Walking down dark and narrow browning yellow tile steps I could hear the creepy echoing of quiet splashes. Moisture clung to the walls and ceiling, threatening to drip on my head. It was my first time going down to the pool-level at the ancient YMCA and I was glad I wasn’t alone. We gripped our swim caps tightly and sunk into the thickness of our terrycloth towels, venturing into the unknown. I was five years old, my sister was 6. I remember at the time feeling a little bit of disbelief that my mother would let us descend into the dark cavern on our own to meet certain death.
It was my first-ever swimming lesson and it was in the dead of winter. We came from outside where the weather was dry and probably in the minus degrees, slogging through thick piles of snow drifted in high heaps cut neatly with paths to the waiting doorways. In hindsight, I’m sure that my mother had been overwhelmed with all of us running screaming through the house on winter break and decided that now was the time to not only educate us in the art of swimming, but also provide herself with needed alone-time. “What use is belonging to the local Y if we don’t utilize it all year round?” she most likely professed. The change in atmosphere was almost debilitating. From freezing cold to 99% humidity and 80º in under 2 minutes. From hats, mittens, scarves, coats, and boots to almost naked and feeling vulnerable in under 10 minutes.
As we emerged into the large cavernous space that housed the Olympic-sized swimming pool we were met with a disturbing and somewhat revolting site. There, just inches from the slippery and scum-covered pool edge, was a lifeless figure floating face down in the murky water. Ok, the water wasn’t exactly murky, but it may as well have been full of alligators and man-eating carp, because all my little brain could process was the real and somewhat puffy corpse in front of us. Here we were about ready to learn life-saving techniques, and there in front of us was an example of someone who could have used these important instructions.
In actuality, a moment later the corpse came to life, declaring himself our swimming instructor telling us that what we had just witnessed was called the Dead Man’s Float (which, if executed properly, could one day save our little lives). I could have puked. What kind of cold, calculating beady-eyed person would think that this type of maneuver would actually want to make people jump in the pool? The answer: everyone else in the class, including my sister.
We eventually all mastered the Dead Man’s Float but the reason still escapes me. Shouldn’t we be floating on our backs so we can actually breathe? Maybe this attitude explains my life-philosophy: if life gives you lemons, float face up in the lemonade.