LATE in the afternoon, when the boys grew tired of playing baseball, some one would say, “How about going in now ?” or, more often, give a whistle and hold up two fingers of one hand, the universal sign of natatory purpose and invitation. Then my heart would sink. At that age I never got tired of playing baseball — and I could not swim. Once they were headed for the river, it was useless to protest; and I followed them, as disconsolate and envious a nine-year-old as there was in the land.
We crossed the railroad track at the foot of the meadow, and ran down the path under the arching willows and oaks of the bank to the river beach. There, while the others were undressing, I would stand and scale stones out over the water with an assumed indifference, deaf to their urgings that I should come in with them and try to learn. They treated me with a compassionate kindliness — not unlike that with which the heath-dwellers in The Return of the Native assisted the unfortunate Christian Cantle to acquiesce in his incompetence — and when they found that I could not be persuaded, they would ask me, one after another, to keep an eye on their clothes. I do not know from what source they feared molestation, and I never was aware that any of them carried valuable property which might tempt a passer-by to crime. Their injunction may have been thoughtfully designed to restore to me some measure of self-respect and make me feel that, even though I could not swim, there was still a place for me in the world. At any rate, I took the responsibility with some seriousness, and preserved a sharp watch over all the articles entrusted to my care, occasionally nailing down a fluttering shirt with a stone, or pursuing a hat that had been started on a bumping expedition by the breeze.
When the half-past five train burst thundering out of the cut a hundred yards up the river, all the boys made for deep water, or, if they were too near shore for that, modestly immersed themselves, — all except one young Indian, whose practice it was to come scrambling ashore and there dance defiantly, waving his arms and yelling while the train passed. This performance was always rather shocking to me, even while I admired its daring. One day the Indian’s mother was on the train, and recognized him from the window, and for a week thereafter he did not go in swimming, but sat with me, like Fido, by the clothes.
As often as I had the opportunity, and could be sure there were no other boys to spy upon my infantile efforts, I used to sneak down to the river and give myself swimming lessons. Whether the fault was mainly with the teacher or with the pupil I do not know; but I had begun to despair of ever learning, when one day I stretched myself out recklessly upon the water and began to swim. I was so amazed to find myself afloat that after a few strokes I felt I had better stop and think about it, so I dropped my feet and groped for bottom; to my infinite horror it was not there. The current of the river, probably more than my own efforts, had carried me beyond my depth.
I beat the water desperately with my hands, trying to regain the swimming position, and went under. My fright, after the first terror at not finding bottom, was quite inadequate. When I came up strangling and saw the shore slipping by, the rock on which I had laid my clothes more distant than before, I thrust crazily with arms and legs, and determined that nobody, and least of all my mother, should ever know of my narrow escape. I accepted escape as a foregone conclusion, even while realizing the peril. Somehow I got ashore, choking and gasping, and made my way back to my clothes. There, while I sat on a rock and recovered myself, I reflected with some pride that I had achieved a new importance. I had almost been drowned, and I had learned to swim, A disposition to test the reality of my acquirement, and ascertain if I might rely on its permanence, impelled me to enter the water again. In the exhilaration of confirming my discovery, it soon became a pleasure to take a risk. I enjoyed the sensation when, a few days later, I interrupted the ball game by giving a whistle and holding up two fingers of one hand.
The largest percentage of drowning accidents to boys occur, I am told, in rivers. From my own experience I am convinced that if a lake or the ocean is accessible, a river should not be chosen as the scene of one’s elementary swimming lessons; but where a river is the only water at hand a boy had better risk being swept away by the current. No doubt in most cases he will take that risk, even though his parents concede only as much liberty to swim as the mother in the nonsense rhyme was willing to allow her daughter. One of the pleasures that I find in summer travel is to watch out of the train window, as we skirt the banks of streams, for the boys bathing, standing waist deep in the water, or, with only wet heads above the surface, stemming the current in momentary rivalry. In these glimpses the pleasure is perhaps not wholly that of personal reminiscence and sympathy;
I think the veriest hoodlum of the village seen stripped and in a woodland setting may be the Pan in one’s fleeting vision of Arcady. Some persons I have heard cry out against the publicity of such bathing; to me the sight seems as innocent as the pastime. Cows knee-deep in streams are the painter’s favorite subject for a pastoral; if I were a painter I think I should choose almost as often boys bathing in a brook.
