When I was five years old, one of my teenage sisters “volunteered” to take my little friend Janice and me to the big people’s swimming pool at the park for the first time. I’m guessing this was the result of alot of me begging Mama, because I remember that awesome big pool with so many people in it (and diving boards!) fascinated me and I wanted to be a part of that instead of the tame kiddie pool that just had alot of “babies” in it. The kiddie pool was a big round pool that was very shallow around the edge and only about three feet deep wayyyy out in the middle. And, I’m sure at the advanced age of five years old, I probably perceived that pool as just for those babies — certainly not for big girls like Janice and me.
Background: This is how it worked when you went to a public pool in 1951. You carried your bathing suit and bathing cap (required for girls, to keep hair out of the water and the filters) rolled up in a towel to the pool with you. (You never saw anyone out in public in a bathing suit.) When you got there, you went to a counter on the front of the bathhouse where you paid your money and they gave you a big, heavy wire basket with a big safety pin attached to it, that had matching numbers on them. You then went into the girls side of the bathhouse where there were booths along the side for those who were modest and benches out in the middle for those who were not, and changed into your suit and attached the big safety pin to it, usually at the leg opening, and put your clothes in the basket and then turned it in at a window. That way when you were done swimming, you could come back to that window, give them your safety pin and they would give you the basket with the matching number containing your clothes, which you would change into before you went home.
So, the big day came and ML took Janice and me to the pool. I could hardly stand still while ML paid for us and got a basket. Finally, we got into the bathhouse. I immediately ripped my clothes off, threw them in the basket and put on my bathing suit as quickly as I could — I was soooo excited! Then I pestered ML, to hurry up and help me put on my tight yellow, rubber swim cap (that required adult-type strength to pull down over my Mama-induced home permed curls). That done, she turned away to finish getting ready herself and to turn in the basket at the nearby window. Thennnn, and only thennnnn, would we all together go out to the pool! Now, while I don’t remember hearing those exact words, I’m sure that the ever-responsible ML said something like that, but I don’t think I heard her — or I just totally ignored her because I was soooo excited! Because I didn’t wait for anything or anybody — I immediately walked out of the bathhouse and jumped into the edge of the big people’s pool!
Now, several things were unfortunate at this point.
1. I didn’t know that, unlike the kiddie pool, the big pool wasn’t shallow all around the edge — I had jumped into 5 ft. of water, and couldn’t swim.
2. ML didn’t notice me leave the bathhouse because she was busy helping Janice and turning in the basket, and there were lots of women and girls in the bathhouse, so it was very loud and chaotic.
3. Janice was not the mouthy little kid I was (probably the reason we were friends), so she didn’t “tattle” to ML about me leaving without them.
But, by the grace of God, Janice did somewhat follow my lead. While ML was turning in the basket, Janice walked out the door to the pool. When ML turned around and saw the back of Janice going out the door, she assumed I was just a few steps ahead, so she wasn’t concerned, but she did quicken her step to catch up, before something could happen.
A few seconds later when ML walked out the door, she was surprised to see Janice standing on the side of the pool alone. ML hurried over to her, and said, “Where’s Sandra?” Janice said, “Down there.” and pointed at my yellow bathing cap bobbing up and down under the water.
The view from below: As soon as I jumped in even my little five year old mind knew I was in trouble. I went all the way down and touched the bottom and proceeded to bounce and try to get air when I was at the top of the bounce — that only worked about half the time, and I was only gulping in about half air — the other half was water. I remember seeing the legs of a guy sitting on the side of the pool and thinking I wished I could bounce over close enough to him to grab his leg (which would probably have given him a heart attack!), but I just wasn’t coordinated enough to be able to do that. So, I just continued to bounce, gulp, bounce, gulp … not exactly a recipe for success!
I don’t remember the “rescue,” but this is what I’ve been told: ML immediately jumped in and grabbed me and started to push me toward the side, at which time the lifeguard realized what was happening, and jumped in to help. They put me on the deck and started pushing on my back and lots of water came gushing out. Apparently, that was good enough! (Today, they would probably call EMS, and I would have been kept in the hospital overnight for observation!), because I do remember walking home with ML and Janice, and ML specifically telling me that SHE would tell Mama what happened. She probably figured (correctly) that this story blurted out in five-year old hysteria, would give Mama a heart attack! I don’t remember ML or me getting in trouble, so I’m guessing Mama was just relieved that I was all right. Its also my guess that ML and I were both soooo upset that Mama figured we didn’t need any further punishment!
But, what this experience gave me (no surprise) was a huge fear of water. Ironically, Mama had had a similar near-drowning experience when she was a teen-ager, so she herself had a fear of water too. The result of this incident and Mama’s own fear was that she had a strong desire for me to learn to swim because she didn’t want me to have the same life-long fear of water she did. So, over the years Mama took me to swim lessons multiple times, and I usualy didn’t even last one lesson. They seemed to always start out just bouncing around in water that wasn’t over my head — that was fine. But, then they would invariably say, “Now let’s play a game — Ring Around the Rosie!” Hey, I may have been a little kid, but I wasn’t a dumb little kid. I knew how that game ended, “We all fall down!” Uh-Uh — not me. That would mean getting my face wet. When they started to play that game, I would say I had to go to the bathroom. Then I would get out of the pool and Mama would take me to the bathroom, where I would tell her, I wasn’t going back.
Eventually Mama took me enough times that I finally overcame my fear and I actually stayed long enough to learn to swim! Buttttt, in order to pass, you had to be able to float on your back. Swimming, even with my face in the water, had become okay, even fun. But float on my back!!! Lean back in the water, and totally “trust” the water to hold me up!?!?! THAT was something I really didn’t think I could do. Well, finally, with the help of a very patient teacher, one who was able to gain my trust, I did learn to float on my back. And, now, I call that my survival mode. If I were ever in water and had to stay afloat for a long period of time, I am not a strong enough swimmer to be able to depend on just swimming and/or treading water, but I do know that when I didn’t have the strength to swim to save myself any more, I would be able to flip over on my back and float to rest. I believe that that ability would be the single thing that would allow me to survive.
I tell you this story for two reasons. First, because it was a traumatic experience in my life that had a long, lingering impact on me. I am thankful that Mama perservered in taking me to swimming lessons, so that I’m not an adult who can’t swim. And I am, because of my experience, a strong advocate for children learning to swim as early as possible, and being taught every rule of water and pool safety possible. During the ten years that we rented a condo for a week on the ocean near Gunny and his family, all three of his children learned to swim in the pools at our condo complex. And, DD and “George” have taught all three of their girls to swim too. That makes me very happy.
And the other reason I wanted to tell this story is that floating on my back has always reminded me of what faith is like. I think in life itself “floating on your back” is trusting in God. You can’t see God and His support — you just have to trust that He’s there and will hold you up when you can’t support yourself.
Floating on your back and Trusting in God — both acts of faith that require trust in the unseen, but result in rest and comfort — one for your body, the other for your soul.