Monday, 17 August 2015

Water babies

Hot out there and getting hotter. I am appreciating the air conditioning and thinking back to the time fifty years and more gone when there was none, at least where I lived. There was the odd air conditioned store in the late fifties in my home town, but most offices and private homes were at ambient temperature. And in Windsor (Ontario) in August, the ambient temperature was usually in the (pre metric) 90’s. Or more. 

My parents’ two storey brick house would be coolish in the morning, but the heat would increase through the day and by evening the place would be a large brick oven. There was an attic above the bedroom floor with a hatch in the middle of the upstairs hall. My parents had a large fan installed in the hatch and as soon as it started to cool off outside, this fan would be turned on to pull cool air up into the bedrooms. And by 1:00 or 2:00 am, cool air would indeed start to arrive. I recall lying in bed with the bed pulled as close to the window as I could get it, both the bed linens and my body sticky with sweat, waiting for that cool air.

As a young woman I was out in the heat, working as a lifeguard in a pool in suburban Windsor. In weather like today’s we did a half hour rotation, from guard stand (a high seat over the concrete at pool edge), to walking the deck and then, praise be, to half an hour in the much cooler office, checking  swimmers in and out. By 9:00 pm we would be exhausted from the heat and noise and the concentration required to watch for any problems in the mass of heaving children filling the pool. Our only relief was that we (quite illegally) dived off the guard stand into the deep end at the end of the half hour there and got wet enough to survive half an hour walking on the super-heated concrete of the deck. I used to look forward to my days on ‘split shift’ when I worked 8:00 am to 12:00 pm and 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm, missing the worst of the afternoon frying pan effect.

I loved life guarding, however, and it was good money for a student as a summer job. We ran swimming lessons in the morning for children from three to twelve. Afternoons there was the open swim and evenings was ‘family swim’ in theory but mostly drew teenagers in fact. They were hell on wheels to supervise and because I could handle them I drew evening duty a lot. I was the biggest of the female staff and cultivated a reputation as really tough, right up to frog-marching one of the worst offenders out of the pool enclosure in his swim suit and tossing his clothes after him.  (No charges of assault ensued, lucky for me.)

What was the most fun, though, was the little kid lessons. The pool was new and had a very shallow section where most 3 to 5 year olds could stand up and we ran classes every morning in this section for that age group. The women got to teach these classes, mostly, because the littles responded better to women than to most of the men. I had two classes, 9:00 to 9:30 and 9:30 to 10:00 am, mostly of three and four year olds. We didn’t do the pool clean until after these classes so as to keep the water warm and to allow for a lot of pee getting into the water. And mostly what we taught them was pretty simple. How to stand up if they fell, how to put their little faces in the water and, once they were comfortable with that, a face down kick at increasing distances. Some of them were desperately water-shy. I remember carrying one kidlet on my back for most of the week until he finally got enough confidence to step onto my knee and then into the pool.

This is a photograph that the local paper took to go with a story about how little kids could now have lessons if they were more than 36" tall. It is staged, of course, and shows me measuring some of my class with a yardstick. I think I was 19 at the time.

I have a fond memory of introducing my own daughters to swimming. The ED was 2+, the YD 13 months old. ED spent most of the session with her back pressed against the fence around the pool, shivering. I took YD into the pool, lowered her into the water on her stomach with my hand under her chest, and she dog paddled off my hand toward a friend who had her kids in the water as well. I walked along with her, hands poised to grab if she went under, and she got quite a way before she got tired enough to stop. However, both girls had mandatory swimming lessons as soon as they were old enough to qualify, around age four and five. I leaned on the ED to keep going until she had at least an intermediate certificate and drown proofing. The YD became, in her turn, a lifeguard and instructor and has loved boats and water all her life so far. I have always understood why the ED did not enjoy swimming. She was a slim ectomorph with low body fat and always freezing cold in even temperate water. But I note with amusement that Miss G, her equally chronically cold daughter, has had regular swimming lessons from an early age.

I suspect that even Miss G would take to the water today.


  1. I do so envy you being a good swimmer and being a life guard too! very interesting story.
    Unfortunately, I never learnt to swim and even as an adult have a fear of being in deep water.
    I couldn't get the hang of it even in my late forties! Bit late now!
    Maggie x

  2. I am the same as Maggie May! I can keep my head up and do some paddling, but no swimming. And if the water comes anyplace near my chin, I panic terribly.

    Perhaps having you as a patient teacher is what I need.

  3. I also grew up in an attic bedroom with no air conditioning. I spent my days playing outside as well. I love the picture of you measuring your students with the yard stick. So fun. Being a life guard is a good job for a student. My niece was a life guard for high-school and early college years. She had work wherever she went.