To be picturesque is not, however, the swimmer’s aim, and except for its picturesque effect river bathing is not very satisfactory. The bigger the river, the more dirty and unpleasant and unsheltered is it likely to be; the smaller the stream, the more certain in the summer months to become a mere dribble in which one crawls about hunting for a spot where it may be deep enough to swim. Or, if it is not disqualified in either of these respects, its current will cause annoyance; one grows weary of always having to quarter against it, of never being able to lie peacefully at rest without being whisked off to a point which is inconveniently conspicuous or from which return is undesirably laborious.
The utmost luxury for the swimmer would be always to have freedom of choice as to where he would swim — whether in pond or lake or ocean. Then he would be able each day to adapt his swim to his mood. For swimming may be variously operative on a man; desiring one remedy, he may find himself refused it by the perversity of the element — served with the wrong prescription. He would like a swim as relaxing as a Turkish bath, and he is in for a boxing match. For instance, it is a hot, oppressive day; you have been doing concentrated mental labor for some hours, and you wish to turn, not to vigorous exercise, but to a soothing employment, a languid, indolent use of the muscles which will leave you in a mood for sleep. But your available swimming tank is the Atlantic Ocean, in a latitude where the temperature of the water never rises above fifty-eight degrees; and the day is windy and overcast; you put on your bathing suit and stand on the beach looking reluctantly at the breaking waves. The wind chills you a little, and although nothing is more distasteful than to nerve yourself for an effort, you do it; you take a breath and run into the icy water — and oh, the torture of that entrance! The cold waves dash at your ankles and then at your knees, and then, while you are reeling, they grip your waist and wrestle with you for a fall — which you grant them with a shuddering relief. You go under, lips compressed, eyes shut, and shoot up again to the air, crying to yourself, “Thank Heaven that’s over! ’’ Then you kick out and strike out and writhe round in the waves in a furious effort to get warm; you can’t do it swimming on your breast , and you turn on one side and draw up your knees and lunge out and gasp; and then a wave cuffs you in the head and gives you a stinging earful, and you leap up in angry, sputtering remonstrance. You do not grow appreciably warmer, violent as is your endeavor, rough as is your buffeting; you are bounded up and down, and pitched into the smother of breaking waves, and slapped and doused and insolently abused, until you work yourself into a passion and plough through the turbulent sea with venomous puffs that might be translated, “You will, will you! You will, will you! Take that now — take that — take that! ” Thus you are provoked to an insane contention and excitement, when a few moments before your whole inclination had been toward a meditative floating upon a warm and tranquil pond. But for all your furious bravado, for all your mighty exercise, your teeth are already chattering with cold, your vigor is stiffening in your veins; and you are glad to turn and be helped ashore by the waves that you had presumed to defy.
Then, when you rub yourself down and dress, you begin to glow with an ardent energy, with legs a little tremulous, perhaps. You had desired mere relaxation, and you have been violently stimulated. But the spirit to be up and doing soon fades into an impotent restlessness, and from that you pass into the comatose indolence which was your primary desire. There is, perhaps, some subtle detriment to the temper when one has to experience such probationary stress and tumult in order to attain the repose into which the dweller by a pond may gently slip. Thoreau would have been a more irascible person if he had had to do his swimming off the Maine coast instead of in Lake Walden.
Yet the placid dwellers beside quiet lakes may not claim entire advantage of opportunity over the turbulent sea bathers. They know the soft delight of swimming; they miss its stormy joy. It is agreeable to be one of them when the only demand made by your body is for rest; but when both your spirits and your vitality are high, the unruffled smoothness of the pond, even though it is overhung by the springiest of springboards, does not quite meet your longings. You can run and leap and dive and rush in sprints through the water, but you are aware of a disappointing tameness; you are playing in a dead, unresponsive medium; you are not sporting with a resourceful, lithe, and sinewy adversary; you cannot conjure up the excitement and ardor of battle which grip your imagination with the first plunge into the swelling ocean. The greater buoyancy of the salt water exalts the swimmer’s spirit and quickens his vitality; the gentler drag of the inland lake woos him to a luxurious listlessness. As you buffet the ocean waves, you can exultingly feel and exclaim, “Aha, old man, you’re trying to down me — but I’m still on top; put that in your pipe and smoke it.” And so, proud wrestler that you are, you swarm up one billow and down the next, grappling to your heart, all the while a personified adversary and laughing with triumph because in spite of his struggles he cannot get you down and put his knee on your chest. It is something to emerge panting and dripping from these contests, and strut upon the sand, and mentally credit yourself with one more victory.
