top of page

Russell taught me to swim ...

... by leaving me no alternative.

The summer when I was nine, my cousin Russell taught me to swim.
We lived on an island so I spent a lot of time in the water; splashing around in the bay and the ocean but always in the shallow water. I could dog paddle and do something that looked like swimming, face down. I just hadn’t learned to coordinate the various strokes in a way that allowed me propel myself through the water AND continue to breathe.
When I think back on it, it’s remarkable but we were allowed to ride our bikes the four miles from our neighborhood to our town beach. That’s where half our school hung out all summer; laying in the sun and listening to the many transistor radios all tuned to Bruce "Cousin Brucie" Morrow spinning the hits from the WABC studios in far away New York City.
Russell didn't want to be stuck with me, splashing around in the shallow end when all the cool kids were frolicking in the deep water. So he decided that I needed to learn to swim and he was going to teach me.
So, he instructed me to take a deep breath, put my face down in the water and begin kicking my feet. He held onto the waistband of my bathing suit and instructed me to reach with my left arm and breath to the right. Now reach with your right arm and breath to the left.
After a minute he had determined I had mastered the Australian crawl and instructed me to hold onto the waist of his swim trunks. He would tow me around so I could get used to kicking my legs. As soon as my face went into the water, he towed me into deep end. When we got about 30 feet from the boardwalk ladder he cut me loose and yelled, “Swim!”
It was a One-Step Program.
Russell was kind of a dick … and a bully … and not too smart. He was two years older than me but we were in the same year at school. Not in the same class. This was back in the 60s when it was OK to embarrass and demoralize children, assigning them to sections based on standardized testing. At the top was section 1, my section. Russell was with the disposable students in section 12.
We could have gone the whole school year without crossing paths except that our middle school had a lot of athletic scholars. Rob and Terry and Tommy and a half dozen other smart kids who also excelled in athletics. So I knew them from class and Russell knew them from football. See, Russell was as big and strong as he was scholastically inept. All the coaches wanted him to play for them. I was the opposite. The coaches avoided eye contact with me.
But circumstance would toss us together. There were the crossover friends. And Aunt Margie probably helped, promoting peace in the extended family by screaming in her cigarette voice, “I don’t care, you’re going to invite your cousin Peter!”
But that was as far as her sympathy extended. She’d laugh and hack up congestive tar with the rest of them as Russell told everyone how I’d tried to imitate him and swing from one branch to another in Mrs. Newcomb’s Hickory tree. That resulted in an absolutely hilarious compound fracture of my left wrist. Then there’s the big scar on my butt from when he told me the greenhouse glass would support my weight. There’s a hole through my hand he made swinging a garden tool “near” me. Not all the scars he left were on the outside.
He enjoyed pointing it out when I wore his hand-me-downs. That was fun.
One time I went to the ocean with Russell and some of the other boys. Aunt Marge drove us and Russell started riffing on the fact I wore my t-shirt swimming. He was right. I was pale and pudgy and that’s the uniform. Anyway, he declared that we could only wear one piece of clothing in the water so I was going to have to decide: tops or bottoms.
When we arrived, knowing Russell was big enough to enforce his rule, I ditched the group and went right out into the ocean.
Thanks to Russell’s lesson, I’d turned into a decent swimmer. After blowing off some steam, I decided to return to shore. Sadly, I was about to learn about “undertow” first hand. I’d been rocketed frighteningly far off-shore and no matter how frantically I stroked, I wasn’t getting any closer to the beach. I was getting tired and kinda panicky when I saw a lifeguard’s head bob above a swell.
He shouted, “You alright?”
Between wet and desperate inhales I said, “Yes.”
He rephrased. “Do you need help?”
With all the strength I had left I said, “No”
I just couldn’t imagine the humiliation of being dragged out of the water in front of Russell and my other classmates. I would rather die first! As the lifeguard turned back I realized that was exactly the choice I’d set up.
I called out, “Wait!”
Luckily, the way you overcome a powerful undertow is by swimming at an angle back to shore so, when we reached the beach I was quite a ways away from Aunt Margie and the others. Apparently, no one had noticed I was missing.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” I suppose I ceded that power to Russell when I was four and he was six and never revoked the grant. Luckily, my family moved from the old town and for the next twenty years I only had to deal with Russell on holidays.
Russell went to college on an athletic scholarship that he promptly lost when he started doing coke. Things spiraled down from there. He layered failed marriages and menial jobs with an extraordinary amount of drugs and alcohol until the day he got into a fight that was abbreviated by a fatal gunshot.
Serious or not, sometimes we find ourselves in dog paddling in a sea of trouble. Usually, time provides the buoyancy required to keep our head above water.
Not for Russell.
He never learned to swim.

bottom of page