Drownings Unlimited

DAVID L. GRAHAM survived water polo at Yale, taught English at the University of Georgia, and served in the Navy during the war. A former Philadelphian, he now divides his time between Freeport, Maine, and New York.



UNTIL about ten years ago some of the Eastern colleges used to play a game called Water Polo, American Water Polo. This was as different from International (Olympic) Water Polo as football from soccer or maybe ping-pong. But college boys are not allowed to indulge nowadays — too rough, the authorities claim, too dangerous. Well, in a way it was rough — roughest game in the world probably, because no referee could enforce the rules, few as they were; but for that very reason it was a sweet straightforward game too, and there was no wrangling about what was fair and what wasn’t, because you could get by with anything.

The players suffered no bruises in water polo, no black eyes or bloody noses, no twisted knees and concussions. The only hazard was drowning. Of course it never came to that quite. If a fellow went limp and sank to the bottom of the pool and stayed there, somebody always noticed in time and hauled him out and got the pulmotor working on him.

It was a simple, manly sport, American water polo, conceived in the era of turtle-neck sweaters, open trolleys, and rugged individualism. Teamwork and finesse meant little. All you had to do was to get the man playing opposite you. To get him you drowned him — that is, you applied the kind of hold that would keep his face beneath the surface of the water and leave yours above (for breathing purposes). Under these conditions your opponent tired more quickly than you did, because your muscles would be getting oxygen and his wouldn’t. Man is not equipped by nature for extracting oxygen from water — I had this proved to me again and again. And without oxygen the fastest swimmer, the scrappiest fighter, soon wilts. After we had “drowned off” an opponent several times, he didn’t give us much trouble, becoming mushy and apathetic. We hated doing it, you understand, but that was the only way to play the game, the coach said.

You didn’t have to be a student of the game to understand water polo. There were the same positions as in ice hockey, three forwards and three backs, including the goalkeeper; otherwise the game was more like football. We played with a partially inflated rubber ball which could be gripped in the hand or tossed. By touching the ball against the goal, a 4-foot by 1½-foot board at each end of the pool, a player scored 5 points; by merely throwing the ball against his opponent’s goal, he scored 3 points.

Playing time, which meant time in the water, consisted of two halves of eight minutes each, which was plenty for a couple of good drownings. At the beginning of each half, the teams lined up at their respective ends of the pool; then, blowing his whistle to start the proceedings, the referee tossed the ball into the center of the pool and the players raced for it.

The memory of college days fades with the years, but I remember a certain part of New Haven in minutest detail — the bottom of Carnegie Pool, every grinning tile of it, every pipe and drain. Best of all I remember the gutters, the blessed gutters we could hang on to between scrimmages.

When the ball was down at the other end of the pool, you hooked your elbow in the gutter, you and your opponent, face to face, gasping for air, your lungs in your mouth. When the ball was returned, you were faced with a nasty dilemma. There were two things you could do and either of them could be fatal. If, making a lunge for the ball, you shoved off from the gutter first, your opponent might be able to leap off on top of you, which meant a drowning. But if you shoved off too late, he would be out there floating happily on his back, ready to kick you in the face. Kicking was the only effective way of striking an opponent, and to kick well you had to be on your back. Trying to slug anyone in the water was just a waste of energy.

Water polo had its own Golden Rule — which was not to let the other fellow do to you what you fondly hoped to do to him. In theory survival was assured by two regulations: (1) you were supposed to let a man up to breathe if he pinched you, which implied that the pincher was in extremis; and (2) you weren’t supposed to assault an opponent unless he was within four feet of the ball — to prevent the type of manslaughter that is called murder.

But as I say, rules never meant a great deal in water polo, because the serious side of the game went on under water where only a seal could have sat in judgment. All the referee saw usually was a mighty churning and thrashing, arms and legs flailing the water anonymously, and now and then a purple visage breaking the surface to gulp air. What mayhem, what foul play, went on below was a matter of conjecture and impossible to verify. Once when an old Eli protested to Ed Kennedy, the referee, that somebody had been biting him, and showed the teeth marks to prove it, Kennedy could only shrug and suggest that next time he get the attacker to identify himself by cutting his initials.

As for the pinching rule, we felt that letting a man up just because he pinched you was shortsighted and sentimental. If he pinched you he was in distress, and the longer he remained in distress the weaker he became and the pleasanter it was for you. Also the imminence of death by drowning gave players a superhuman strength which usually enabled them to break away and get to the surface.

Besides, there are certain rather authoritative ways of pinching. We preferred the back-strangle hold. This was hard to get on a man, being universally dreaded, but once in place it was unbreakable. You approached your opponent from the rear, slipping your arm gently under his chin (so as not to alarm him) and wrapping your legs about his body, octopus-like. Then, cuddling his chin decisively in the crook of your arm, you locked your hands to make him yours for keeps and tightened your legs to prevent his body from thrashing around.

Not only was the hapless fellow held as in a vise, but his head was under water while yours remained above. In addition, it was almost impossible for him to reach around and pinch you. About the best he could do was to try to break your toes — and there wasn’t much time for that — or to play dead. When a man played dead, it was difficult not to relax a trifle. But as soon as you relaxed, your man had a chance to wriggle out of even a back-strangle.

There were other holds —arm locks and head locks, and so forth, according to a player’s personal fancy. But anything that kept an opponent’s head under water answered the purpose. Merely placing your hand on top of a man’s head and keeping it; there was effective. And if a player had the carelessness or vanity to let his hair grow more than an inch long, you could haul him around like a dog on a leash. But the back-strangle hold remained the hold we dreamed of, because it meant that the victim was written off for the rest of the game, liquidated. Which made it worth while, since each team was allowed but two substitutes.

In water polo, it is significant to note, no holds were barred beneath the surface anyway. Hairpulling, ear-twisting, and biting were routine techniques with many players in the soundproof privacy of our underwater studio. At one institution of higher learning, indeed, where a rope separated the playing area from the remainder of an oversized pool, it was common practice to try to ensnare your opponent’s neck in the rope — mostly as a joke, of course, because it is impossible to hang a man in the water.

Although the injuries usually associated with athletics were all but unknown in water polo, the grand old game had its own bizarre list of occupational ills. Pinkeye, for example, and the common cold circulated relentlessly. Often we got all clawed up by somebody who had forgotten to keep his nails clipped — a matter of honor with most players — and cramps hit somebody nearly every day. The most unpleasant injury was the ruptured eardrum, and the most lasting souvenir which the game could bestow was sinus trouble. A Ph.D. researcher has reported that about 50 per cent of all who played water polo developed sinus trouble — and the other 50 per cent had it to begin with. Whenever you meet an old water polo player, the polite thing to do is to ask him how his sinus is.

Water polo owed much to the old-fashioned swimming suit. During a spirited scrimmage these flimsy cotton suits were often torn completely off. The referee would then have to stop the game while the nude player swam to the side of the pool and slithered voluptuously into a blanket — amid the happy stamping and whistling of the spectators. It may be significant that not long after the players took to wearing trunks (which could not be torn off) the public lost its zest for water polo. College authorities then stepped in quickly and abolished the grand old game. Only two or three athletic clubs, they tell me, still fool around with it. Well, I’m sorry, because somehow that game got a grip on you; and there was nothing like it, of course, to give a fellow confidence in the water.