Quiet inland bathing offers you no such extravagant opportunities to be a poseur. If the water is warm, you loll in it at your ease; your mind is soon stupefied by the sensuousness in which you are enfolded; the interest of your sleepy eyes does not extend beyond the gentle ripples that widen away from the slow, submerged strokes of your arms. After a while YOU roll over on your back and drowsily execute at intervals a languid “shoo fly ” leg motion, while you look drowsily up into the void. Now and then you will raise your arms and flap them down through the water like a pair of sweeps; it is only a tired sort of effort. And finally, in the supreme abandonment of indolence, you lay your head back, far back, until the water creeps up about your eyelids; you stretch out legs and arms motionless, and lie, breathing tranquilly, sensible of no other movement in the world than the slight flux and slip of the water upon your heaving chest. Then may you realize, perhaps, something of the lark’s sensation when, with wings outspread,it hangs suspended between earth and sky. He who has never thus suspended himself idly in still water,with fathoms below him and infinity above, has missed one of the sensuous delights of existence. Unfortunate man, who goes to his grave believing that there is nothing better than bed for weary limbs and a jaded brain!
The consequences, of course, are hunger and torpidity. The bath in the quiet pond does not make you feel “freshened up” — unless you flout its allurements, dive in, scramble out, and roughly rub yourself down. I cannot be sympathetic with any one whose moral rigidity thus denies him a Sybaritic indulgence. In the cold, loud-sounding sea I may be his comrade; but let him not insult with such hygienic tentativeness my luxurious inland pool. He must give himself to it trustingly, with no reserve, willing to be wooed into idle dalliance, to eat the lotus and smell the poppies and mandragora of life. If he dares no experience that may slacken the tension of his fibres, physical or moral, let him avoid the seductive inland pool. For not only does a surrender to its embrace leave one too indolent to work; it even purifies the zealot who sets too high a value upon work, and it insinuates before him an ideal of play. After the first somnolence has worn off, he will be active for further exercise, for sports and games, he will show a keen interest in being amused; but for toil he will have aversion. Fresh water swimming is for those who have never had, or who have put aside, scruples against idleness; for the promotion of the “strenuous life” we must have the water cold, and we must have it salt.
It depends partly upon the individual, and again partly upon the place, whether swimming is more to be enjoyed as a solitary recreation or as a social diversion. There are some unimaginative persons, incapacitated for solitude under any circumstances, who would never resort to a lonely swim except in the last despair of ennui; and I believe there are a few morbid persons who shrink from displaying themselves in bathing suits and abhor the more informal freedom that sometimes prevails among swimmers. But disregarding such abnormal types, we may broadly lay down the principle that a lonely swim in the ocean is a cheerless undertaking, and that a lonely swim in a small inland lake is a delight. In excluding the ocean as a fit resource for the solitary, I would not deny that he may find satisfaction in an early morning plunge; but that is hardly “going in swimming.” There are, to be sure, a few moments in the life of a man when in his own exultant bigness he may stalk grandly and alone into the sea and hail it as his intimate playfellow, and breast it with a single valiancy — when he may imagine himself in the likeness of deep calling unto deep, just as, if he happened at that juncture to be mountain climbing, he would leap from crag to crag and personify the live thunder. But these occasions arise rarely in the lives of ordinary mortals; and they are to be seized at the instant; their duration is seldom above half an hour. If the lawyer could strip off his clothes and plunge into the lonely ocean the moment after he had completed the masterly argument that was to disrupt a trust; if the doctor who had struggled day and night sleeplessly to bring back the moribund to life, and had come at last staggering to victory, could in that weary happiness of power launch himself uncompanioned on the waves; if the speculator who, to general panic and his own large aggrandizement, had turned the market topsy-turvy, could souse himself, chuckling like a boy at his prank, and find the ocean comrade for his laughter, — that would indeed be the sublimation of climax. But as our Napoleonic moments are few, so also are our Napoleonic moods transitory; after a brief half hour there come the questions: “Is it so complete?” “What next?” “Has destiny nothing more?” At the psychological moment the ocean was remote or unavailable for solitude; by the time we can get down to it and the beach is all cleared for our majestic entrance, we begin to look about for the encouragement of companions. We do not like to feel insignificant; and nothing makes a man more sensible of insignificance than striking all alone out into the boundless sea. If there is but one unknown head bobbing in the waves a quarter of a mile distant, it will give him heart for his mimic wrestling; but if there is no one to share the absurdity of the play with him and dare with him the oppressive grimness of infinity, he soon comes ashore subdued.
