One of my favorite short stories is The Swimmer by John Cheever, made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster. In it Neddy Merrill swims across a suburban New York county, swimming pool by swimming pool. He stops to drink with his friends who sympathetically refer to his misfortunes and tell him of their own problems which he only vaguely remembers. He is turned away by his ex-mistress, and as he makes his way he is greeted with suspicion and pity. He swims every pool and finally loops back to his own house.
Neddy starts crying for the first time since childhood, feeling cold and confused. He thinks that he has just been swimming too long and needs a drink and dry clothes. He swims weakly across a few more pools. Finally, he reaches his own house. The lights are all off, and Neddy doesn’t know where everyone could be. Every door is locked, and no one answers when he knocks. He looks in the windows and sees that his house is empty.(Sparknotes)
It is a compelling, frightening story about madness, isolation, the maddening confines of suburbia, expectations, dreams, and disappointment.
I read today that drowning is the leading cause of child mortality in Bangladesh, outpacing the classic illnesses of the developing world, diarrheas and upper respiratory infections. Bangladesh is a low-lying country on the Bay of Bengal and water is everywhere. Silting of the Ganges upstream in India fills the river’s channel and during monsoon the water overflows its banks and floods much of the country. Powerful cyclones swamp the lowest-lying areas on the Chittagong delta, and thousands are killed yearly.
Yet over 40 percent of drowning deaths are not in times of flood or cyclone, but in the course of a normal day, and children drown in ditches, ponds, and rivers. Bangladeshi children never learn how to swim.
This is understandable and common in most developing countries where swimming lessons, summer vacations, and leisurely afternoons by the pool are only dimly imagined American activities. Even in countries like Bangladesh where fishing is common, neither crewmen nor wading net fishermen can swim.
The Center for Injury Prevention and Research Bangladesh (CIPRB) has initiated a program to teach Bangladeshi children to swim, but in a country of 158 million with nearly 50 million children under the age of 14, the task is daunting indeed.
Growing up I never knew anyone who couldn’t swim. We all swam at summer camp, the country club pool, off Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Rhode Island beaches. Swimming was second nature. We had no fear of the water, no matter how deep. We had learned how to swim the crawl when we wanted speed and distance, the backstroke when we needed a rest, and the breaststroke and sidestroke in calm waters. We could body surf, catching the curl of the wave at its high point and being swept into shore. I learned to row, canoe, and sail and knew that no matter what, I could always swim back to the boat or to shore. I swam well in lakes, oceans, and pools, and had I wanted to put in the work, I might have made the Yale swimming team.
I had only one chastening experience. A kayaking friend of mine suggested that we go down to the Jersey Shore and kayak the surf that had been kicked up by a hurricane that had just passed. The surf off of Neptune Beach was high and rough, and I quickly got upended. The water was shallow, my head was in the sand, and the weight of the water and the kayak pinned me down. When I finally righted myself and tried to swim to shore, I realized that I was being sucked out to sea by a powerful undertow. After fifteen minutes of effort, I finally made it to land.
My parents-in-law lived on a suburban lake not far from Washington, DC, and we swam all summer. My children learned how to swim there and soon became as at home in the water as I had ever been. One day we invited the Chinese exchange student who was staying with us to come to the lake. Although he said he could swim, I could tell by his flailing strokes that he could not. Before I could wave him back to the dock, he was going under. I swam out and pulled him in. He was from a solid middle class family, one of status and privilege, and I had assumed that he could swim. He, however, had more in common with a Bangladeshi than an American. Within a day, Cheng Wang’s near drowning was a cause celebre in the Washington Chinese community. The son of the Honorable Vice Minister for Education almost lost his life in a capitalist lake.
I spent many years in India and never saw Indians swimming. Ladies in their saris waded out a few feet into the Arabian Sea off Juhu Beach near Bombay, but never went in. Sophisticated Indians sat around the Oberoi pool in Delhi and watched the Lufthansa pilots do triple flips off the high-dive but never swam. I watched fishermen in Goa, thousands of pilgrims doing ablutions along the Ganges at Benares, holy men sipping the waters at the source of the river in Hardwar, but I never saw anyone swim.
I was the only one who swam at Juhu Beach, mindless of the sewage outfalls, abattoir refuse, and foul runoff from the potter’s colony close by. I did get stung by a large Portuguese Man ‘o War, a venomous lashing across my arms and chest which took months to heal. I decided to join everyone else spending leisurely hours over lobster and grilled pomfret.
I was the only foreigner swimming at Batu Ferenghi until an Australian warned warned me. “Watch out”, he said, “Sea snoikes ‘ll get ya.” Sea snakes are the deadliest creatures in the ocean, capable of killing an elephant, and one of the most dangerous of all vipers. They can easily match the krait, known in India as panch pad – a viper whose venom is so potent that if bitten, you will die after five steps.
I have swum in the most beautiful waters on earth – on the Samana Peninsula in the Dominican Republic; in the waters of Jacmel in Haiti; in isolated lagoons in Galle on the southern tip of Sri Lanka; in the Atlantic off the Corniche in Dakar; off unspoiled beaches in Mayotte and Phuket. I have swum in Fairy Lake in the Gallatin Range, Lake Champlain, Lake Mashpee.
I spent summers on Cape Cod and swam the waters of the bay and the ocean. Every winter my family took long winter vacations in Florida and I swam the Atlantic and the Gulf. Today I swim off of St. George’s Island in Florida and Jekyll Island in Georgia.
I have always taken swimming for granted, but the article on Bangladesh made me realize that most of the world doesn’t swim; and a recent re-read of The Swimmer reminded me of the iconic nature of the American pool. Cheever understood how the pool was a symbol of Post-War wealth and suburban status, how swimming is vigorously healthy and quintessentially American, and how it is a feature of solid, middle-class American life. Cheever wrote long before Bruce Brown’s Endless Summer, but both works are about American image. While Brown’s vision was elegiac and strengthened if not created the California brand, Cheever’s was dark and brooding.
The older I get the colder the water seems to be. I will only go in if the temperature is over 80F. The warm Gulf waters off of Apalachicola or off the coast of South Carolina where the Gulf Stream comes close to shore are perfect. I can float and loll for hours.
Whenever I think vacation, I think of water. There is something confining and threatening about mountains. I like the brightness of beaches, and the powerful serenity of rivers. Lakes are peaceful. Ponds are quiet. When I was younger, all I wanted to do was swim in them. Now I am happy just to be close to the water.