Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

How to teach a fish out of water to swim

The first person who asked me to teach her to swim was a well-groomed, wealthy woman in her 30s. We went to Cedar Creek for these lessons. I had no training for this job because I was only 15 years old, but the woman offered to pay me 50 cents each lesson.

We waded out till the water was chest deep on me, navel deep on her. We splashed some water on our arms and shoulders and then I said, "Cup your hands like this and bring some water up to wash your face." I did it, but she said, "Oh, no! My face hasn’t had water on it for over four years!" I explained that she couldn’t swim without getting down into the water and therefore there would be no lessons. I had a short swim being careful not to splash water on her and she drove me home. At age 15 1 didn’t even know women used cleansing creams, cold creams, vanishing creams and the like.

The earliest written swimming instructions I’ve located began like this: "To teach yourself to swim, wade out from shore to chest deep water and turn toward shore. This suggests that swimmers taught themselves in creeks, lakes, rivers or other natural water holes. The next maneuver the writer proposed was to "turn facing the shore and throw your body on the water, flailing your arms and legs violently."

The next paragraph began, "In some cases there will be forward motion."

That was written 150 years ago! Having a lifetime of experience in teaching this activity, I’ll agree that "swimming" means propelling one’s self in the water. However, flailing the arms and legs is the least effective way to learn that I can imagine!

Johnson’s "Scientific and Popular Treasury of Useful Knowledge," written 125 years ago puts it this way: "The specific gravity of the human body being greater than that of water, swimming, with man, is an artificial operation ... There is no better method than that suggested by Dr. Franklin: Let the learner wade out to where the water is breast-deep and turn toward shore ... Throw a white pebble before him and let him plunge after it. The resistance which the water makes to his struggles will buoy him up. The moment he has acquired sufficient confidence and command of his limbs to strike out regularly, he has learned to swim." He added, "Corks and floats of any kind are a hindrance rather than an aid in learning to swim."

My 100-year-old Encyclopedia Britannica advises that, "By going to a salt water beach to learn, all artificial aids such as floats, corks, inflated bladders, etc., can be avoided." The author, H. F. Wilkinson, misunderstood Franklin’s teaching method when he said, "The floating power of the body is the first thing to be acquired."

Benjamin Franklin used an egg and asked the student to retrieve it when standing in chest deep water; thus the student discovered that he was naturally buoyant and not acquired.

In about 1900, the Australians introduced a crawl stroke. Americans, early on, improved on the method of using the legs. Today we hear it called "freestyle," and most racers swim the American crawl in that event, kicking three strokes with each arm pull.

Swimming is mentioned in the Bible’s book of Exodus and used by ancient Egyptians and others. The carvings in the ruins of Pompeii show swimmers using the sidestroke, which involves a delicate balance of the body. The earliest style of propelling the body was probably a loping breast stroke, perhaps not unlike the way I swam in Grindstone Creek about 80 years ago. More about swimming on another Tuesday.

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