Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Tuesday Morning, 6 AM

This is the day my wife and I go swimming. For exercise. I hate it.

I hate the early start. I hate the chilly (and, until recently, dark) walk to the leisure centre. I hate changing in those little cubicles. I hate having to hold my stomach in as I walk to the pool. I even hate the swimming, which is mind-numbingly boring, and the public shower afterward. The only thing I like about it is stepping out of the leisure centre into the now-not-quite-as-frigid-and-dark morning to go to the Cafe in the Park for a cup of tea and a toasted teacake. That feeling of having the swimming behind me and something else to look forward to is what keeps me going back week after week (that, and my wife reminding me of how beneficial it is). It’s akin to hitting yourself in the head with a hammer just because it feels so good when you stop.

All of this is strange to me because, as a youth, I loved swimming. In fact, love is too bland a word. I lived for swimming.

Such was our eagerness to get back into the water that we—the half-dozen kids in the area I grew up in—designated Memorial Day as the opening of swimming season, and celebrated it each year with an inaugural trek to the local swimming hole.

Where I swam as a kid.
Memorial Day comes on the final weekend in May and, while it can often be deceptively warm, the holiday is separated from the time when the streams raged with a torrent of snow-melt by mere weeks. Consequently, the water was scrotum-clenchingly cold, but we never let that deter us. We walked over the fields and through the ravine to the nearest bend in the creek to splash in the fast, icy water until our lips turned blue, then we made our way back to our homes where the hot dogs, potato salad and watermelon of the first barbecue of the season waited for us.

Where I swim now.
School ended not long after, ushering in ten glorious weeks of summer, when I swam almost every day. From the age of ten or eleven until my early twenties, summer days were split between the series of cliffs, waterfalls and dam at the edge of the the nearby town of Stuyvesant Falls signified, respectively, as The Cliff, Lower Falls and The Dam and collectively as The Sand Bar, and the more secluded bend in the creek known locally as Wagoner’s.

The Sand Bar and surroundings offered the opportunity of jumping from high places into deep water, and the exhilaration of climbing back up the cliffs to do it again. There was also the thrill of crossing dangerous rapids to get to some of these places, coupled with the pleasantly disquieting knowledge that, if the water rose too far, you might be trapped out there, or be swept away by the white, roiling water.

The Sand Bar, taken when I was an adult. This is the beach (the actual Sand Bar).
Behind is The Dam. Cliffs and Lower Falls not pictured.
This is The Cliff.
Yeah, I jumped off that.
Wagoner’s, on the other hand, involved a languid stroll through dusty fields and down rutted farm tracks to a bend in the creek that was boarded by a ridge of rock on one side and shallow rapids on the other. This formed a pocket of slow-running water, deep enough to accommodate dives from the rope swing hanging from a tree on the high bank.

Both had their place, and were equally utilized, and I spent many lazy afternoons splashing in the cool, green water, or shivering on the rocky beach, waiting for the sun to warm me so I could go splash again. Everything about it excited the senses: the glaring sun washing the color from everything except our naked backs, which turned red in the first weeks before going nut-brown, the coolness of the water, the slightly rotting smell of the creek, the hushed heat of the ninety-degree afternoons, the wet bodies glistening, the sounds of yelps and squeals as the boys, and girls, swung from the rope or jumped from dizzying heights.

In comparison, the sterile, rule-driven environment of the leisure centre is…well, there is no comparison. I go there to exercise, to swim, back and forth, in a designated lane, over and over and over again. I realize this is good for me, I admit I can see the benefits, but I would give a pretty for just one afternoon of getting my exercise by climbing the cliffs, navigating the rapids or swinging from the rope to splash into the cool, green water.

Swimming--for probably the last time--at Wagoner's.
But after that, I really wouldn’t mind a nice hot shower (public or not) and a visit to the cafe for a cup of tea and a toasted teacake.