Aug 23, 2017–This column will eventually be about my mom. But it starts with my first and worst phobia: fear of water.
As a kid I was terrified of swimming.
Looking back, this fear was not irrational.
I grew up in Iowa, a good 2000 miles from any sizeable body of water. There was no swimming pool in my hometown, and our creek was downstream from the sewage treatment plant. “Treatment” was just part of the name.
Even our baths were taken in a claw foot tub with only 2 inches of water allowed per five boys.
So it was no surprise that my first exposure to swimming lessons at age 7 was traumatic.
One chilly May morning I was put on a school bus with strangers for a 30-minute ride to the nearest public pool. Upon arrival, we were herded into a cold dressing room (there was no roof) for a colder shower.
I was 7 years old, with two-tenths of an inch body fat, and had never taken a shower in my life. I remember physically shaking. It literally took my breath away, if I could have drawn a breath through blue lips.
In the pools of those days even the shallow end was three foot deep. We marched out and plunged in. The first thing our “certified” high school instructor told us to do was stick our heads under water.
So here I am, a terrified, freezing, shivering child, surrounded by strange kids, in deep water for the first time in my life, and told by a teenager to dive under. I remember dipping my chin in the water for one second then jumping up spluttering and shaking.
I just couldn’t do it. All around me, the other kids were like sea otters. Laughing, diving, paddling, kicking. I sat on the edge of the pool the rest of that dreadful morning, and all subsequent ones.
I was so traumatized by the ordeal, the next May I would rush home after school trying to intercept the newspaper so my parents wouldn’t know when lessons were scheduled.
In the end, they didn’t force me to return, and fear of water was ingrained.
But I didn’t want to go through life that way. I remember finding my dad’s old Navy training manuals, and reading the section on how to swim. I was intrigued by this stroke called the dog paddle, which offered the amazing feature of not having to put your head under water. I wanted to try it, but had no access to pool or pond. I would even practice submerging my head in a water-filled 5-gallon bucket, before 5-gallon buckets came with a warning not to do that.
Fast forward to junior high. One spring day I came home from school and mom was waiting for me at the kitchen table. She had found an instructor in another town who could give me private swim lessons. Deep down, I really did want to get over my fear. I agreed to try.
It was amazing. The instructor, a lovely young woman, was positive and understanding. Each week, mom would drop me at the private club pool and go visit her mother. By the end of the first lesson, I was dog paddling! Over the summer I learned to tread water, submerge my head, swim across the pool and back, and even open my eyes underwater. It felt like having superpowers.
I’ve gone on to swim in the Great Lakes, two oceans, algae-ridden ponds, and Olympic-sized swimming pools, although I still can’t do a decent crawl.
But the abiding memory from this experience is that my mom made it happen, just for me, one on one, with no tolerance for teasing from my siblings, and no judgment.
That’s what moms do.