by Jan on August 15, 2019

During the summer, kids on our block carpooled to downtown Portland for swimming lessons in an old, moss encrusted, red brick building called the Neighborhood House. History shows it was one of the first establishments to offer Kindergarten to immigrant children. I know it had classrooms and offices, because I went once with Nancy and her mother to help stuff envelopes containing notices from the Women’s Assistance League. But what I knew best of this place was the large indoor swimming pool and Mrs. Carver, our instructor, a stout, athletic woman with a booming voice that echoed commands in the pool area. She was firm, kind and patient. Most of the time. 

A day in 1962 is sorely etched in my memory. Entering the pool area, the dressing room and shower space was noisy, slimy, and produced wafts of chlorine and urine. Squeezing into my outgrown purple and white checked one-piece swimsuit that I had to continually tug out of my rump, I proceeded to the required shower to rinse off before entering the pool.  As I had to remove my glasses to swim, I could see little but moving shapes, and was only able to move forward by following the person in front of me. En route, I stepped into something familiarly gooey. Bending down to take a look on the gunky tiled floor, I saw my big toe had stepped into a fresh sticky turd. I shrieked and mother quickly rinsed my toe, but now I was late to the pool for the lineup. Being the last to waddle into the water, Mrs. Carver gave me the anticipated reprimand regarding the rudeness of being tardy. Throughout the class it was difficult to pay attention as my thoughts obsessively wandered to my poop toe.

I was nine, heavy for my age and noticeably uncoordinated. On the ground, I moved like in one of those dreams where you are trying to run but you can’t move your feet. In water, I felt weightless and possessed great confidence making up for that which I lacked on land.

During the swim lesson, Mrs. Carver was going to teach us how to get out of the pool without using the steps, and doing so, in the deep end.  We were to grab a hold of the edge of the pool and hoist ourselves up, placing one knee on the ledge of the drain area, push up from that knee, and set the other knee on the top deck, and simply lift ourselves out. Sounds simple enough. Taking turns, I lost courage, doubted my ability to execute the task and allowed other students to go ahead of me as I floated to the end of the line.

One by one they hoisted and climbed out of the pool effortlessly. Now it was my turn and as I approached the edge of the pool with a pounding heart and great anxiety that had historically sprouted from my previous public displays of physical inabilities, I placed my hands on the side of the ledge as instructed, hoisted and bobbed. And hoisted and bobbed, ad infinitum. It became apparent not only to myself, Mrs. Carver and the other swimmers, but the entire crowd of on lookers up in the viewing area, I did not have the strength nor coordination to lift myself out. My arms were small and body disproportionately large, making it impossible for them to work in sync. The students standing at the side of the pool now wet and shivering yelled, “Hurry up, it’s not that hard”. The parents up in the balcony looked on as I grunted and huffed in my attempts to enter into what I now considered to be the Promised Land. I was alone in the pool and could not get out. Giving one more brave effort up I went! Yay for me! Except my knee lodged itself and got stuck in the drain. My horror grew as the kids laughed and Mrs. Carver became annoyed. With my swimming suit creeping up my derriere, she continued to coach me, but the harder I tried, the deeper my knee wedged into the drain.  All I needed was a hand to pull me out, but none was offered. I inhaled deeply, pushed myself up with the all the ill perceived strength of an Olympic swimmer and fell backwards into the water, which meant I had to restart the entire process. Hot chlorinated tears filled my bloodshot eyes. Mrs. Carver did nothing, but told me to keep trying and when she saw it was hopeless, extended a long aluminum pole in the water to fetch me out. Grasping and hanging on to that pole like a drowning walrus, I was pulled and yanked, yielding a continued struggle and more impatient sneers. Even with the aid of the pole it took great effort to get me on deck and by the time I did, the other student’s were blue lipped and pissed.

A quiet mortification descended upon me as I shed my soggy swimsuit and got dressed. Mother said nothing, and I no longer gave much thought to my dung smeared toe. On the way home, and amongst the car load of neighbor kids, Mark tried to console me saying he was rooting for me saying, “Come on Jan, you can do it,” and maybe sometime he could help me practice. His kindness penetrated the cloud of embarrassment hovering over my damp head.

One more note about the Portland Neighborhood House before my water logged stories continue: The surrounding area included a park with seesaws, roundabouts and monkey bars, and after our swim lessons we would play while devouring snacks of Hostess Cupcakes, Twinkies and Grape Nehi my mother had packed. Also on the property was a museum that just had a bunch of really old boring stuff to look at. I wasn’t much interested except for the display of actual African shrunken heads stuffed in small glass jars soaked in some kind of juice. Reminded me of my mom’s homemade pickles. Printed alongside the shrunken heads were the names of the tribes from which the heads had been seized and the process of how they executed the cranial shrinkage. Truly horrifying, and left me to wondering what acts of disobedience amongst these unfortunate fellows would incur such a repugnant chastisement.

A few years to follow, I tried once again, to get out of the water. 

My father surprised us one afternoon driving up with a brand new 1966 17-foot canary yellow Hydro Swift boat. This was all very exciting and puzzling as Dad often mentioned that we didn’t have enough money when Mom wanted to buy stuff.

Boating was great fun and everyone, including neighbor friends learned to waterski quickly. And as they slalomed and rode the wake, I strained, flipped, flopped and butt scooted across the water. Every now and then I would rise above the water and overcome with surprise at my achievement, would invariably tumble, splash and chest-ski, while Dad would yell, “Let go of the rope!” Dad was so patient and would for hours circle that yellow boat back around to help me try again. Because of his enthusiastic encouragement, I did not give up.


We camped and water-skied yearly at Suttle Lake in Central Oregon. In fact, because my father had been an Eagle Scout as a lad, he knew everything about the outdoors, and camping being his expertise, led us pitching our tent across the country and beyond. From Yellowstone through the Grand Canyon and up to Lake Louise in Canada we bivouacked. We played in the dirt, roasted one thing or another on the flames of a campfire and snuggled up like sardines in our big stinky canvas tent.


It was the summer of my eighth grade year at Suttle Lake, three years after the dozens of futile attempts to get up on waterskis, I was once again in the water full of doubtful resolve. I gripped the handles of that ski rope as the boat slowly pulled. I kept my knees bent while controlling the tips of the water skis. I let the boat drag me a bit, then timidly eeked out, “Hit it!” As the speed increased and keeping my arms straight, I pulled back and stood up…and stayed up! I wobbled and teetered but made a short trip around the lake to the spirited applause and cheers from those in the boat and pretty much everyone on shore who had witnessed my unceasing agony year after year. 

This small but significant victory marked the beginning of the end of living at the mercy my recalcitrant body parts, and henceforth provided a strengthened physical form that joined forces even allowing me becoming a bit athletic in the years to follow. 

I would love to end this water soaked story with some kind of powerful, inspirational message relaying that I have learned in the face of opposition, to never give up. Or when I fall, I get back ‘on that horse’ and try again. But that’s not the truth. Sometimes I fail and simply don’t get up and try again. And you know what? That’s just ok. There is much to be learned in the sea of failure and nothing is wasted in the pool.

Except poop.

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