Miscellany – My Panic Started With Two Little Words: Swim Test

Summer has decided to unpack and stay awhile, so this is a good time to reflect on summers past. One summer about 19 years ago stands out immediately in my memory.

I was 10 or 11 years old, and it was my first year at Boy Scout camp in central Missouri. I was a timid boy with what were identified as some “sissy” qualities, and this first year of a six-year stint of summers was to be my inaugural attempt to “toughen up.”

During this particular summer, though, I was swept up in a brief emotional journey that would haunt me for years.

Our first day at camp was a whirlwind of nervousness and feeling intimidated by being around the older boys. As soon as we had selected our tents, we were herded like cattle down to the swimming pool for what I deduced from eavesdropping was to be our “swim test.” Instant panic began to suffocate my heart. I was terrified of water, and here my nemesis would undoubtedly prevail.

When I entered the swimming pool area, I was aghast at the carefree way that fellow campers exposed themselves in preparation to go and swim. I, taking the advice from the film A League of Their Own, was a stern believer in the principle that “a true lady reveals nothing.” Therefore, I carefully disrobed from my Bart Simpson T-shirt, mindful not to flash my pale breasts to the world, and proceeded to the edge of the pool, ready to fail my test.

We were required to swim one lap around the pool, culminating in a jab to the ribs from a large plastic pipe held by one of the camp staff members. Upon completing this test, you were given a blue bead to wear around your neck, indicating that you could swim in all the areas of the pool. My fear mounted as my turn approached. I silently hoped that I could just make it around the pool and be done with it.

I was told to “go,” and jumped in, immediately inhaling chlorinated water into my nose and gagging. Nostrils burning, I attempted to doggy-paddle around the pool, which lasted about 15 feet. At this point, I was jabbed in my side and instructed to get out.

Elated that I had been recognized for my advanced intellect and thus exempted from this primeval charade, I attempted to climb out of the pool. I remember the flesh tearing from my feet as I oafishly exited (the engineers of this pool had decided to use sandpaper for the surface).

I hobbled over to the spot I was told to go and was introduced to my new nemesis, the yellow bead. This bead represented everything I hated about myself. Yellow, the color of “piss your pants too scared to swim,” as my fellow campers would explain, meant that I was restricted to the shallow end of the pool and that I was a “beginner.” I was crushed.

I knew that I often allowed my mind and my fear to restrict me from enjoying life due to obsessive-compulsive scenarios of impending doom that would play about in my mind. But there on that day my fear had manifested in a plastic bead tied around my neck.

I had let myself down. Sure, I was afraid of the water, but I knew how to swim. I had taken lessons and wasn’t that bad at it. Rather I had let myself be intimidated by the other campers and had been fearful that I was unequal because I wasn’t as “rough and tough” as they were.

I was in fact a male and had the same qualities as they did, but was more compassionate, empathetic, and sensitive. I knew my strengths and fostered those instead of “killing things, playing sports, and cruising for chicks.” But here I was segregated, alone. I would be the only “beginner” in my troop. I was no ambassador, but rather the freak.

Now that I look back, I see how quickly time passed, but at that moment it was the world and I wasn’t a part of it. Those same feelings have recurred but have never been as clear and defining as they were then. It was truly an epiphany.

I find myself very turned off by the shallow at heart. Perhaps it’s just that young version of myself standing there reluctantly with my shirt off, wearing that stupid yellow bead and wanting nothing more than to escape and go someplace among the few, the proud, the different crowd.