Saturday, 29 November 2014

Last one in's a sissy


Captain Pete, my sailor friend, once asked me to crew with him on a yacht delivery, somewhere far away across some exotic sea. He thought I might enjoy it, and since I would be of virtually no use to him for lack of experience, I think that the offer was a kind gesture.

"But I can't swim," I admitted through a profound instinct of self-preservation rather than honesty.

"Don't worry about that. Wherever you are at sea, you are never more than a mile away from land." I looked puzzled, and he pointed his finger downward.

On a chilly Summer afternoon in 1963, my class were taken for their first belated swimming-lessons at Woking Lido (that's it above). On the bus, there was an excited babble from most of the kids who were - unlike me - looking forward to the experience, and legends of the Lido were exchanged between those who had previous experience of the place - also unlike me.

The one which sticks in my mind was about a slightly overweight man who - a few years before - had dived from the highest of the high spring-boards and had belly-flopped flat onto the water's surface, bursting himself on impact and spreading his guts across the surface of the pool. Apparently they had to drain the pool and refill it before it could be used again.

We went into the stinking atmosphere of the damp - not to say awash - changing rooms, and I got into ill-fitting trunks that used to belong to my brother. At that time, I was about five foot ten inches tall, and weighed about 8 stone. My arms and legs were like sticks, and my shoulder blades were like a matching pair of prehistoric digging-implements mounted on a thinly-plastered museum wall. I tried not to expose myself at all if I could help it, but this lesson was deemed mandatory and overdue by a headmaster who had only just noticed the oversight in the sports curriculum.

We all assembled at the edge of the pool and the sports master - a sadistic bastard with hairy tree-trunks for legs - bawled at us. He began by asking anyone who could not already swim to put their hands up.

Me, an enormously fat boy and a lad with pebble-glasses whose face was covered in spots, put our hands up. Interestingly, these boys were already my best friends at school, and I think that says something about how people choose their friends, but I don't know what it is. I like to think that we admired each other because of our intellectual abilities or senses of humour, but it was probably more to do with huddling together for security.

We were told to go and stand in the shallow end and this we did, shivering and lamely splashing each other for about twenty minutes whilst the sadist coached the able swimmers in the deep end, in the hope they may excel in the school Swimming Gala, heaping glory upon his regime.

Eventually he remembered us and ambled back to our end, then began contemptuously barking orders from the edge of the pool, ordering us to 'move our arms about' and screaming "Not like that!" until he got bored and left us alone to amuse ourselves.

This is not the only reason that I cannot swim.

One hot, Summer afternoon, my father was cutting the huge lawn at the back of our house, when a wasp flew up his trouser leg and began repeatedly stinging him around his arse and associated frontal area.

Rather than drop the huge, baggy trousers (in which a wasp could make surprise attacks without fear of discovery) and release the creature, he hobbled/scampered not only into the house, but into a toilet to do this, even going so far as to lock the door behind him before he started.

I never once saw my father without a pair of trousers on, and even though we spent two weeks of every Summer with his sister in Brighton, any picnics on the beach were with him sitting on the pebbles wearing his trade-mark size 13 shoes, socks and shiny-seated, grey nylon office trousers.

He had an unspoken excuse for this, and it was whispered that his legs were in such a bad state having been broken in multiple places after a bomber-crash in WW2 that they would never publicly see the light of day again.

It is true that he did indeed carry out a daily ritual of bandaging both of his legs from ankle to knee, and a 'fresh' set of bandages were always hanging in one of the lesser bathrooms (we had four bathrooms) to dry ready for the next day. Two great six-foot strips of yellowing cloth, permanently there except for Christmas when it was his sister's turn to stay with us.

Being brought up with this, it didn't seem quite normal, but it was just part of life and was never spoken about, let alone questioned.

Anyway, a reluctance to wear swimming trunks rubbed off on me. How strange to go through your entire life and never once see your father's legs.

24 comments:

  1. I never saw my father's legs either. When we went to the beach he wore his Sunday best suit - on the beach.

    I never learned to swim at school. I went for the lesson and was the only one who couldn't already swim but was told to do what all the other children were doing. I was terrified and never went again. The teacher got angry with me the next day, she was our PE teacher, and said I had ruined her book where she had written all our names and columns for progress. She held it right in my face yelling at me, "look what've you've done, ruined it". I have never forgotten.

