I thought of my Uncle Jim today. Uncle Jim is long gone, but in my boyhood he lived in a bungalow a short walk from the ocean at Rockaway Point, Long Island. He was one of those people who are just as comfortable in the water as walking on solid ground. Uncle Jim was a graceful and confident swimmer who glided effortlessly through the ocean.
I have never been like this. Even though I have the mechanics of swimming pretty well mastered, I have never been able to absolutely trust that the water would hold me up no matter what. Neither have I ever had complete confidence that if I breathed while swimming, I would not inhale copious amounts of the wet stuff.
I almost drowned once, when I was eighteen, trying to impress a girl. I swam boldly out, at high tide, from a beach on Long Island Sound where I had previously only ever been at low tide. At low tide, you can just about walk across the Sound to Connecticut without ever being more than a bit above waist deep in the water. But as I said, it was high tide---a situation I had neglected to take into account.
I swam out an impressive distance with, I thought, equally impressive form. Then I stopped and turned to face the shore, or rather to face the raven-haired, bikini-clad beauty I was trying to impress. My intent was to stand in what I was certain was no more than three and a half feet of water. However, when I attempted to stand, I was shocked to find that my feet could not touch bottom. For a minute or two, I floundered around in the water, and then I did the only two things I knew how to do fairly well in water over my head.
First, I panicked. Then I popped up, took the deepest breath I could, went down and began swimming underwater for my life. I kicked furiously and pulled desperately at the water with my arms and hands until my lungs were ready to burst. Then I popped up and did it all over again. And again. And again.
I don't know how many times I repeated this routine, inching ever closer to shore. After four or five times of it, I remember surfacing and my eyes meeting those of the girl of my dreams. "Are you drowning?" she asked matter-of-factly.
I was, of course, but I was damned if I'd admit it to her because I knew her to be an excellent swimmer. I had no intention of suffering the humiliation of having her spring to the rescue and swim to shore with me in her tow, thrashing and gasping like a stranded fish. I would rather have drowned. So I made no answer, but took another deep breath and continued with my routine.
After about a hundred years, I finally came to the place where I could stand on tiptoe on the bottom with my face barely out of the water, and breathe. This was neither as easy, nor the big relief you might think, since I had inhaled a lot of Long Island Sound. Eventually I did manage to stumble and wheeze to the safety of the beach. I spent the remainder of the afternoon lying on a blanket next to the girl of my dreams, alternately coughing violently to clear my lungs and joining in her helpless laughter at my situation. One thing was clear. I had made an impression.
I didn't know it then, but that was to be my one shining moment with her. Nothing ever came of my passion for that raven-haired beauty. At least the experience taught me a lesson: if you are planning on impressing a woman, try doing something you're good at, even if it's nothing more than spitting for distance.
As I said, Uncle Jim has long since passed. As for me, I moved to a landlocked state as soon as possible, and married a woman who cared as little for swimming as I did. After thirty-five years of marriage, I no longer feel I have anything to prove to anyone.