The Glorious Day I Learned to Swim
In an exquisite instant I felt terror turn to exhilaration. Originally published in Reader's Digest as "One Hot Afternoon in July."
There are certain days when we feel our lives change profoundly, days we remember for a lifetime. Such, for me, was one afternoon in July in the Ligonier Valley of Pennsylvania, at a place called Devil’s Hole.
It happened in that timeless time before school imposed the first real framework on life. The summer sky was bluer then, the sycamores smiled in the sun, and the hot days drowsed by, punctuated with velvet evenings when fireflies flashed outside my bedroom window.
On that morning my twin brother, Roger, and I had finished I readily agreed, but for all my eagerness there was a leaden feeling deep in my stomach. Although he had never said a word about it, never taunted me, Roger could swim and I could not. Earlier in the summer he had slid eagerly off the outstretched hands of our older brother, Richard, thrashed his feet and arms, and propelled himself through the water. I had been too afraid or embarrassed to try. Now Roger could slip through the water expertly, and he moved, it seemed to me, on a different plane—with the experienced, confident older kids.
Roger led the way back to the kitchen door. “Grandma, can we go to Devil’s Hole?” We leaned against the screen, peering into the dark kitchen. Grandma, busy mixing the batter for spice cakes, stood at the kitchen counter, a bright speckle of sunlight and apple tree leaves reflected in her glasses. “Well, I guess the big kids are up there now, but mind the road,” she admonished with a flourish of her wooden spoon, “and be careful in that place.”
With a yell, Roger threw open the screen door, tore through the kitchen and scrambled up the stairs. I followed, racing to get into my Sears, Roebuck bathing suit. Slinging towels around our necks, we loped across the field next to our house and headed up the dirt road.
Had I been asked then to define fun and freedom, it would have been in terms of a boy swimming fearlessly through the water. It was delight and danger all at once.
The danger was no small thing. My acquaintance with the mystery of death was brief but vivid. A neighborhood dog had been hit by a car; it lay with its teeth showing and one eye staring up at the sky. Then there were the times Mom would point her finger at dark headlines in the Latrobe Bulletin and explain this terrible thing called drowning, which had befallen someone swimming at Kingston Dam or some other nearby pond or stream.
Roger and I reached Linn Run. There, at a place where sunlight flooded through a break in the trees, a slight slope of smoothly rounded pebbles and mossy ground led to a deep green pool of icy water reflecting two huge, partially submerged boulders on the opposite bank.
As far back as anyone could remember, the place had been called Devil’s Hole. Indians must have swum there long before the British and the French fought each other in these mountains. Deer still came there at night to drink. In the spring the older boys performed the annual ritual of piling rocks the size of basketballs across the creek until the water began to rise, inch by inch, up the gray boulders.
This dam was my province and protection. While the others swam, I always pretended to be intent upon minor repairs to it, or trying to catch minnows along its base with an old tin can.
When we first arrived, I watched enviously as Roger joined the older boys and girls. They nonchalantly dived in, swam swiftly across the pool and pulled themselves up on the big rocks to luxuriate in the sun. Among them was Nancy Storer, sitting on the closer boulder in a white one-piece bathing suit with tiny blue polka dots. She babysat for us occasionally, and I adored her. She watched as boys began cannonballing off the lower boulder, their shouts and splashes and laughter echoing through the trees.
Quietly I ventured in. Feeling the shock of the cold water, I carefully planted my toes on the smooth and slippery round rocks of the bottom. With the dam as a handrail, I made my way to the middle of the creek. Behind me, someone on the rocks was whooping like Tarzan.
More than ever I wanted to be a part of that fun. I turned from the security of the dam and waded a few feet upstream. The scene before me is still frozen in memory like a photograph—kids jumping, diving, playing tag as tiny rainbows arced through splashing water.
Now the water was up almost to my chest. I held my arms out in front of me, my hands clasped tightly, shivering from the coldness.
Suddenly there was nothing under my feet. I plunged beneath the surface.
For an instant I comprehended a liquid shaft of sunlight, a corner of the gray boulder disappearing into the gravel and rocks of the bottom, and somewhere ahead of me a pair of white legs treading water beneath a cloud of sparkling bubbles. Eerie, muffled laughter and shouts came from somewhere above me.
For that frozen second I felt myself in a strange new world. Then came a mad kaleidoscope of watery light and darkness—thrashing, spluttering, gurgling—a feeling of utter terror in my bursting chest. For a fraction of a second, I saw sun-dappled leaves in the trees far above me and heard voices clearly. Then I was back in a white hail of bubbles, and a roaring filled my ears. I saw that dead dog’s staring eye.
I kicked my legs; my arms thrashed forward; my face came out of the water and I gulped air. Yelling “whoah, whoah,” I was wrestling with water and fear in a crazy scramble of arms and legs.
But I was moving through the water! In an exquisite instant I felt terror turn to exhilaration. I was swimming.
I did not turn for the bank of the creek and safety. I headed into the deep green at the center of Devil’s Hole—toward those unreachable boulders. Roger was standing on the bigger boulder, his mouth a perfect O as he watched me.
But my eyes were fixed on Nancy. There was a half smile on her freckled face as my madly kicking, churning progress drew me closer.
I touched the boulder on which she sat. I held on, treading water, breathing in great ragged gulps and feeling indescribably triumphant.
“Well, hello,” she said, looking down at me, almost laughing the words.
I felt totally exhausted for a moment. But I did not want to leave the water. I was afraid I would forget how to do what I had done. I pushed off from the rock and quickly thrashed around in a circle, then grabbed the rock again. I could scarcely believe it. I wanted to shout, “I can swim!” but the presence of my brother and the other boys was enough to prevent it.
I felt glorious. Unstoppable. I splashed across the stream to the bank by the road, touched bottom with my feet, then swam back into the middle again.
The sun was playing hide and seek in the tops of the trees by the time I said goodbye to Nancy and the other kids. I felt much bigger and taller than I had ever felt before. Roger and I started down the dirt road for home, our damp towels hanging behind us like limp capes. I felt the hot sun on my wet hair. I could smell the fresh, wonderful scent of Devil’s Hole, the water, the moss, the laurel.
We were almost to the Critchfields’ house before Roger said, “It’s pretty easy, huh…swimming.”
“Yep,” I answered, recognizing the immense accolade I had just received from my twin.
I skipped the rest of the way home. Grandma was starting to cook dinner. Mom wasn’t home from work yet.
“Grandma, I swam today!” I shouted.
She looked up from the stove, a dark alarm in her face. “What? Did one of those hoodlums throw you in?”
“No, Grandma. I just did it. I just up and did it.”
I swaggered around the yard a bit, keeping to myself, reliving every moment in the water that day. After dinner we played prisoner’s base with the neighborhood kids as the shadows lengthened. Then we all got out our coffee cans and Mason jars to catch lightning bugs.
But the call finally came: “Come on in, kids—time for bed.” More tired than I thought I was, I said my prayers with Mom and Roger and settled under the covers. With my face close to the screened window, I lay in the darkness, listening to the sounds of summer: the ripple of the creek, the loud whir and chirp of cicadas and tree frogs.
I didn’t fully comprehend it then, but I had learned something very important: the dark barrier called fear may be high and imposing, but it is often exceedingly thin. It appears again and again throughout our lives. Sometimes a touch breaks through it; sometimes, in the desperate need of the moment, we must put our shoulder to it like a fireman breaking down a door. And sometimes our very yearning makes it fall.
My eyes grew heavy. I imagined myself smoothly parting cool waters, swimming expertly, quietly, sleekly—not only at Devil’s Hole but in great rivers, in the mighty ocean.