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Last One In's a Scairdy-cat!

by Rose Madeline Mula

Recently I was talking to my grandniece, Shelley, about the many things I would do differently if Shirley MacLaine is right and we get more than one shot at this thing called life. The big problem, though, I said, is that I probably won't remember them all. "Don't worry, Rosie," she replied. "If I know you, you'll have Post-It notes all over your casket."

Not a bad idea. And the largest note will say: LEARN TO SWIM! Actually, I almost learned to swim several years ago at an age when most people are taking up rock-the kind you do in a chair, not at a disco. I don't know why it took me so long. I think it all goes back to my childhood (of course); and I'm sure my mother was to blame (naturally). You see, she was afraid of the water (and doubtlessly her mother was to blame for that); and because she was overprotective, she transmitted that fear to me.

At that time, many of our relatives lived on the shores of the icy Atlantic in Winthrop, Massachusetts; and my parents and I spent every summer weekend with them at the beach. All my cousins were as at home in the water as the ubiquitous minnows. They (the cousins and the minnows) obviously all had well-adjusted mothers.

Every weekend, cousins, aunts and uncles-all well-intentioned-would nobly try to help me overcome my abject terror of the deep (hey, it was up to my knees!) by trying to teach me to swim. They all invariably employed the same method. Each, in turn, would coax (spelled d-r-a-g) me, screaming, into the frigid water, force me over onto my stomach and absolutely swear they would not let go of me. But they always did. And I would sink choking and panic-stricken to the bottom-only two feet down, but the bottom, nevertheless.

It got so I didn't like summers very much, especially weekends, until I grew older and stronger and adamantly refused to be dragged seaward any more. My family finally abandoned their hopeless efforts and left me alone to splash happily in the shallow waters (where I pretended to be baby-sitting for any nearby toddlers so I wouldn't look too peculiar). Gradually I began to like summer weekends, the beach, and my relatives-in that order.

However, as the years went by, it became more and more embarrassing being the only one in the crowd who couldn't swim. At the seashore, I could get by with standing waist-deep, pretending I loved to jump over the waves. At pools, however, since there was no surf, it was a different story. I'd sit in the sun, almost prostrated by the heat, looking longingly at the rest of the gang happily swimming in the cool, azure water. I'd have given anything just to get wet and cool off; but I knew I'd look foolish just standing or sitting in the shallow end where even the tiniest tots were actually swimming. And since my friends knew I wasn't baby sitting, that old ploy wouldn't work.

But even more discomforting than the heat were the inevitable questions. My old friends said nothing. They knew why I was dry-docked. But there were always some new ones who would naturally yell, "Hey, Ro! Aren't you coming in?" I was afraid an admission that I couldn't swim would result in an instant replay of my childhood beach outings-only worse. This time my instructors wouldn't be relatives; they'd be the few new boys we'd met that weekend whom we were all trying to impress. Since I felt that even bone dry I wasn't all that impressive, I knew I wouldn't have a chance once they saw me choking and sputtering, with matted hair streaming over my fear-contorted face. So I'd be very vague about why I wasn't in the water (in those days women didn't swim at "that time of the month"), and the boys would soon get embarrassed and stop asking. (It didn't take much to embarrass boys back then.) It wasn't easy, and I always welcomed the first frost of the year.

One winter shortly after I had graduated from college and had accumulated a few paychecks, I somehow got talked into a Miami Beach vacation with a couple of friends. I guess I was thinking of those star-filled nights, completely forgetting about the sun-drenched days. And there it was again-the bane of my existence-the dreaded swimming pool. As usual, I didn't dip even the tip of a toe into it. And since I couldn't cavort in the surf because great globs of jellyfish had staked a prior claim, I resigned myself once again to baking in the sun.

On the second day of our stay, an athletic-looking man with a cheerful grin walked up to where I (parched and dry) and my two friends (refreshingly wet from their recent dips) were sitting on our deck chairs.

"Hi!" he announced. "I'm Charlie. Is there anyone here who can't swim?" I turned, pretending to scan our immediate neighbors for someone who qualified, hoping to draw attention away from myself. It almost worked, but my so-called friends ratted on me. "She can't!" they squealed in unison, pointing at me. Charlie was delighted. "Come!" he said, taking my arm. "I will teach you!"

