3 aspect ratio screen size, CinemaScope, “High Fidelity”, VistaVision, 3-D, and as young adults, the short-lived but awe-inspiring (remember the opening roller-coaster ride?) Cinerama, we loved them all.
And on top of the then new processes to which we were introduced were the many and variedfilm genres that came our way. Unlike the computer game-like sameness of much of what is offered today, the versatility of the films unveiled between the mid-40s and late-50s was unsurpassed — with us the willing subjects for seeing everything from Shakespeare to Spillane created on film.
And as a capper, even adjusted for inflation, going to the movies in those days was cheap. As a young teenager in our still-small city, full fare was less than a dollar. At the same time, in Chicago and St. Louis, it cost somewhere in the vicinity of $1.80 to get through the turnstiles as an adult. A little more pricey, but that usually meant a tidy package that contained a newsreel, short, cartoon, coming attractions and two feature-length films.
I could never go to the movies alone, and never understood those who managed that singular feat. What made sitting in the cool darkness of the theatre, transfixed by what was on the screen that much more enjoyable, was sitting beside my parents, other family members, and later my date, sharing the moment.
If just for the economics of it, for me, walking out on a film that failed to impress me was never an option. I had paid my entry fee, and if necessary, would suffer through poor acting, productions or storylines that didn’t move me. This exercise helped me realize the difference between what was superior and what didn’t pass muster. I became a critic, able to discern the incredible from the insipid – from the production itself (including obvious errors, which I loved re-telling) down to the ability of the actors displaying to me their craft.
And if my friends and I attended a horror movie, or any type of film with a plot that had the potential to frighten us out of our wits, I would never consider covering my eyes, or God forbid, leaving the theatre out of fear! Although the thought of being kidnapped by a Frankenstein-type monster or some slimy alien just in from Alpha Centauri — facing certain death at their hands, (or what would pass for appendages) was terrifying to imagine, the idea of missing any part of this experience never occurred to me.
Here’s a blow-by-blow of one of those special times. I was at the Uptown Theatre with friend Matt, a couple of 10-year olds residing comfortably in the midst of a good-sized crowd, watching the Universal-International production Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Now considered a classic from this famous comedy duo – it included, along with headliners Bud and Lou, actor Glenn Strange as the monster (who often subbed for Boris Karloff, the original Zipperneck,) “The Count,” Bela Lugosi himself, playing that original batman, “Dwack-oohla,” and finally, Lon Chaney, Junior, reprising his role as that furry guy with the definitive underbite, Lawrence Talbot, AKA The Wolfman.
All three of these classic meanies in the same movie! How could you beat that?
As the two stars exhibited the comedic timing we’d grown to love seeing them perform, the actors portraying the monsters played it straight, which made the film that much more enjoyable.
And as the plot slowly took shape, our heroes, (especially Lou) got themselves into predicaments that brought them precariously close to being caught, drawn, quartered, eaten or having the blood sucked from their veins at almost every turn. Scary stuff, indeed!
When these life-threatening situations shimmered before us on the silver screen, it became too much for Matt, who covered his eyes. As he did this, another kid, sitting across from us, yelled, bolted upright, and running up the aisle to the lobby, tumbled downstairs to the men’s room, where he hid in one of the stalls, hoping to protect himself from being throttled, right there in the theatre. (Not that cool in those days, some of us were easily fooled.)
I was as afraid as they were, but I gritted it out and stayed put, with eyes wide open. I had paid at least 14 cents to get into this movie, and wasn’t about to miss a frame, even if it meant becoming the youngest person on record to suffer a heart attack. So I sat through it, experiencing every terror-filled thrill it was possible for me to identify with at the time.
Later, as we left the theatre on our bicycles, heading toward the nearest drugstore to enjoy a chocolate coke, Matt asked me to tell him of the scenes he missed when his palms were before his eyes. Flush with the excitement of what I had just witnessed, and with the adrenalin still pumping, I regaled him, and between sips of chocolate coke, assumed every role, altering my speech patterns accordingly as I unearthed each delicate morsel of dialogue, character description, thrill and nuance of the horror he had failed to see.
I think Bud, Lou, Glenn, Bela and Lon would have approved.