Summer! The final school bell barely finished ringing for summer dismissal when I hurried home with a big bag of locker leavings. I dumped the accumulated candy bar wrappers, C- shorthand tests, and the fashion-challenged American blue gym suit (with elasticized bloomer bottoms) onto my white chenille bedspread.
Keep-and-toss would come later. My girlfriend Cathy and I had been waiting forever for a shopping trip. When we found the just-right bathing suits, summer could begin.
Swim suit shopping woes
The downtown stores were packed with other high school girls all looking for that same just-right suit. We elbowed our way into the fray at Higbee's, grabbing likely-looking swimwear off the racks.
"Ooh! Look at this one!" Cathy held up a daring two-piece red polka-dotted one.
"Too Daisy Mae?"
"What about this?" I held up a classic sheath in metallic gold, with a flattering gather along the sides. Slimming AND sexy!
"Didn't Esther Williams wear something like this in Jupiter's Darling? Or was it Neptune's Daughter?"
"OoohOoh! This flowered sarong! Didn't she wear that in Pagan Love Song?"
Yes, Esther was our idol. We sat through endless hours of Esther swimming in pools, oceans, lagoons and hidden lakes on the movie theater screens. Graceful, beautiful, talented, elegant-Esther Williams was all we wanted to be on any beach or in any body of water. Would wearing a look-alike swim suit make us like her? We hoped so.
"Arrrrgh! My rear is a mile wide!"
"I can never put this on alone-you'll have to fasten my straps"
" Maybe I should find a size 36 top and a size 38 bottom?"
"Oh God! When this hits the water, it will be transparent!"
"I'm nothing but a big blob!" "
"I'm never going to sunbathe or swim! I'll just sit with a towel around my hips!"
Humbled by the truthful, hateful mirror on the fitting room wall, we sadly replaced the red polka-dot, the metallic gold, and the flowered sarong on the racks. Eventually we left with two identical black one-piece Jantzens, the little tag promising "A slimming silhouette"
Consoling ourselves on the bus ride home with ice cream cones, we decided that black was very chic and besides, what did we care--this was the year we would actually be swimming instead of sitting on the sand at White City. This was the year we had learned to swim.
On the Beach
In summers past, family outings to the beaches of Lake Erie were replete with warnings about hidden undertows and rocks, glass in the sand and the very last announcement as I ran to the waves "Don't go too far out!"
In the teen years, we just wanted to get away from family and pose on beach towels, slathering ourselves with gooey oil and trying to keep our hairdos in place. The boys were the ones in the water. There was no thought of us being in the water. We knew eventually the boys had to come out of the water.
This suited our parents. Something made them look warily at the lake.
Summer was when the dread poliomyelitis - Polio - reared its ugly head. Nobody knew what caused polio to attack the legs and arms and sometimes lungs of people, but the survivors were all around us, in wheelchairs, on crutches, and in iron lungs. At the time, the lake was suspected of being somehow connected with "getting" polio.
Then too, the summer of carefree fun also meant drownings. The "be careful"
warnings of our parents were shrugged off as we hopped the streetcar with our rolled up
towel and beach necessities. Nothing could ever happen to us. In our innocence, we knew that happened to "others."
But the repeated tragedies every summer must have convinced the city fathers that something had to be done.
"All Right! Everyone in the pool!"
It was a bitter January day months before when 30 shivering East High School girls tentatively jumped into the shallow end of the Addison YMCA pool. There was a lot of squealing, because we were convinced we were going to drown during this 40 minute swim class. The waist-high water did not un-convince us.
Cathy and I were in the same morning class. What a pair. She was afraid of the water and I was afraid of looking foolish. Both our fears were soon proved correct.
We were initiates in a new program designed by the Cleveland School system in the 1950's-no one graduated from a Cleveland high school without knowing how to swim. This was the response of the school board to summer tragedies. Perhaps there would be fewer if children learned to swim at a younger age. As High Schoolers, we were the "catch-up" class.
