Now that he was sixteen, John tired of the family swim and little kids splashing around. Yet he wasn’t quite ready for the school swim team. One morning he decided to get up early and try the lap swim at the YMCA for a while to see if his swimming improved.
The pool held six lanes when all the lane markers were in place. The center lanes were the most desirable due to fewer waves bouncing off the walls. Also, the current from the water filter return was strongest in the outside lanes and made it feel like you were swimming upstream half the time. For those reasons, swimmers usually chose the lane closest to the center if they could with two exceptions. The oldest swimmer, a woman who looked to be in her sixties, always tried for an outside lane in order to hang onto the wall when she got tired. A large expressionless man, seeming to be about the same age, stood in an outside lane and splashed around rather than actually swimming. He stood looking at the others in the pool and his face did not suggest what he might be thinking. He eventually left without even wetting his shoulders or head.
If all the lanes were full, swimmers tried different strategies. Some talked with the lifeguard, pretending they were not anxious to swim. Others performed seemingly endless warm-up exercises as if preparing for an Olympic competition. Still others tried to make eye contact with an established swimmer, seeking an invitation to share a lane. Swimmers who were in the habit of sharing their lanes were invited to share with those already swimming.
Flipper, at least John called him Flipper, was different. His head had only a trimmed, extremely thin dusting of silver hair which stopped two inches above his ears. The top of his head was bald. He wore the briefest of swim suits, and seemed proud of his barrel chest giving way to his rounded belly. He scanned the lanes for an opening. He would immediately move to any of the center four lanes if open. If only the outside lanes were open, he stood near the shower room door or sat sideways on a starting platform. He made no pretense of passing time with the lifeguard or warming up his muscles. He continued scanning the center lanes until someone left, leaving the outside lanes open for as long as twenty minutes. He never made a move to share a lane with one of the other swimmers since he would not wish to share his lane once he was in it.
There was nothing exceptional about his backstroke. His butterfly and side stroke were also unremarkable. Ah, but his crawl! Even here his right arm, torso and legs all behaved properly. His left arm, however, made a loud slap each time it entered the water. In addition to the sound was the cascade of water into the next lane, leaving a passing swimmer with the feeling of swimming in the rain.
Why? Was he mad about something? It would be difficult to summon the same intensity of anger each morning leading to such a consistent splash. Did he need swimming lessons? He swam smoothly enough with his other swim strokes and appeared comfortable in the water. Had he suffered a stroke? He walked without difficulty, swam evenly when not in the crawl and did not slur what few words he spoke. Not finding any acceptable explanation, John decided to think of him as Flipper, giving rise to a vague feeling of unexplained hostility inside him.
John finally mentioned his swimming experience to his friend Andy who seemed to know just about everything about people. Andy scratched his head a while and finally asked John who Flipper reminded him of. No one came to mind immediately. He couldn’t think of anyone else who annoyed him quite so much in or out of the water.
The next day in the pool, as he was splashed by Flipper, it hit him. It was Flipper’s bald head and his acting aloof and better than everyone else which got to him. He remembered something from when he was younger.
It happened in sixth grade. John had taken the bus across town with his brother every week for swimming lessons at a private club. He wanted to learn to swim very badly. He struggled with keeping his head under water without holding his nose and learning to dive without being afraid he would clunk his head on the bottom of the pool.
Swim lessons continued into the fall. A Halloween party was scheduled and John went with his brother. He dressed as an Indian, complete with war paint, buckskin shirt and makeshift bow and arrow. The party was fun- bobbing for apples, drinking cider, eating donuts, and playing games.
After the party John and his brother were waiting out front for their parents to pick them up. The sugar and the lively party had made everyone a little rowdy. Kids were climbing on the building face, chasing each other around and generally acting goofy. Then he appeared. Flipper’s predecessor emerged from the building in his official capacity to warn them for the third time to wait quietly. His patience was wearing thin as was the ability of the waiting kids to do anything quietly.
As the man turned to re-enter the building, John blurted out in his Indian role, “Ugh. Me scalp ’im. Oops. Nothing to scalp!” He didn’t realize he had said this loud enough for the man to hear. He not only heard but, from John’s costume, easily located the source of the offending comment. He was soon in John’s face, his own face and balding head beet red with indignation. John was banned from the building and was never to show such disrespect to anyone again.
John had great difficulty explaining to his parents his sudden loss of interest in swimming after that. He always seemed to have something else to do. He never did return to the building, but did learn to swim better and also learned to be more careful about his comments, particularly about bald men. Now that he made the connection, he wondered if Flipper would bother him as much the next time they were in the pool together.