I should have been born an Aquarius. I don’t know diddle about astrology and couldn’t tell you what part of the year Aquarius covers, but if that zodiac sign covers water I should most definitely have been born under it. From my earliest memories I have been drawn to the water and for the most part I have been comfortable in it. In fact, I have sometimes been too comfortable in it and have forgotten to respect it. It is my good fortune to have lived to write about my love affair with water and to tell a few tales from our long and enduring relationship.
As I said above, I have long remembered being in and around water and loving it. My father taught me how to swim at the Navy pool in San Diego when I was six or seven years old, and before that I would sit on a poolside bench or in the sand at the beach and watch with the greatest envy while my family and some of my brother’s friends would swim. My mother was the only person who would not swim, but that gave me no comfort at all. I felt like a prisoner staring out of my jail cell through gray steel bars while everyone else would express their freedom with no regard for me whatsoever.
As the years passed I earned my gills and could be found in any body of water which presented. The beach was my favorite, but the Navy pool and later the Municipal pool occupied countless hours of my time. Even the Sweetwater River, which was barely more than a trickle most of the time, would draw me in. When my family would camp in the mountains east of San Diego my brother and I would head straight for the river as soon as we were finished helping to unpack the car and were cut loose. I can still hear my dad roaring “And don’t get into the water” at our backs as we ran towards the river that everybody, including my grinning father, knew that we would jump into without hesitation.
As I mentioned above, the beach was my favorite place to be. As soon as I became a capable enough swimmer my dad would let me venture out to where the waves were breaking. I would dive under them or try to jump over them, but if I wasn’t careful I would get picked up and thrown to the sandy bottom by them. That was great good fun and I had no idea that those waves could jam a person’s head into the bottom and snap their neck like a rotten twig. The only thing about that experience which gave me pause for concern was when I would get dunked by a wave and rather than popping up on the surface I would swim for the top but instead hit the bottom. Invariably, when I would correct my error and reach the surface, the next wave would crash down upon me and I would get to do the whole thing over but with a good deal less air in my lungs. A few times I got nailed by a set of three waves, and that got a little hairy. I never really felt like I was in any danger when this would happen though, which only serves to demonstrate what a weak grasp on reality I had.
Things could get uncomfortable at the pool just as easily as they could at the beach. From my earliest days in the Navy pool I longed to go off of the diving boards, but a person as young as I was had to demonstrate the ability to swim the length of the pool and back before that could happen. I achieved that exalted status early on and before long I was doing dives and flips and all manner of launchings off of the end of both the high and low boards. I mostly used the boards to have fun but once tried to use the board to impress a girl. Like most of my other attempts to impress a girl this was a disaster. Even at my young age I should have known better.
LaDonna Lanning was without a question the prettiest girl at Hamilton Elementary School, and in the summer of 1960 her family moved just one block away from me and almost right behind my friend Craig. With a boldness entirely uncharacteristic of me I marched right over to her house one day (sweating bullets every step of the way) and knocked on the door. It was LaDonna who answered and we talked on the porch for a while. I went back nearly every day and we would talk on that front porch. Sometimes a friend or two would come with me. We never did enter her house. One day I decided to take my chance and asked her if she would like to go to the pool. My father was a retired Navy man and would periodically take me and a carload of my friends to the pool. I expected a polite decline but, to my astonishment, she was interested and went in to ask her mother who, after learning that my dad would be present at all times, agreed. Oh happy day! I didn’t have the slightest idea what a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship would look like but I knew that LaDonna was going to the pool with me, and that was enough for the time being.
When we arrived at the pool my dad escorted LaDonna to the women’s locker room while my friends and I dove into the men’s. I was dressed and showered in about two minutes and emerged poolside well before LaDonna could do all of the stuff that girls have to do before they jump into the water. I looked toward the deep end of the pool where the diving boards were and saw that there were a few men lined up to use the low board but nobody on the high. That was exactly what I had hoped to see.
Among my repertoire of dives off of the low (one meter) board was a one-and-a-half flip. I would get all the height that I could, tuck into a tight ball, and spin as fast as physics would allow, coming out of my tuck at the last moment to make a clean entry into the water. I got to where I could make a good dive almost every time. Today was going to be special however. I wanted LaDonna to see me tumbling down from the three meter high board in a more leisurely and graceful version of that one-and-a-half flip and marvel at my courage and skill in executing such a dive. I was certain that spinning just a bit slower was all I needed to do to pull off this dive from the higher board. I climbed the ladder and placed myself at the take-off point and waited to see the blue of LaDonna’s swimsuit. Being as much a novice at girls as I was at making one-and-a-half flips from the high board I continued to wait and wait until I feared she wouldn’t come out at all but finally, with a beauty that nearly took my breath away, LaDonna stepped out of the doorway and into the pool area.
