By MARILYN SHAPIRO
As schools let out for the summer, children will head for the beach or go to a pool.
Fortunately, my own first experiences with swimming did not seriously hurt my current enjoyment of the sport.
In 1952, my parents moved our family from Potsdam to Keeseville. Both were small upstate New York towns. But whereas Potsdam had a college, including the Crane School of Music, Keeseville was a poor mill town. Soon after my father took over as manager of Pearl’s Department Store, the business at Prescott’s Lumber, a company in Keeseville that made wooden television cabinets, slowed as manufacturers moved to less expensive metal cases.
Mom Loved The Water
Our new home, however, had one major advantage. Keeseville was located less than four miles from Port Douglass, a lovely spot on Lake Champlain that offered a sandy beach with a diving raft a 100 yards off shore.
My mother, who had grown up within walking distance of Coney Island’s beach and boardwalk loved the water. She was determined to get her driving license so that she could drive us to the beach during our summer vacations.
As a result, soon after moving to Keeseville, my mother took driving lessons. My father would watch me as Mom drove away with Mr. Holdridge for her weekly lesson. I would sit in the back of Pearl’s Department Store listening to old 78 records: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Danny Kaye reciting stories from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson; Lauren Bacall reading James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks. After failing the road test twice, mom finally succeeded in getting her driver’s license.
All summer, weather permitting, my mother would pile us into the station wagon, along with whatever friends tagged along. We would happily bounce our seat-beltless way to beach, nestled between towels, a couple of chairs, a cooler filled with snacks and drinks, and—once my sister Bobbie was born—a playpen and a diaper bag. Once we got there, we dumped everything onto the sand. Mom would sit in a chair chatting with her friends as we ran into the water (usually freezing water). (This was upstate New York, remember, where the water temperature ranged from 60 degrees in early June to a balmy 70 degrees by August.)
Safe, But Scared!
I remember the beach, but I also remember the day— I was probably four— I waded in too far and found myself in over my head. I frantically struggled in three feet of water, going under once, twice, three times. Luckily, a teenager who was standing nearby, fished me out, and put me back on shore. Sputtering, scared, but safe, I ran back to our blanket.
“I drowneded!” I told my mother. “That’s nice, sweetheart,” my mother said, and went back to her conversation with her friends.
In the years that followed, I, along with many of my friends, took swim lessons at Port Douglass. For six weeks a summer, we caught an 8 a.m. bus provided by the town to take classes taught by high school students. The four years of lessons are etched in my memory through the songs we would sing while being shuttled back and forth. We’d spend the short drive back and forth singing the top hits of the day: Wake Up Little Susie (1957); Tom Dolly (1958); Battle of New Orleans (1959); and Tell Laura I Love Her (1960). We’d get home in time for lunch and then often had a second trip to the beach with Mom behind the wheel.
Around 1961, a swimming pool facility was built near Ausable Chasm. Our family obtained a membership, and we would split our time between the sandy beach and the warmer waters of the pool.
In 1966, my parents purchased a cottage on Willsboro Bay, across from Burlington, Vt. We swam off our boat dock and at the small public beach adjacent to our property.
It was also during those summers in Willsboro that I learned how to waterski, and had one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, When I was 16, I was waterskiing behind a boat driven by a very cute neighbor with his equally cute friend, who was spotting me. All of a sudden, I realized that I had lost the top of my two-piece bathing suit. I quickly let go of the towline and submerged myself up to my neck in the middle of the bay. The two “Troy Donahue” twins brought the boat around to retrieve me. They somehow managed to hold their laughter as they handed me my aqua and white ruffled top—now missing two back buttons—while I handed over my skis.
I occasionally swam laps in the University of Albany while in college, but my pool time increased exponentially once my husband Larry and I had children. We joined a neighborhood pool four miles from our house, where Adam and Julie took swim lessons and subsequently joined a swim team. We spent many a summer night with timers in our hands as Adam, Julie, and their teammates made their way back and forth across the pool with their breaststrokes and freestyles and butterflies. I would catch laps during adult swim and, once Larry got home from work, after dinner.
The Story Continues
Larry was not much of a swimmer himself, but he insisted both children get lifeguard certification. Both children got summer jobs at town or college pools. Julie went on to be a lifeguard at college and even spent two summers as lifeguard at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a resort sponsored by Paul Newman for seriously ill children.
While Julie occasionally has opportunities to swim, (Nearby mountain-fed Lake Dillon rarely gets above 63 degrees in the summer), Adam still swims regularly in indoor pools near his San Francisco apartment.
Now that I live in Florida, I swim in a neighborhood pool several times a week. The water is heated to 82 degrees, too warm for my upstate NY blood. So warm that I have been known to do laps when the air temperature is less than 60 degrees. I am a strong swimmer, gliding slowly, but steadily back and forth in my lane for 40, 50 minutes without a break. But once in a great while, I inhale a mouthful of water, start choking, and lean on the side of the pool to catch my breath. For that short moment I remember once upon a time, I “drownened,” but I have lived to tell the tale.
Marilyn Shapiro, formerly of Clifton Park, is now a resident of Kissimmee, Fla.