Why I never learned to swim


I don’t remember the trauma I experienced nearly 70 years ago. And yet, I can recall it as if it had happened yesterday.

I was two, four years younger than my older brother. We lived on a channel that connected two glacial lakes southwest of Akron, Ohio. Our father was supposed to be watching us while our mother was away for a while. Dad being Dad, he was preoccupied with something else. I still recall the disdain and anger that our usually gentile mother expressed toward our father as this family story was told and retold over the years.

It was this dramatic retelling that etched a lifetime of fear of water into my psyche. Consequently, I never learned to swim. Shoot, I even take showers just to stay safe. It is my only logical explanation of this unfounded, yet realistic phobia.

It was a lovely summer day, warm but not too warm. So Dad sent my brother and me unattended outside to play. Of course, the first place we headed was to the wooden dock that jutted into the canal that connected North Reservoir with Turkeyfoot Lake. The magnetic dock drew my brother and me as if we were steel ingots, not flesh and bones.

We loved to feed the ducks that frequented the waterway that lazily flowed only a few feet behind our waterfront bungalow. This time, however, my brother and I didn’t have any bread to feed the ducks that swam over to the dock where we stood. We must have bent over to get a closer look at them.

Though I was too young to remember it, the next thing that happened was a plop, plop. My brother and I each fell into the water like rocks. The dock wasn’t magnetic after all.

I know these specifics and this sequence of events because our next-door-neighbor, Mrs. Nussbaum, was outside hanging up her wash on the laundry line. She had heard Craig and me talking but could not see us because of the strings of clothes. But she knew what the double-barrelled splashing sounds meant.

Without knowing exactly where we had fallen into the water, Mrs. Nussbaum rushed to the channel and jumped in, her dress flying up like an umbrella. My brother surfaced just as she entered the water, which made it easy for her to rescue Craig. She placed him safely on the shoreline and returned to search for me in the now murky water.

Mrs. Nussbaum quickly found me. She told my father that I was lying dead still on my back at the bottom of the channel, eyes wide open staring straight ahead. She scooped me up and put me on the shore beside my brother.

The conversation between Mrs. Nussbaum and our father was never revealed to me, or if it was, I didn’t understand the meaning of some of the words. However, without knowing the verbal details, the emotion evoked when our mother arrived back home, and Dad had to confess the nearly tragic accident to her remains with me still.

If only for brevity, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. Mom, of course, was furious and that fury lasted every time the story was told. As the years passed, a little humor was added, but as I recall, very little. Mom was still upset, and Dad, well, he was still irresponsible when it came to domestic duties.

My brother learned to swim. I never did. To this day, swimming means staying alive while I’m in the water because that long-ago trauma still floats in my head.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Author: Bruce Stambaugh

Writer, marketer, columnist, author, photographer, birder, walker, hiker, husband, father, grandfather, brother, son, township trustee, converted Anabaptist, community activist, my life is crammed with all things people and nature and wonder. My late father gave me this penchant for giving and getting the most out of life, my late mother the courtesy, kindness, and creativity to see the joy in life. They both taught me to cherish the people I am with. I try and fail and try again.

10 thoughts on “Why I never learned to swim”

    1. Thanks, Jennifer, but at my age, I’m glad to be able to see the bigger picture of things, laugh a little at myself, and encourage others, like our two children and our grandchildren, to learn to swim. I tried once, but it was a disaster.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Moments, seconds, that last for a lifetime. With this being part of your story, I am grateful for and always touched by your images of water. From sunsets to seasons, we see the water’s beauty through your eyes.
    Thank you for sharing, Bruce.
    Carrie

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is often said that mothers have “eyes in the back of their head” so that they can track their brood at all times. Being male your Dad obviously lacked this attribute :)) Happy for the outcome of this traumatic event. And you cruise, how brave.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh wow, what a timely story and too frequent occurrence. Thanks for sharing your trauma here. Thank God for Mrs. Nussbaum and I understand your mother’s unrelenting difficulty with this. Can’t blame you for not tackling the water again. Again, this needs sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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