1950s: The Water is Hungry

Clarendon Hills, IL/Kuwait

At — not in –the water, with my grandfather Alec Mackenzie

To say I’ve never been comfortable around water is an overstatement. I like it in a glass with ice or coming out of a shower head. And I do like being near a beach, hearing the waves, and feeling the breeze but actually being in the water? No, I don’t think so!

My parents weren’t swimmers and neither am I. My youngest brother Steve swims and scuba dives and my sister is perfectly happy in the water. My brother Gary was more comfortable on the water fishing, but he could manage in the water, too. My mother’s cousin, Nina MacLeod, married a man who taught swimming and was a gifted swimmer, Paul KInsey. He gave me free swimming lessons at a pool in Willow Springs in the 1950s but nothing he could do would make me comfortable in the water. The damage was already done.

Lake Delavan, Wisconsin: my first encounter with water’s lethality

The first time I nearly drowned was my first year in the Boy Scouts when at summer camp in Wisconsin staff asked whether I could swim. They disbelieved me when I said no. I suppose they thought I was being lazy and wanted to just sit around with the nonswimmers. It was truth; I had no idea what to do in the water. They took me out to the end of the pier at the camp and said “Swim!” before chucking me into the lake.

I sank like the proverbial stone. I had no idea what to do (I was only 11 or so) and ended up sitting on the bottom of the lake leaking air bubbles. When they realized I wasn’t coming up, they stuck a long pole in the water for me to grab but that didn’t happen because it was nowhere near me. Luckily someone jumped in and hauled me out before the bubbles coming out of my mouth stopped. The head of the camp then called my father to let him know that they had nearly killed me!

To this day, I have strong memories of seeing the pole moving around out of my reach and being unable to get to it. Those are the kinds of memories that come back when you have a fever.

Unfortunately swimming is part of the Boy Scout curriculum and I spent years as a second class Scout because I couldn’t pass the first class Scout swimming test. I got to be the troop scribe, earned merit badges in subjects like forestry and tracking, but was still only a second class scout.

The second and third times I almost drowned were also in the Scouts, during swimming tests in a swimming pool at the local YMCA. The first time I took the test, I nearly drowned my friend John Reed who was swimming next to me. As I started sinking, I grabbed him and took him down with me. The next time, I swam along the wall which I grabbed when I began panicking. The Boy Scouts finally gave up and said “okay, you passed” just to get me to a first class badge. I think my father, a former scoutmaster, may have had something to do with that,

On the beach at Ras Jalaya, Kuwait

Ironically, I spent thirteen years on the shores of the Persian Gulf. In Kuwait, where I lived and worked for 13 years, I was never far from the Gulf and spent a lot of time sitting in the sand. Not surprisingly, I didn’t go in the water much, but I did learn how to float and paddle about a bit and gained some confidence around water. Nonetheless I always thought in the back of my mind that water was the enemy. That’s probably one of the reasons I like deserts and mountains and being on land. I have never wanted to water ski or do laps in a pool. I am an accomplished beach sitter.

In Kuwait, I often led groups of friends out of town and down the coast to a pretty but usually deserted bit of beach at Ras Jalaya. While they frolicked in the water, I worked on my sun tan.

Salmiyya, where I lived for twelve years, had its own beach area. Actually when I first arrived in 1973, it was a jumble of dunes and rocks just being developed into a sea front road and gentrified for the incoming hordes of foreigners flocking to the oil rich Gulf States.

Once I had developed acrophobia, in 1988 in Australia, I managed in my mind to combine fear of heights with fear of water, making bridges a hazard, too. On my frequent trips between Virginia and southern Pennsylvania on Interstate 95 there is a bridge over the Susquehanna, the Tydings bridge, with low sides and a high drop into the river that unnerves me! And that combined with a line from a horror film that suggested the water was hungry. Now there’s a thought that ruins vcacations and discourages cruises.

Published by Mark Meinke

Married gay Quaker and historian, retired, and working more than ever.

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