    I later went for beginners lessons when I was 40 and these are still on-going.

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    1. Sounds like you attended a school which was just as bad as mine.

      H.I. was always trying to teach me to swim, and the last time was in the impossibly blue, warm sea off the coast of Cuba.

      About half an hour in - with me up to my neck - I looked down and saw a black, five-foot shark swim an inch away from my knees. I've never got back into the water since, and I think I never - willingly - will.

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    2. P.S. Every evening as the sun went down, H.I. would swim slowly about 500 yards out, lie on a jetty for five minutes, then swim back again.

      I could hardly breathe as I waited for her to be snapped up from beneath by a Great White.

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    3. The year would have also been 1963 but it was winter. We were taken in a bus to the grammar school on the other side of the city and we got into trouble the next day for making too much noise on the bus and for one girl telling the driver that ND stood for Naughty Dames, not Notre Dame. I have never forgotten that either. We were 11.

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    4. P swims like a whale. And he is followed and surrounded either side by a tidal wave. Other swimmers - and Great White Sharks - tend to keep their distance.

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  2. I had the complete opposite experience when I was young. My Dad swam for the county and I followed in his footsteps ….. we saw his legs al the time !!!!! I do think that the majority of P.E teachers were the same …. it was OK if you were good at sport but horrendous if you weren't. I think that, at 63 Tom, it doesn't matter if you can't swim …. you've survived this long without the skill. XXXX

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    1. If I fell in, it would be fully clothed in any case.

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  3. I wonder if I could still swim? I'm sure I could float anywhere, except Captain Pete's last mile.

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    1. Try not to find out accidentally, Joanne.

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  4. We were just thrown in; it was a matter of sink or swim. Luckily there were no drownings, as self-preservation always ruled.

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    1. The same sadist sports master forced us to run barefoot across 200 yards of frozen pack-iced playground. One boy got frostbite. Sadist kept his job.

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    2. p.s. I am an inveterate shorts wearer. They come out in May-ish, and are not returned to their over-winter drawer until Sept/Oct.

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  5. Actually, sitting here deep in thought for a few minutes, I can't actually say I ever saw my father's legs either. He was of the old fashioned school and refused to wear fixed collar shirts and also shirts with short sleeves - until one very hot summer, when my sister bought him a sports shirt and persuaded him to wear it.
    The experience change him for ever = but not to revealing his legs (I presume my mother saw them!!)

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    1. I hope that's not all your mother saw, and I hope you didn't too, Weave. Dads were different.

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  6. I was in a drowning incident when I was small falling off a houseboat on the Norfolk Broads - I could swim but the current dragged me under - I wasn't scared it all happened so quickly - but since then i don't like to be out of my depth.

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    1. Is there a current in the Norfolk Broads that is not tidal? That must have been one of the quickest things to have ever happened there. Most others take about 3 generations.

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    2. Yes, we are expecting the invention of the wheel any day now.

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    3. Don't hold your breath - Oh, you don't need to. You've all got gills.

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  7. Your description of the nasty gym teacher makes me think of the one the boys in my class had - we were in a coeducational grammar school, and thus learned a lot, but for sports they separated us. And their teacher was an old soldier (I might call him more if I weren't afraid to get sued). An awful, horrible man, picking out the less sportive boys and making their lives for an hour quite uncomfortable.

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    1. It's never too late to sue - so long as they are still alive. La Coq Sportif.

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    2. I'm just going to go ahead and name my nemesis: Frau Brucher was my grumpy PE teacher. She should have just stayed at home and pulled a blanket over her head. Every. Single.Day.

      Although I am not a great swimmer, I have always enjoyed swimming. What sparked that memory of the Lido?

      (Saw plenty of my Dad's legs when he was in the backyard with his corduroy shorts - not a fashionable choice, I assure you.)

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    3. Being brought up in the land of Lederhosen, I expect you saw plenty of leg when you were growing up, Iris - well, knees, anyway.

      I can't remember what sparked this post off - fear of drowning, maybe.

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  8. On reflection I think I never saw my own father"s legs
    But he never wore shorts EVER

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    1. I actually caught a glimpse of mine's, and they were a mess of purple.

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