Is there room, amongst your rightful worries, contemplations of what you’re living through, and what you’re wondering for the future, for me to take your hand and guide you back to the hot summer of 1975? You might not remember it. Indeed you might not even have been alive then, but trust me, Middlesex Swim Club, Darien, Connecticut 1975 is a good place to be.
I’ll walk you up the wooden steps to the entrance gate. Pretty steep for a kid’s legs, even my long skinny eight year old’s, but we’ll manage. There’s a black cast-iron swing gate to push through, at the top of the stairs with vertical bars set a kid’s foot width apart, perfect for catching a ride on in the quieter hours at the club when the lifeguards don’t mind if you stand on its base while your friends push you back and forth on the hinge. Careful not to put your fingers too close to that hinge, they could get a pinch as I can attest by the scar on my right pinkie where it once got caught (OUCH!) and later had to be sewn up by, I kid you not, Dr Raah!
Anyway, step up onto the green astro carpet and glance to your left where the club’s record holders names and times are recorded on a big board. All the boys’ and girls’ age groups and relay teams swimming from 8 to18 and under are included. Diving is there too and if you’ve got a sec you can find my brother, Jeb, listed for diving, my big sister, Kathleen, for backstroke and a spot I’m gunning for in the 8 and under 25m breaststroke.
It’s mid-July and we’re making our way through the swim team season – practices at 8am for an hour before the pool opens and again in the late afternoon for another hour just before dinnertime at 5pm. It’s been hot. “Adult Swims” have had to be called when the pool has been so busy the lifeguards whistle to clear it of kids to let the moms and dads have a peaceful lap or two or just a dip to cool off free of “cannonballs” and splash fights.
We sign in at the desk on the right. You have to put your family name on the form and the number of guests coming in. I guess to keep tabs on how many of us are streaming in to use the facilities, although I don’t ever recall a maximum capacity being hit or the pool gate being closed to hopeful swimmers. Aaah, remember now it’s the seventies when it was permanently (for better or worse) truly, like they say nowadays, “chill”.
As you walk on to the main stretch of cement, overlooking the pool, you’ll see on either side burnt-out grass covered in towels and the chairs arranged for the spectators along the length of the edge of the pool. Loungers have been put away to make more space for the team and their supporters. We aren’t coming for a leisurely excercise. No, we’re here for a big meet to determine if Coach Sangster’s team can win another Division Championship for Middlesex and head off to the State Champs with some serious summer swimming kudos.
There are nerves in the air as we walk down to our corner of the grass where the team has hung groovy surfer “Hang Ten” towels over the fake red cedar wooden fences with signs saying “Go Middlesex!” and the likes. If you want you can wave at my mom by the timers’ table as she and her fellow timers collect their watches and then pull them over their heads to dangle from their necks until it’s time to time a race. My dad is somewhere in the crowd talking to neighbours and no doubt keeping an eye on my little sisters: three-year-old Patty and six-year-old Mary Kate who hasn’t quite decided to join the rigours of the swim team practices and meets. Mary Kate’s probably playing with Missy Millar to be honest or riding her new light blue banana seat bike out in the parking lot.
Check out the flags hanging across both ends of the width of the pool to mark the last meters to the wall so backstrokers can count their strokes into a flip turn or a strong finish. There are nerves, as I said, but even more an excitement amongst the crowd, the coaches, and the teams. An energy building in the wonder of what will happen come race and result time. Will all the training have paid off? Will swimmers remember the kicking and breathing rules so no DQs (disqualification) are called, remember their stroke techniques and how to make the most of their starts from the blocks? Everyone is wondering, in the back of their minds – WHO WILL WIN? As they greet each other. Hope they’ve done enough to prepare for this moment. Oh, and pass out red Jell-o packs to dip your finger in and lick the sugar off “For energy”(remember we’re pre-FDA regulations curtailing food dye consumption).
Over the swim club PA, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Claire” will be turned down so the announcer can alert us it’s time for team cheers. Our cue to gather in a huge circle of psychedelic patterned speedos. We’re the blue and green team in case you forgot. You’ll have to excuse the speedos which all pretty much have saggy bottoms at this point in the summer. They’ve been snagged and bobbled by directly sitting in them on the warm cement eating a popsicle during a round of Crazy Eights and then standing up only to have them pulled by the velcro-like connection of the synthetic swimsuit material detaching from the sear of the pavement. You might also notice some of the swimmers have goggles wrapped around their wrists which they wore to protect their eyes from the chlorine during the warm up swim. Only if you are one of the big kids, like Gina Leighton who was destined for the Olympics, will you be racing in them. All us mere mortals would periodically try and dive in wearing a pair of goggles for a race only to have the slack rubber straps roll the eye pieces down the length of our faces upon immersion into the water. We’re wearing our google bracelets because we want to be like Gina and some day good enough to aspire to represent our country.