To accomplish this, every non-swimmer had, for one semester, a 1st and 2nd period swim class twice a week. Girls assigned to swim classes reported to the Y for first period, had a 40 minute swim lesson, showered, dressed and returned to school for classes. Boys had other days and times in which to learn to swim. The girls were happy about that. I think the boys were, too.
If you hadn't learned to swim by the end of the semester, rumor had it you had to take classes for another semester until you did learn. No diploma until you did. No vague answers here. No rambling essays, no peering over someone's shoulder for an answer. You were on your own. Sink or swim. Literally.
A shrill whistle blew.
"Okay girls,rule No.1: You cannot graduate until you pass the swimming test.
Rule No. 2: You WILL learn to swim this semester."
We looked sideways at one another, our blue lips trembling from chill and fear,
our goose-bumped skin adding the only decorative element to the faded tank suits of cotton knit provided by the Y.
Somehow, I felt that I was destined to learn to swim, though. After all, my sign was Pisces, and that certainly qualified me for something watery, didn't it?
As week followed week, we shivered in the pool, then shivered as we dressed, then shivered walking back to school in the cold winter winds. Girls who had morning swim classes were allowed to keep their hair up in rollers for the rest of the school day.
The sight of dozens of heads covered in huge cylindrical rollers with flamboyant scarves tied in turbaned splendor was our declaration to the rest of the school that " Swim 101
Is Havin' Fun"
As we splashed our way from Dead Man's Float to Frog Kick to Australian Crawl, we felt better about our performance than we had that first shaky morning.
We were high on confidence even if we were low on technique, splashing more water on one another and our instructor than executing clean slices with arms and legs across the pool. Then came the last class-The Test. One by one we had to jump into the pool head first, then swim any kind of stroke the length of the pool. By the end of the semester I had perfected only one stroke, the side stroke. But oh, was it an elegant one!
Climbing from the pool on the other side, I felt confident I had done okay, even if my scissors kick was a bit weak. Cathy was next. She hated jumping in head first, but had to for the test. She looked at me and I gave her a thumbs up. She dove into the pool headfirst and took a deep breath. No!No! It's take a deep breath FIRST!
Up she came, sputtering and choking, her eyes teary from the chlorined water, splashing and gasping. I saw the instructor reaching for the life preserver on the rope, but Cathy was still game-she began to do a very strange dog paddle, a frog-kicking kind of thing near the water gutter. Gradually she made it to the end, where I was ready to help her climb out. We looked at the instructor.
"Oh, you passed" she said, giving Cathy a nod.
We all passed. Even Cathy passed, although her swim was more a pulling-yourself-along-the-water-gutter kind of swim. But that's all right. We were going to graduate together, and that was the important thing.
And so it was that we lit from the bus heading to the beach and water at White City. We watched for the glass shards, found a spot not too smelly with dead fish, and
spread our towels and blankets. Then we slipped our jeans and tops off and voila! underneath were our bathing suits. Yes, those black bathing suits we had just bought a few days before.
"Well, aren't we going to go in the water?"
"Not me," Cathy stated.
"Why not? We have the suits, we have the summer, and best of all-we passed!"
"I'm never going in the water again except to take a shower" she informed me.
"But…we passed" I said lamely.
"I'm not budging from this blanket. Swim? I pass!"
I called it The Endless Summer of the Black Bathing Suits. We sat on the blankets
smearing oil on our arms and legs, watching the waves roll in and the coolest boys dunking one another, but neither one of us put a toe in Lake Erie. Don't ask why. We did everything together, back then.
Some days, when the hot sun caused a shimmery haze over the water, I thought I could see, through the sting of the lotion in my eyes, a very elegant swimmer in a metallic gold sheath, swimming through the waves effortlessly. She was doing the side-stroke. What grace and style. I think it was Esther Williams…or maybe it was me. Who knows?
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