All the smarts in the world still can’t keep some afloat | Pat Cashman

Ever met one of those people who seemingly can do everything? I know a guy like that. He speaks approximately 47 different languages fluently, including Esperanto. He can play 14 musical instruments – simultaneously. And yet, I recently found out something he doesn’t know how to do – at all. Amazingly, he doesn’t know how to swim.

Ever met one of those people who seemingly can do everything? I know a guy like that.

He speaks approximately 47 different languages fluently, including Esperanto.

He can play 14 musical instruments – simultaneously.

He is a master in woodworking, auto repair, computer science, world history and literature, including the works of William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer and Jerry Springer.

He knows the difference between the words turgid, tumid and turbid.

He’s the kind of annoyingly smart person who probably could name every bone in the human body, even as you were secretly wishing to break all of his.

And yet, I recently found out something he doesn’t know how to do – at all. Amazingly, he doesn’t know how to swim.

He’s not versed in the sidestroke, breaststroke or butterfly. He can’t even do the dog paddle – not any version of it, from shepherd to Shih Tzu. As a result, he’s about as comfortable around water as Superman is around Kryptonite.

How could this have happened, I wondered? He told me that during his busy childhood, which included learning the fine art of sailing a boat, no one ever thought to teach him what to do if he fell out of one. And now, all these years later, his inability to swim is one of his darkest secrets and embarrassments.

I always wondered how Tarzan learned to swim. After all, apes raised him, and what do they know about swimming? Although I did see a monkey waterskiing on “Evening Magazine” one time.

Creepy quicksand

However he learned it, Tarzan was fearless diving into rivers that looked murkier than bean dip. He always swam effortlessly, even with a hippo nipping at his loincloth. And he always knew how to tell a pond from a quicksand pit. That seemed like a good thing to know. As a kid, quicksand always gave me the creeps. Tarzan wasn’t too crazy about it, either. But I digress, don’t I?

A well-known local TV sportscaster doesn’t know how to swim. He’s great at backgammon, but not a backstroke. Luckily for him, most TV news sets don’t include koi ponds or waterfalls.

My wife’s mother is a non-swimmer, too. If I didn’t enjoy her visits, I could just install a moat around the house.

If left on my own, I would probably be another of those rare adults who can’t swim. But my mom and dad didn’t allow me that choice. They equated learning to swim with all other crucial life preparations, such as watching for cars, learning first aid and putting the toilet seat up. Although to me, as a non-swimmer, keeping the seat down seemed safer.

Today’s young parents are giving their babies swim lessons within moments of exiting the womb. I’ve heard child experts say that early immersion into a swimming pool reminds newborns of their time in the womb. Well, OK. But it seems to me that a swimming pool is somewhat larger than your average womb. Wouldn’t immersing the newborn into a bucket of Snapple be more like it?

So when I was 6 or 7, my dad decided that I needed swim lessons. Only problem: I was terrified of the water. Every time I’d been to a public pool previously, I sank like a bowling bowl. And that was just in the showers.

So one day in early June, when my dad dropped me off at the entrance to the city pool for my first lesson, I waved him goodbye as he drove away. But I had no intention of going inside. I was certain I’d drown. So as soon as dad’s car was out of sight, I began walking slowly home, skipping my swim lesson altogether.

We didn’t live far from the city pool, so I took my time. Before walking in the door, I used the garden hose to get my suit and towel convincingly wet before hanging them on the laundry line.

My plan seemed perfect. Cowardly, but perfect. It became my daily routine: Dad dropping me off at the pool, me pretending to walk inside and then walking home. It went on for almost two weeks. Then, my plan fell apart.

Dad bumped into my would-be swim instructor at a Rotary club meeting. “How’s Pat coming along with the swim lessons?” dad asked the guy. The answer spelled curtains for my stay-dry scheme.

The next day, dad sternly walked me all the way into the changing room and then out to the pool where swim classes were under way. Then, as he watched me balefully from the sidelines, I shakily waded in. I was sure the lifeguards would be dragging the pool for me within moments. But by the end of the lesson – against all odds – I was actually afloat.

By mid-summer, my lessons long over, I went to the pool every day, jumping around in the water, twisting and struggling as I battled imaginary alligators just like Tarzan. I’ve loved the water ever since.

But quicksand still gives me the creeps.

Pat Cashman is a writer, actor and public speaker. He can be reached at pat@patcashman.com.


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