So we’ll gather and the captains (an 18&under boy and girl) will stand in the middle of the circle and take turns shouting out “Give me an M!” You’ll learn, once again, how to spell ‘Middlesex’ this summer even anticipating how the last three letters will make the older kids laugh a bit without really understanding why. We’ll go ahead and just laugh along with them— loving being part of the team. Loving being part of something bigger than little ‘ole me who missed the swim season last year when I broke my arm playing Kick the Can with our neighbours up on Alpine Lane one block up from the swim club.
A summer at the pool of doing practices of laps and laps and laps, has been the rite of passage to call ourselves one of the team. Already the training and swimming our hearts out in races, winning or losing, has earned us a place to be here. The team stands in that circle and cheers for the moment, for each other. Taking time to recognise each race will count and how collectively, if we all want to win the only way we can do it, is by being a positive part of it all. Sure, Gina lapping her competitors in freestyle to win her race is fun to watch especially, because she has the most exquisite stroke gliding through the water, but her race, her first place, only counts for 5 points and there are about 70 races to be swum today. All of us need to contribute – each 1st, 2nd and 3rd -no matter what the colour of your ribbon, each one counts. Each individual swimmer counts.
Try and feel that surge of what you can do when you work well together towards something positive. Before you know it, you’ll realise it’s not just the power of what you are doing, but the experience of the joy and the fun, too. And how together, we can make something good happen in the ways of the world.
In 1975 we were still throwing peace signs at each other and giving thanks for the safe return of troops from Vietnam. Living in the hope they would be honoured as much for their services as generations before and after.
In 1975 we were reaping the benefits of the ban on DDT making steps to contribute to the Keep America Beautiful campaign as encouraged by the crying Native American man ads not to pollute. We were also watching, PBS’ Big Blue Marble which was encouraging us to communicate inter-culturally and to consider world ecology.
In 1975 Gerald Ford was president having come into the role post Nixon’s Watergate scandal. Seeds toward cynicism for our politicians and government were surely being sown then, but don’t let that stop you from appreciating how hard the job must’ve been with Ford presiding over the worst economy in four decades, growing inflation and a recession. We did not know it yet, but in next year’s election, he would loose to Jimmy Carter, however, through the grace of both men, he would find a way to set aside their enmity and go on to develop a close friendship with his former rival.
It’s hard to believe my memories of 45 years ago bring such echos to today’s world issues.
Yet my nostalgic dip is actually helping me to remember how the world has been through some of this stuff before and how it can emerge from these experiences. No doubt there will be scarring as distinct as the white one across the pad of my pinkie finger, but I hope no permanent damage. I’m hoping if we can share the weight of our burdens across our team we can come together without division. Our team being our family, our country, our world.
And at this point, can I share with you where our team might take inspiration? Richard Attenborough, at ninety- years-old, has made a film he’s calling his witness statement to the world acknowledging where we are in the natural world and what we can do to start fixing things. If you haven’t had a chance yet, please can I encourage you to spend the time watching “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet”. You’ll see how he acknowledges the serious state of our world, but offers some concrete suggestions on how things can be improved. He gives even my 1970’s optimism a place to dream in 2020.
And now, the roar of the crowd poolside is picking up. I’ll have to leave you for a moment to watch while I take my turn in the race. My hair is pulled tight in a pony tail as I wring the tension through my hands awaiting the starter to call us onto the blocks. I step up, put my toes on the edge of the slanted stand, and upon hearing, “On your marks” grab on and pull myself back to launch myself off and out above the water when the starter’s gun pops. I’ll try and stay airborne for as long as possible and then remember to take just one long pull and one kick underwater to see if I can make the most of my nervous, coil of energy released into the competition. The crowd is silenced for those submerged moments underwater and it’s a wonderful balance of them cheering me on while I internally urge every muscle to push myself forward. I know we are all tired of the news, but it’s critical now to step up and do our part to contribute to the team. Whether it’s a vote or a mask or a kind, reaching out —to share, the likes of red Jell-o, sweet energy, let’s make sure we keep our team strong by encouraging each other and appreciating what each individual race means and what each individual contributes.
Finally, if you’ve joined in, don’t forget to count your good luck, that your mom will be there on the far side of the pool after each trial, ready to hug you dripping with water, no matter what the time says on her stopwatch. Even if it’s just a memory, it will feel good to behave in the manner we were taught way back when we were eight.
*Listening to our hearts *Respecting others *Sharing *Including everyone *Standing up to bullies *Turning off the lights and not littering (and in my personal eight-year-old case) *Singing along to Captain and Tennille’s Love Will Keep Us Together