The fact that I can swim I owe to the Cub Scouts and to a gentleman I can only remember as Mister Rardin. When I was seven years old I joined the Cub Scouts of America, not because I wanted to but because my older brothers had and because my Mother was a Den Leader. None of the fathers in my neighborhood had the time or inclination to handle a group of hyperactive seven-to-ten year old boys every week and so the neighborhood Moms filled in. Kay Denniston, Fran Lemley, and even Mrs. Northen from across the alley took a turn.
The Cub Scouts had made an arrangement with the University of Wyoming to use their swimming pool every Monday Night to teach the little boys to swim. So every Monday evening my two cousins – Bob, who was about my age, and Ken, who was a year younger, and I were dropped off at the door to the University of Wyoming pool and picked up again about an hour later.
Let me put in here that I can’t imagine how this could work today. Just imagine – it’s cool fall weather and getting dark outside. Cars pull up, little kids 7 or 8 years old get out and, by themselves, make their way into the locker room where they find an empty locker, hang up their clothes, and then scurry through the shower room and out to the main swimming pool for large, group swimming lessons. And there is not a bathing suit among them. Got the picture? About 50 naked, squealing little boys and two or three grown men trying to teach them, en masse, how to swim.
Most of these kids are in the shallow end of the pool, some hanging onto the side and kicking their feet, others practicing blowing bubbles underwater. There are a few advanced kids paddling about in the deep end and one little boy, sitting against the wall, completely dry, and looking unhappy. That little boy would be me.
I was afraid of the water. To be precise, I was terrified that some cruel person would throw me in – either one of my older brothers had threatened me with this or I had watched such a scene in a movie sometime – and because I could not swim I would end up struggling and gasping for breath for a few minutes before drowning.
One of the swimming teachers was named Mister Rardin. To an 8 year-old boy, all grown men have the same first name – “Mister.” On the first day, when everyone else jumped into the pool and I hung back, he told me if I didn’t want to go in, I didn’t have to. And he made sure everyone else knew not to push me. I stayed out of the water for the entire time that evening, even during the last twenty minutes which were “Free Time.”
A week later, it was pretty much the same, but Mr. Rardin did tell me that if I wanted to sit at the edge of the pool and get my feet wet during Free Time, that would be okay. So I did that and I kicked and splashed a little bit. After a couple more weeks of this slow approach I was in the water not only during Free Time but during Instruction Time as well. I was kicking my feet, windmilling my arms, and blowing bubbles like the rest of the kids.
Two months later I could push off from one side of the shallow end and thrash my way across the pool to the other side. I could swim. And it was due to the kindness and patience of Mister Rardin.
In the summer of 1962, in between my Sophomore and Junior years, an indoor swimming pool was added to Laramie High School. It was very exciting news and, along with most of my friends, I was determined to get into that pool as soon as it was ready. Since I had learned to swim, my swimming experience was in beaver ponds, in mountain lakes so cold you wanted to get out as soon as you jumped in, and in motel pools on sporadic family vacations.
The pool was first opened to the public in October. My friend John and I were among the first people to swim. And we had a blast. Actually we had a blast for about an hour. Then our eyes began to burn so painfully we had to get out. A lot of chemicals had been dumped into the pool the day before, probably on the basis of “if a little kills off most of the bugs in the water, think what a good job a LOT will do.” On the way home, John and I had to pull over several times because our eyes were stinging so badly we couldn’t see the road.
A few weeks later, notices went up on school bulletin boards that Laramie High was going to field a competitive Swimming Team and tryouts would begin the following Monday. This was to be, of course, a boys’ team. All you had to do was to take a look at the baggy, frumpy gym outfits the girls were required to wear to know that putting teenage girls’ bodies in tight-fitting swimsuits was out of the question.
I should pause here to talk about the Old Man’s vicarious dreams of athletic glory. He grew up in Casper and was a skinny, myopic, and unathletic kid. It is, I think, part of the human condition that we all feel, at one time or another, somehow “less than.” Despite the fact that he was well-liked, witty and imaginative, and had good, close friends that would be loyal his whole life, I think that his teenage brain harbored the thought, “If only I could be a football hero, I would be happy and fulfilled.” And he never was and he never really got over it. By the time he was a grown man, a successful small town Doctor, and had sons of his own, this feeling had not gone away. Instead, it had somehow morphed into, “If one or more of my sons could be a sports hero, then at last I would be happy and fulfilled.”
As each of us progressed into and through the halls of Laramie Senior High School, we each were subject to suggestions, hints, and periodic sarcastic jabs that we “ought to try out for the team.” Perhaps because there were no inherited genes from either side of the family that pertained to Athletic Competition or perhaps out of sheer stubbornness on our part, not one of his sons chose to contend for the dear old Maroon and White.
So it was with mixed emotions that he received the news that I intended to try out for the Swimming Team. On the one hand, he was thrilled that at least it was an organized team of some kind, and disappointed that pigskin was not involved.