Indeed, even in its most benign moods, the ocean has for the lonely bather a dubious geniality; it does not encourage trifling. It is only when the exuberant and boisterous crowds are gathered on the sand and frolic in the waves that there is created an atmosphere of light-hearted forgetfulness which makes the swimmer’s sanguine imagination quite free to play.
And these exuberant crowds — how they contribute to the interest and gayety of your swim ! As you go lunging through the water, rudely shouldering your huge adversary, you view the other swimmers and the promenaders on the beach with a heartening enjoyment. The man just entering the water, flinging up his arms as he treads warily, the woman out on the raft who is learning to dive and who flops flat under the surface with a splash, the swift swimmer who glides by with a long overhead reach of a brown arm that rises and dips and rises again, rhythmical as a gull’s wing,—such little glimpses give a zest to the elemental experience through which you are passing. You find it pleasant to loiter for a time in the midst of such buoyant and vivacious effort; you like the shrill voices and the strident laughter; your eyes sweep the beach with a moment’s interest in the gay parasols, in the bunchy bathing suits of the hesitating women, in the gaunt, dripping forms of the emerging men. Then some human porpoise rolls lazily by on his back, with white toes and a comfortable amplitude projecting above the surface, and you feel that you have loitered long enough; you must not be outstripped by such lumbering freight. So you turn and go about your business, — the conquest of the vast wrestler who has been nudging vou all the while. Far out beyond the diving raft, and beyond the other bathers, you meet him and try conclusions; you test upon him all your art and skill; you turn on your side and shoot yourself at him like a projectile; you grapple with him hand over hand; you tread him down with your feet; you duck under and trip the wave that he sends to quell you; and then you swim under water and come up suddenly and take him in the rear. There is never a moment when you are not getting the better of him in spite of all his roughness; and though at the end you have to call it a drawn battle, you know that morally the victory is yours. And on your way in from that gallantly fought field to rejoin those more timorous bathers whose champion you may swellingly imagine yourself, you stop at the raft and take a final dive, just by way of a farewell fillip to your gnashing adversary.
Occasionally on a hot summer afternoon I resort to a city beach which is enclosed for men alone. It is the most democratic place I know, and one of the most humorous. Clergymen, doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, plumbers, motormen, teamsters, and, I daresay, criminals, enter the bath-house, put off their clothes, and pass out upon the other side, equal not only before the Lord, but also in one another’s sight. Each man wears suspended by a cord about his neck a small brass check bearing the number of his dressing-room; — and he wears nothing else.
From either end of the bath-house a high board fence juts far out into the water, and shelters the bathers from exposure to the fastidious world. It is a scene for Teufelsdröckh — so many “forked radishes with heads fantastically carved” performing on land and water so many exercises — “while I,” exclaims the Philosopher of Clothes, “—good Heaven! — have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms, the hides of oxen or seals, the felt of furred beasts; and walk abroad a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature, where they would have rotted, to rot on me more slowly!” And it must have been after being made partaker in some similar scene that he declared in enthusiasm, “There is something great in the moment when a man first strips himself of adventitious wrappages; and sees indeed that he is naked, and, as Swift has it, ‘a forked straddling animal with bandy legs;' yet also a Spirit and unutterable Mystery of Mysteries.”
According to the hour, the warmth of the day, the height of the tide, the bathers vary in number from fifty to five hundred. They are of all ages and of all figures; among them some, by the baked brownness of their skins, may be distinguished as habitués of this beach; they lie on the sand sunning themselves by the hour, tanning themselves all over with a scrupulous uniformity. At one end of the beach three or four play handball against the fence; others are jumping and running; there are usually one or two attempting complicated acrobatic feats. One dignified old gentleman I once saw stand unperturbed for some minutes in the middle of the beach, gravely performing with his empty fists a variety of Indian club and dumb-bell evolutions; and near by a stout person with bushy white side whiskers was making repeated efforts to touch his toes. It speaks well, I think, for the manners of our men that the most whimsical of these performances evoked nothing more than passing glances and considerately hidden smiles. I know of no other place where in the interest of health a man may so companionable play the fool. And after he has done that to his heart’s content, and sunned himself sufficiently on the sand, the luxury of his swim out into the bay where a fleet of sailboats is at anchor, and distant green islands with gray buildings lift their heads, would be considerably less if he were clogged by a bathing suit. The “return to nature” which has been so much agitated of late, and which is recommended chiefly — to judge by publishers’ prospectuses — for its renewal of “red blood ” in the system, requires from most of its devotees a sacrifice of time and comfort and a forsaking of civilized life. An afternoon at this quaint beach, where human nature stripped to the skin is primitively beguiling itself in sun and air and sea, satisfies my own preadamite cravings and spares me the inconveniences usually suffered by those who respond to the Call of the wild.
