Nothing Up My Sleeve

Jon Gallagher

Sink or Swim


You’re never too old to learn something new. 

Never quit.

Those are two of my philosophies in life.  I haven’t always had them, but since I’ve adopted them, I seem to accomplish a whole lot more.

About ten years ago, I was planning to take my two daughters and my fiancé to Florida to do the Disney World thing.  I’d always wanted to go visit The Mouse, but my parents never had the resources to take a vacation like that.  I wanted my kids to be able to do stuff that I never did.

I saved up all my tips from delivering pizzas for more than a year.  I added the money I made mowing a large lawn during the summer, and before I knew it, I had enough to pay for two adults and two kids to take the vacation of a lifetime.

Since we were going to spend a week in the Sunshine State, we decided to devote one day to travelling to Daytona Beach and spending our time there swimming in the Atlantic Ocean and frolicking on the beach.

That wasn’t going to be a problem for three of us.  See, my kids started going to summer swimming lessons as soon as they were offered.  Both of them were quite good and neither had a problem going off the diving board into the deep end.

My fiancé was also quite skilled in aquatics.  She’d been sent to swimming lessons just after she learned to walk, so she was excited about the possibility of finding some dolphins that she could swim with.

The three girls were fish.  I, on the other hand, had the swimming skills of a bowling ball.  I’d never learned how to swim.  There was no reason to learn.  I didn’t go on boats, I’d never seen an ocean, and when I did go to the pool, I tried to stay in shallow enough water that I didn’t get my swim trunks wet.

Once in high school, I’d been on an overnight band trip where we got to stay at a motel.  This particular motel had a swimming pool where a bunch of us elected to spend our free time.   Someone knocked me off the side of the pool and into the deep end.  I flailed away, trying to get back to the edge, but I was too busy panicking to do any actual swimming.  I must not have been thinking clearly because I evidently decided rather than to swim to the side, I’d just drink the pool and walk out.

Somehow, and I think it had to do with God reaching down and giving me a nudge toward the side of the pool, one of my flailing hands hit cement and I held on.  I pulled myself to the edge, then bellyflopped on the sidewalk surrounding the pool.  I remember someone asking, “Hey Jon, did you need some help there?” and replying, “No, I was drowning on my own pretty well.”

That incident played back in my brain any time the thought of learning how to swim came remotely close to my consciousness.

Then one day a few months prior to our trip, my dear older sister found out that we were planning a trip to Florida.  She assumed that somewhere along the line, I’d learned how to swim, and she brought that up.  I informed her that I planned to sit on the beach building sand castles while the girls played with the fishies.

She would have none of that nonsense.  I should go to the Y and learn how to swim according to her.

This is the same sister who, when I was much younger, tried to convince me to play in traffic, stick knives in toasters, and put my tongue against frozen poles during the winter.  Now she was suggesting I take swimming lessons at age 42. 

Then she told me that she was taking lessons.

Well that settled it.  There was no way my sister was going to learn how to swim before me!  I signed up for classes.

The classes were to be held at some un-Godly hour like 8AM.  That was during my days (or in this case, nights) as a pizza delivery guy, and I got home around 2AM, so the deal was almost pulled off the table as soon as it was put on.  Getting out of a nice warm bed to go out in the winter air, drive to Galesburg, and jump in a frigid pool was not my idea of a good time.  Still, I couldn’t let my sister beat me.

Sarah Brown was our instructor.  Fate had put both my sister and me in the same class.  Sis had already been through one or two sessions of lessons and was almost to the point of being able to float.  I told Sarah that I might be able to float if I was holding a whole bunch of helium balloons.

Sarah took her time with me, helped build my confidence, and before long, I could actually float on my back.  She taught me how to do “Chicken, airplane, jet,” which are arm movements to help propel you once you get that floating thing down.  Before long, I was not only floating, I was moving in the water.  Within weeks, I could go the entire length of the pool!

The hardest part of it all was making the decision to go.  The second hardest was scraping ice off my windshield in order to go to swimming lessons.

Once I put my mind to it, everything else seemed easy.  I may have looked ridiculous, arms and legs flopping and flailing, soaking the entire poolside area, but by God, I learned how to swim.  I wasn’t going to set any Olympic records (unless they keep track of how slow and uncoordinated someone is), but I could swim in the deep end without the lifeguards earning their pay.

When we got to Florida, I was ready.  I’d demonstrated my new found prowess in the water to my fiancé and kids, and I was chompin’ at the bit to head for the big bad ocean.  I was gonna swim!

I’m not sure what went wrong.

We drove a rental car from Orlando to Daytona Beach, and parked in an area just off the beach.  I noticed that there was a sign that told what time high tide was expected, but paid little attention to it.

When we got to the water, my family led me in.  The waves crashed against my tummy and I shook with anticipation.  They let go and I immediate jumped backward, toward the water, my arms doing the chicken, airplane, jet thing as fast as I could.  I figured I’d be landing on the west coast of Europe in a couple hours.

It didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t swimming.  I was making sand angels on the beach.  Someone stole the water.  It had been there a few seconds ago when I jumped.  It was even there when I landed because I remember the splash.  I couldn’t figure out what happened to it.

When I opened my eyes, I found the water.  It was coming right at me from straight overhead.  I think that’s what they call “a wave.”

I barely had time to close my eyes and hold my breath.  Of course, that did absolutely no good whatsoever because when the wave hit me, it crashed down on my stomach first, making me open my eyes and say, “OH…..”

And that’s when I got my first “taste” of salt water.  Everyone had told me that salt water is much easier to both swim and float in, but I think they forgot to mention that it tastes horrible.  I’m sure I would have remembered that part.

I got my wits about me and started doing the chicken, airplane, jet thing again, only to find that I was once again making sand angels.  I knew where this was headed, so I elected to get the heck out of there, doing a sit-up on the sand.

It was just about that same moment that the second wave hit me.  It didn’t do quite as much damage as the first one, but this time, I got to find out what sand tasted like since I was now face down on the beach.

Leaving, quickly, seemed like the best option available to me.

Little did I know that I was providing entertainment, not only for my own family (who were all just rolling in the sand with tears streaming down their cheeks), but for everyone else around as well.  I keep watching America’s Funniest Home Videos just in case I popped up on there.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wading in the ocean, getting bit by little fish, stepping on sharp sea shells, and being charbroiled by the sun.   As a souvenir, I decided to take half of the beach home with me, hidden in the creases of my swim trunks (I had sand in my underwear for the next month).

When we headed back to the car, I found out why they put up those little signs with the time of high tide on them.  That’s because if you park in that area, you should make sure your car is moved by the time on the sign.  Otherwise, your car is going to be in the ocean.

We had fifteen minutes to go before the time listed on the sign.  I took off in a gallop when I saw the car.  The ocean was about ten feet from the back bumper.  Of course, there were no other cars around our rental.  Everyone else knew what the little signs meant.

I managed to back the car out of the space and head for higher ground without too much problem.  I wasn’t sure if I could drive through wet sand or not, but only the passenger side of the car had to do that, so I guess it worked out.

That was the halfway point of the week’s vacation.  We spent the rest of the trip nursing our sunburns and having breakfast with Pooh Bear and supper with Alice in Wonderland. 

Even though I may not have officially swum in the ocean, I can still make my way from one end of the pool to the other without the lifeguard having to blow their whistle and ready their little contraption for CPR. 

Whenever I come up against something now that seems impossible, I think back to how a rock learned how to swim. 

Now if I could just learn how to jump off a diving board….