I took my cue and began a stately march down the length of the board. Two steps from the end I took my first high bounce and then rode the board downward, using the upward recoil of the board and full exertion of my leg muscles to propel myself high into the chlorinated atmosphere over the deep end of that pool, I went into my tuck and spun with a little less energy than I would have if diving from the low board, as planned. At what I thought would be the moment of perfect execution I extended myself straight as a board. What I received, instead of perfect execution, felt more like I had just been perfectly executed.
I opened up and straightened out just in time to do the perfect belly flop. Fingertips, arms, face, chest, belly, legs and toes all hit the surface of that water simultaneously from a height of probably fourteen or fifteen feet. My father later told me that the “WHOPP” that my flop created echoed back and fourth within that cavernous indoor pool for a good couple of seconds, and that everyone in the building who did not witness my magnificent belly flop was looking around, searching to find from whence that dreaded and well-known sound had come.
I was unaware of any such thing happening above the surface of the water. Pain and humiliation battled across my nervous system and I just gently let out air and sank to the bottom where I could nurse my aching body and devastated ego away from the eyes of the other swimmers and especially the eyes of LaDonna. When the option was finally surface or drown, I came back up and tried to affect an air of nonchalance about the whole thing which was betrayed by my glowing red belly and legs. LaDonna didn’t say much about it and I don’t really remember much more about the day. LaDonna moved again at the end of that summer and I never saw or heard from her again.
One decade later I was installed in Sonoma State College north of San Francisco and I was quickly drawn to one of the most impressive geographical features of that county; the Russian River. The Russian was as different from the Sweetwater as it could possibly be. It began as a smallish but very active river in the far north and grew as it added from tributaries on the way down from the hills. Eventually it would meander in a large and stately fashion through the forests and meadows of Sonoma County and at last empty into the Pacific Ocean near Jenner-By-The-Sea. My friends and I would swim, raft and fish in that river every chance we got. One of our favorite things to do was to get buck naked and lie on the beach in little sheltered coves in the thick undergrowth which grew periodically along the banks. Canoe tours would descend this more tame portion of the Russian with tourists from all parts and as they would paddle by we would wave while the cameras went off. We believed we could hear the tourists saying “Look Harriett, look at the hippies”. Maybe they didn’t say that, but we believed that they did and would take stories of the exotic fauna of the West Coast back home. We did our part to not disappoint.
On one particularly fine, warm day we decided to visit a pool on the upper reaches of the Russian which we had swam in before. It had been a wet year and the river was a little higher than usual. Into a Volkswagon bus we climbed; Terry, Lisa, Fred, Rip, Marty, Cleo, Steve, Chris and myself. We journeyed north into Mendocino County drinking beer and smoking weed, which is to say that we were in our normal state, and finally arrived at the turnout on Highway 101 where we could park and carry our coolers and food and blankets down to the small beach by the pool. Because of the wet year the pool was deeper than usual and we had a great time diving off of the rocks (stupid under the best of circumstances) and swimming in the cold but not nearly freezing water.
After a while Rip and I noticed that the downstream outlet of our pool was a very smooth looking little rapid that dropped by easy stages into another pool. This looked like it would be great fun to raft, but we had failed to bring any rafts. After a while during which we drank a few more beers and shared a joint or two I said “Come on. Let’s just take in a deep breath for flotation and go down on our backs.” All of the guys agreed with the plan (better dead than ‘chicken’, I suppose) and we lined up to take our shot bare-back down ‘the chute’. I went first. Drawing as deep a breath as I could I floated on my back, toes out of the water and let the current draw me into the middle of the chute.
I was not ten feet into the rapid before I realized that this was one of the stupidest things that I had ever done, and when you ponder the competition on that list it was an impressive accomplishment indeed. The velocity of the current went from gentle to hell bent for leather in no time at all. The first drop plunged me under the surface where I could see snags and boulders which could easily break bones, bash heads to a pulp, and jam bodies underwater which wouldn’t be recovered until hours later. Bouncing off of my first boulder I turned a half circle and caromed off another and then dropped a few feet into a swirling cauldron of water and stone that pinballed me out of that hellpot to drop a further couple of feet into the calm pool which we had noticed before. Numb with fear and amazed to be alive and in one piece I swam over to the edge of the pool and clung to some thick grass which grew there.
Looking back I saw Rip, eyes almost bugging out with fear, plopped unceremoniously into the pool. Rip paddled over to where I clung to my grass and we watched while the other guys, one by one, carried the same facial expression over the same drop into the pool. We all pretty much just clung to the grass and stared at each other for a few moments. Then Chris, who was clearly the craziest of all of us, began to laugh. That broke the tension, and we were soon all laughing like madmen.
After a few more minutes we swam to the other side of the pool where we could pull ourselves onto dry land and begin our climb back up to the highway. As we began to climb we looked up and saw a group of motorists who had stopped to look at the river. There were probably half a dozen and they were still looking at us with jaws hanging open. We thought that was odd, since we were all wearing swimming trunks this time, but when we got to the top and looked down upon the rapid which we had just surfed on our backs it looked like something out of the movie “River Wild”. We stood and gawked for awhile, then broke into laughter once again, this time for joy of being still alive,