July 1969. The summer of love. The summer of Apollo 11. Woodstock. “This is Tom Jones” debuted on ABC! Really, Tom had a TV show. Nonetheless, some would say it was a year that altered a nation and changed lives forever. How the hell would I know? I was six. To me, it was the year of our summer vacation to Florida. Seeing Apollo 11 blast off, walking the beach at the Gulf of Mexico, and George.
Two out of three ain’t bad.
We drove from Chicago to St.Pete and stayed right on the gulf. It was unreal. Getting up early and walking the beach with Mom and Dad. The beach actually had foam on it, not a pollution thing, more like a leftover bubble bath. Not sure what caused it, but it was all part of this new world I experienced.
Apollo 11 was out of this world, literally and figuratively. Watching that explosion as the rocket rose out of a huge yellow fireball like the sun exploded, stages breaking away until it became a speck in the bright blue sky. A few days later we watched as those same people landed on the moon.
What I didn't bargain for was George. I was on vacation. Vacation, as I still think of it, is a time when you pretty much do what you want. Kids don't go to school, parents don't work. One thing kids definitely don’t do is swimming lessons.
George taught swimming lessons at The Tides, an apartment style hotel where we stayed. Perhaps also a safe haven for certain European immigrants (wait for it). Mom and Dad found out about him and immediately signed me up. "Mike, they have swimming lessons here!" Somehow Mom was selling this as a good thing. Why didn't they just say, "Mike, they give free throat cultures here!" Things like this just aren't supposed to happen on vacation. A kid's first trip to the beach. Sea shells, sand castles. Astronauts! Teach me basic physics for the launch, just no George!
The bargaining power of a six year old, on vacation or not, if harnessed to produce electricity would generate enough energy to, well...do absolutely nothing. I am going to swimming lessons. Two days worth of George. He guarantees that I'll be jumping off the diving board in two days. Once I hit the water, I’m evidently on my own. I believe that part costs extra.
That afternoon my big sister, Debbie, feeling sorry for me, joined me at the poolside snack bar for a pre-swim drink. The beverage of choice for a scrapping, young, future 100 meter butterfly champion is beer from the root. “Large or small.” she asks. A choice? What’s this? I’ve never been offered a large. Look how grown up I’ve suddenly become! Large it be. God bless the big sister with disposable income.
As the be-dunking hour approached, drink finished, I joined the group of youngsters waiting for George. Finally, we were met by a tan, barrel of a man in a big straw hat, fringes of gray hair visible, and a zinc-oxide covered nose.
George was a very literal fellow. When he said jump right in, that's what he had in mind. The first thing we're going to learn about swimming is...swimming. Our mission was swimming the width of the pool. No technique. We’re supposedly part Golden Retriever and will instinctively take to the water. George put us in the deep end. Let’s be honest, deep end means anywhere in the pool for a six year old.
If he was checking for survival instinct in six year olds, it could be a short exercise. If he’s wanting to push us to a Lord of the Flies situation where we tear his face off, then people might want to get out their cameras. There are a few of us that think we can take him out.
Things got a bit hazy here, as I focused on staying alive. Sinking was outdoing swimming. I was losing my first swimming across the pool challenge. George was in front of me the whole way, just far enough to enjoy my suffering without me clinging to him like a Titanic survivor to wreckage. Was George reveling in my suffering? I’ve often wondered if George’s earlier work experience was spent years guarding people who wore striped uniforms in 1940’s Germany camps. What was that he whispered as a swam? “You can do it” or “Drown”?
All of my efforts kept me a few yards short of success. George critiqued my performance, suggesting that my face needed more exposure to the water. I had an idea! "Hey, Georgy-boy......why don't I go to the pool steps and touch my front teeth to the second step 100 times, immersing my face as I go?" He was cool with that. A dunking I went. Truth be told, all his idea.
Funny thing happened with that large root beer. It didn’t sit well when dunking. From that moment on, the pool at the Tides forever had a little frosty mug flavor as my large became two smalls, one still in me. After I advised George of my heave, he did see fit to give me the rest of the day off.
I never liked my sister's generosity more than at that moment.
Did I say that this was two day's worth of lessons? Day two. No root beer this time. I was all business.
In defense of George, mostly because, as I write this, he's probably passed on...to things like running juvenile boot camps for wayward teens, the second day did go smoother. I made it to the other side of the pool. George was there, bringing this retriever home.
Maybe it was because I was playing in front of the home crowd, but it seemed to go easier. Mom and Dad filmed, other siblings at the other end of the pool. George and I jelled. He had me doing things I never thought possible. Swimming. Sort of. Flailing, thrashing approach. Reminiscent of an attack victim in Jaws. We had done ok, but the true test awaited. The diving board.
Diving boards were higher for six year olds than for any other member of the species. Look it up. Our first jump was a bit George-aided. I went about 3/4 down the board, then off to the side and jump. Proved an easy enough approach. George was below making sure we make it ok, and his good name was intact.
Second jump...the big time. Breathe, Mike, breathe. Straight off the board. Everything moved in slow motion. Mom watched as Dad films. I think, "Good, better for documenting evidence for the lawsuit." I stepped towards my destiny, the board's end and the watery abyss below. My stomach was empty. Where was he? Where was my mentor? "Jorge!" I seem to shout. Hey, I don't know Spanish. George? Where was that big old, zinc-oxided nose? I neared the edge. My time had come. My teacher, my man from Atlantis, the guy that almost drowned me yesterday. He's ready to bring me home. He waited in the water.
My leap came easily. Splash. Thrash. I'm at the ladder. As the water cleared from my face, I rose out to applause and cheers. The filming stopped. I looked back to the water. George looked up to the board. Our moment had past. I must now move on. George, this leather-skinned, Aryan took two days to deliver as promised, a kid jumping off the diving board. Perhaps not much for 1969, but a lot for a six year old. Not landing on the moon, but a pretty big leap downward nonetheless.
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