"No, thank you," I said, trying to yank my arm free. "Don't thank me-I'm looking for business," he said. "I'm the hotel's swimming instructor." I saw an out and tried to scurry through. I pleaded an extremely tight budget and told him that much as I'd like to learn to swim, I certainly couldn't afford professional lessons.

"It's only $50 for the whole week, and I guarantee to teach you," he said. "Sorry," I insisted. "Can't afford it." But my former friends turned into instant Judases, in reverse. Instead of accepting money to betray me, they actually shelled it out! Charlie beamed as he told me there was no limit to the lessons. He would simply spend as much time with me as necessary, even if it took eight hours a day for the rest of the week. Wonderful. And we would start right then-that very minute.

Little had I realized when I got up that morning that disaster was waiting for me fourteen flights down. Nothing I could do or say would dissuade him; so before I knew it, there I was, down by the pool. Looking up, I had a good view of the two large sun decks surrounding the pool and everyone sitting there who had a wonderful view of me. And I was a sight to see.

By now, my teacher/tormenter had supplied me with a 1920s-style bathing cap, three sizes too big, which kept slipping down over my eyes and the bridge of my nose which, in turn, was decorated with a lovely rubber nose plug in the latest shade of black. And on my feet, the piece de resistance-two huge swimming fins which completed my transformation into a refugee from a Disney cartoon.

"Okay!" said Cheery Charlie. "We're going in the water now!"

Anything to get out of sight, at least partially; so I started following him-and fell flat on my face. I had never learned to walk with giant webbed feet. He helped me up, and I finally made my agonizing way into the pool-the shallow end, needless to say-where Charlie tried to get my feet off the bottom by promising he would hold me and not let go. Hah! I'd heard that song before. After an hour of fruitless effort, I hoped he was ready to forfeit his fee and give up-or even keep the money and give up. In fact, I'd pay him a bonus!

But I was a challenge, so he continued patiently until he finally won my confidence. And, miracle of miracles, by the end of the third hour, Charlie actually had me doing a very tense dead man's float. I was the stiffest stiff ever, but I was really floating! Dizzy with success, Charlie would not let me quit while we were both ahead. He instructed me to hold on to the ridge at the side of the pool and, hand-over-hand, work my way around to the deep end. The mere words "deep end" turned me to stone once more. Charlie stopped and picked up a long pole. "Look," he said, "Even if you do sink, I can get you with this in seconds; you won't drown." "I know," I said, "the heart attack would get me first."

I think he realized I wasn't kidding (and how would that look in the papers?), so he finally took pity on me and helped me out of the pool. I avoided it and him for the rest of the week.

After I had been home a few months, I read in the paper that the local Boys & Girls Club was offering beginners swimming lessons for adult women. I still remembered that frightening but glorious moment when I had actually floated (was it a dream?) and wondered if I could do it again. At any rate, it would at least be heartening to meet some other "adult women beginning swimmers."

The first evening there, the instructor (a mere slip of a 19-year-old who looked as though she couldn't save a drowning Barbie doll) announced to a shivering bunch of women in the pool, "Okay-those of you who can keep afloat, go to the left side of the pool. The others stay here."

Since I had no confidence at all that I really could float, I decided I'd better be one of "the others." It turned out I was the only "other." As all the frauds who had claimed to be beginners floated gracefully away, the instructor said to me. "You stay here and practice until you can float. Then you can join us."

I tried. I really did. I tried to recall everything that Charlie had told me. I tried to pretend he was there to keep my head above water if I should start to sink. I tried to relax. I tried to figure out what in God's name I was doing there! I spent most of the remainder of the hour skinning my knees at the bottom of the pool, and I never went back for another "lesson."

In my next incarnation, I'll show 'em! And while I'm at it, would you please hand me one more Post-It note..there's also this ice skating thing, you see.and, oh yeah, skiing.and dancing.and singing.and tennis.and.oh, what the heck, you'd better give me the whole pad.


Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.


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