It has been a grief to me that the most enthusiastic swimmer whom I know has always contemned this favorite resoft,— a prejudice which I set down partly to the fact that he is British and an unbudgeable creature of habit. He fortifies himself, however, with argument. “When you swim in the ocean,” he says, “let it be in the ocean, and not in a miserable enclosed bay fringed by a city.” So every summer afternoon, rain or shine, he takes a boat down the harbor, and after an hour’s sail lands at a well known beach that has the desirable outlook upon unlimited sea. I accompanied him on one of these excursions; his fingers were fumbling at his buttons before he left the boat. “I’ll be waiting for you on the beach,” he said, as he shut me into my compartment at the bath-house; and though I was expeditious in the hope of denying him that satisfaction, I found him not only waiting as he had predicted, but waiting with an air of intolerable impatience. There was no trembling on the brink for me that day. Into the water I went perforce, with a rush and a splash, close at his heels; it was cold, and I pressed out at a rapid stroke. He held his lead; after we had gone some distance and my teeth were chattering, I suggested that it was perhaps time to turn back. “Turn back! I have n’t started yet,” he replied scornfully. As he is not young, but an experienced scientist and philosopher with a full gray beard, and I have considerably the advantage of him in years, I was nettled by his answer, and resolved to stay with him in his folly; no doubt he would soon be calling on me to save his life. But at last in those arctic currents I surrendered my pride; “I’m going back,” I announced. “All right,” he answered, and continued on into the Atlantic.
Half an hour later, when I was all dressed and waiting, he waded ashore and walked up the sand, the brine dripping from his gray beard, his arms pink and glistening, — not a quiver of his frame. “You do pretty well for a city swimmer,” he said kindly.
Even with that concession from him I am aware that he should be writing this paper, and not I. My only justification is my feeling that the inexpert dabbler in an art may sometimes bring to the interpreting of it a keener zest of longing and a more ardent estimate than the past master who has penetrated all its mysteries.
It seems somewhat remarkable that, swimming should have had such scant appreciation in literature. The poets have astonishingly neglected it—astonishingly, I say, for it supplies one of the most sensuous human experiences. Byron, to whom, of all writers, one would naturally look for a sympathetic treatment of the theme, gives it only a few mediocre lines. Clough has dealt with it mock-seriously; Swinburne has experimented with it. For Shakespeare there was an opportunity,— in Julius Cœsar, — but he ignored it. Homer might have been eloquent, but with his hero Ulysses three days in the water and half dead, he could not enlarge on swimming as a pleasure. Shelley and Keats, poets of sensuousness, make no poem about swimming. Walt Whitman, though both rhapsodist and swimmer, was never inspired to rhapsodize on swimming. The most appreciative and suggestive words on the subject have been written by Meredith in Lord Ormont and his Aminta, in the chapter entitled “A Marine Duet.” “The swim was a holiday; all was new — nothing came to her as the same old thing since she took her plunge; she had a sea-mind — had left her earth-mind ashore. The swim . . . passed up out of happiness, through the spheres of delirium, into the region where our life is as we would have it be: a home holding the quiet of the heavens, if but midway thither, and a home of delicious animation of the whole frame, equal to wings.” Matey was pursuing her. “ He had doubled the salt sea’s rapture, — and he had shackled its gift of freedom. She turned to float, gathering her knees for the funny sullen kick.” There is a true descriptive phrase! “Their heads were water-flowers that spoke at ease. . . . They swam silently, high, low, creatures of the smooth green roller. He heard the water-song of her swimming.” But it will not do to extract sentences from their setting; I will make only one more quotation. “The pleasure she still knew” — returning to shore — “was a recollection of the outward swim, when she had been privileged to cast away sex with the push from earth, as few men will believe that women, beautiful women, ever wish to do.”
As to the truth of this, let some woman who is a swimmer testify; if it is true, the full, adequate appreciation of swimming can never be written by a man.