One of the things that attracted me to the team was that none of the boys trying out had any competitive swimming experience. We were all just paddlers and nobody had a leg up. After Coach had eliminated the guys who couldn’t swim two lengths of the pool without stopping to catch their breath, there remained about twenty five of us. We had a month to learn the different strokes and techniques before he would cut the squad to the final twenty.
I don’t think Coach knew very much more than the rest of us, but he’d read books, been supplied with diagrams, and had even located a few instructive films. So we began to learn. First there was the Australian Crawl also known as Freestyle. The difficult part of this stroke for many is that you have to trust the mechanics of the stroke in order to breathe. You blow out air under water. Just when your lungs are empty, you turn your head to one side and there will be a pocket of air to breathe under your arm. Once you’ve got that rhythm and trust it, all you need to do is pull and kick through the water. Or, in my case, flail and churn.
The Australian Crawl was followed by Breaststroke and Backstroke and finally, the dreaded Butterfly Stroke. I’m pretty sure the last was devised and named by some sadistic soul who tossed living butterflies into the water then studied them as they frantically struggled to get to the shore. Instead of your arms coming out of the water one at a time, they both have to come out and then plunge back in simultaneously. At the same time you must keep your feet and knees together and kick with a long, rolling motion that starts at the lower back and hips. Only one of us, Glen, was able to accomplish this with some grace without appearing to be suffering from repetitive seizures.
As the days went by, team members with different skill sets were settling into various categories. Guys who were not fast swimmers but had staying power were moving toward the distance specialties. The guys with quickness were pointed toward the sprints. Some were better backstrokers and some were better at the breaststroke. A couple of guys were learning flips and twists off the diving board and they were obviously headed for the two Diving spots. I looked around me and, with a sinking heart, realized that I was bad to mediocre at everything. Rejection is painful at any age, but it is especially sharp when you are sixteen.
It wasn’t that I loved swimming so much, but more the desire not to be cut, that induced me to walk up to Coach and say, “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to work on Butterfly.” Bemused, he agreed. And from then onward, whenever there were exercises like wind sprints and everyone else would do them in their chosen stroke, Glen and I would Butterfly. Since in every meet every team is expected to provide two competitors, I made the team as the Second Butterfly Specialist.
Then we began a series of Swim Meets with other high schools in the area that had teams – University Prep, Cheyenne East, Cheyenne Central, and Casper. Because the competition was so limited, we swam against each of these teams several times. The question was never whether or not we were going to win – being a first-year team we always lost – but if we were able to make a little better showing than the previous time. I would like to say that I surprised myself and everybody with my swimming prowess, but that was not the case. The best I ever did was third place. It was a four man race and one of the other guys accidently touched his feet to the bottom of the pool and was disqualified.
The Wyoming State Swim Meet was to be held in February, 1963. Because Laramie had a brand new facility, the meet was held in our home pool. I told my family about the State Meet and even when I would be swimming. Because there were a few other towns in Wyoming such as Thermopolis and Sheridan that had teams, in Butterfly there would be two preliminary heats, the top three finishers in each heat would swim in the final.
Some families are the “rallying around” kind. If one of their children is in some performance or athletic competition Mom and Dad are there to cheer their offspring on. And afterwards, whether the kid has won or lost, they are there for emotional support. This was not my family. I was, for example, in Little League for three years. Neither of my parents ever came to a game. My brother Lewis and I were in plays, science fairs, and speech competitions that our parents did not attend. After my High School Graduation ceremony, as all the other kids’ families gathered around to give congratulations and take pictures, I went out to my car and drove home alone.
So you can imagine my surprise when I came out of the locker room to warm up for my heat to see the Old Man sitting in the middle of the spectators’ section. Not wanting to spoil my concentration on the upcoming event, I did not look at him or try to catch his eye. Once or twice I glanced over there just to make sure it was really him.
When the call came to “take your marks,” I mounted the block and felt the edge of the tile with my toes. “Set” came and I leaned forward, ready to dive. A pistol shot rang out and I hurled myself into the water, did a few dolphin kicks to get back up to the surface, and began the stroke.
A high school swimming pool is 25 yards long. In a one hundred-yard Butterfly race the competitor has to swim four lengths of the pool, two down and two back. I had drawn lane one, which happened to be the lane closest to the spectators’ seats. At the end of the first length I was already behind but not by much. At around fifty yards I began to tire. As I approached the wall at the far end on my third length I could hear the crowd cheering as the other swimmers were finishing the race. When I made my turn I glanced up into the stands and I saw the Old Man’s face. It was glowing a bright, cherry red.
I clumsily swam the last twenty five yards all alone as all the other swimmers had finished and were climbing out of the pool. When, at last, I hauled myself out and looked over at the stands, the Old Man was gone. That evening he did not mention that he had been there and I did not ask.