If You Miss the Ladder, Just Swim to the Basin
Uncle George said, “If you miss the ladder, just swim to the basin.” He said that so we wouldn’t be afraid of swimming in the raging current. I was 7 years old. He wasn’t my real uncle. He taught swimming lessons for the Red Cross during the summers. We called the other swimming teacher Aunt Margaret. I found out when I grew up she was a gym teacher in Eastport. Uncle George was a teacher too, I but I don’t know where or what he taught. I took swimming lessons every summer when I was a kid. I started in 1965 after I finished the first grade. They were two weeks long. They had early and late season sessions. My mother always signed me up for the early session because during the late session the red jellies might come in and interfere with the lessons. I got plenty of red jelly stings when I was a kid. I rubbed wet sand on them to sand away the stingers. The lifeguards told us to. You can’t be sqeamish about things like red jellies.
The little kids had to start as Guppies. My brother was a Guppy. They had to blow bubbles in the water to get them used to putting their faces in. I didn’t have to blow bubbles, I was a big kid. I wasn’t afraid of the water. I started as a beginner. The lessons were given at Peconic Bay in Hampton Bays at the beach that is now called Meschutt. Back then it was a Southampton town beach. We just called it Peconic.
Back then, beginners learned the first day that the swimming test would be in the Shinnecock canal. People can’t believe this when I tell them about it now. They walked us down the beach and up onto jetty to look at the canal. Today, it’s a rock jetty that’s built on a broad base of rocks that taper as they get to the top. The top rocks are placed so there are flat sides facing up so you can walk from rock to rock. The rocks shift during big storms, so they don’t all stay exactly flat, but you can generally get to where you need to go. It would be impossible to jump from the top rocks into the canal, you could never jump out far enough. You would at least break most of your important bones. It’s illegal to jump in the canal now anyway. If you did, I’m sure somebody would give you a ticket.
In the sixties the jetty walls were made of wood, and the top was concrete. You could jump straight down into the water if you wanted. The first day of lessons gave me a feeling of fear and excitement when I looked down into the water. I had fished at the canal before, but never planned to go in. I knew I only had 10 lessons to become good enough to swim in there by myself. I think it made me pay better attention to everything, and practice what they showed me as hard as I could. They walked us up and down the bulkhead to show us where we would go in, and where we would come out. I already knew about the locks and the current from fishing with my dad. When the locks are open, the current is so fast you couldn’t fish for flounder because your sinker wouldn’t stay in place, and the fish couldn’t catch the bait anyway. If the locks were closed, the water was pretty still, and the fishing was pretty good.
Where we went in, and where we came out were at ladders. We had to go down two ladders and swim each stroke they had taught us to get our Red Cross Beginners card. That meant going in three times; once for the crawl stroke, once for the elementary back stroke, and once doing each half way. They told us to grab the second ladder when we got there and climb out. Uncle George would stay with the other kids where we went in while Aunt Margaret would walk along with the swimmer, to where we would come out. They told us if we missed the ladder to go down two more ladders and Aunt Margaret would walk with us. The last ladder was off to the left in the boat basin. The boat basin had much less current so it would be easier to come out. They told us the locks might be open when we took the test, but not to worry, except that we wouldn’t be able to swim against the current if the locks weren’t closed.
They taught us the elementary back stroke; up, out, together. Arms and legs in unison, using the frog kick. I practiced in the bay until I had it perfect. That stroke is great. You can move along almost effortlessly, while you watch the sky and everything to the sides and behind you. The only thing you can’t see is where you’re going. I still use it today for straight hauls, though in Advanced Beginner lessons we changed to the whip kick to create less resistance with the same propulsion. Next came the crawl stroke; tougher, but easier to see directly in front of you. The toughest part was coordinating the breathing, but a couple of mouthfuls of saltwater helped me catch on. Then we practiced going back and forth between the strokes in preparation for the main event.
The big day arrived as they do. It was sunny, and the locks were open. I tell you, that water was moving. I could tell by the seaweed cruising by. There were no jellies, though. It was too early in the season. The instructions were to go down the ladder to one step above the water and jump when you were ready. Next start swimming the elementary back stroke and stop when Aunt Margaret said to. Then swim toward the ladder. She would tell you as you went if you were wandering out too far so you could turn back toward the bulkhead. At the end, swim to the ladder and come up.
Then came the unexpected twist. Uncle George said we could jump from the bulkhead instead of the step above the water if we wanted. I knew right away I had to jump from the top. Back at the house my friends and I jumped from everything we could find. We called ourselves “The Great American Climbers and Jumpers Association.” We jumped from swings, trees, fences, anything with height. The higher the better. We also did long jumps, and swung from tree branches. We even had a rope that we tied to a high branch to swing on.
There I was, at the edge, ready to go. Sometimes you lose your rigging when you fish at the canal. It happens when you get snagged on the bottom by something down there. I lost some rigging, and wondered what was down there that snagged my hook. Was it sharp and rusty, like an old anchor, or slippery and gooey like a dead tree? Either way, I didn’t want my feet to find out, and jumping from the top would definitely make my feet go deeper. Hesitation had finally set in. A little forethought before raising my hand to jump from the top could have let me avoid this problem. Should I chicken out and go down the steps, or jump from the top, and not look chicken? Off the top I went! Into the water I plunged. Fear of the unknown bottom made me instinctively curl up in fetal position when I hit the surface, protecting my precious little toes from the perils of the deep. I surfaced, and discovered just how fast the current is when the locks aren’t closed. I turned my head down stream and started my up, out, togethers, executing a beautiful elementary back stroke. Aunt Margaret walked beside me guiding the way. I stopped and swam to the ladder when she told me to. I jumped and swam two more times that day, perfecting my fetal curl as I went. I got to jump in the canal for a couple of more years. After that they moved the swimming lessons to Tiana beach on Shinnecock bay. I took more swimming lessons, and then sailing lessons there, but still missed the thrill of the jump.
I’ve thought often of the way some things used to be, and glad I experienced thrills like the fetal curl jump, and swimming in the raging current. I think the way things are today have been fine for my children as they’ve grown. I suppose every generation gives thought to things like that. I’m happy for my memories. My kids are making their own.