Surprising Skills

Some fathers think they have a great sense of humor when they don’t. My father was such a man and I have the stories to prove it. I learned to swim at Emerald Bay in Lake Tahoe back in 1956. My family used to rent a little cabin above the lake and its crystal clear water inlet each summer. I learned to water ski on the surface of that lovely stretch of water, but only after I learned to swim.

My father and I were on our way to do a little fishing We hiked down to the little village, stopping along the way to each get a Nesbitt’s Orange from the machine, one of those trunk like boxes that you had to reach in and drag the bottle by its top over to where a little turnstile let you pull it out if you’d put your nickel in the machine. We also picked up some night crawlers for bait before we headed out to the end of the long and wide public dock.

As we walked along the pier, admiring the way we could so clearly see the bottom of the lake even as it fell away deeper and deeper, my dad turned to me and said “Boy, have you learned to swim yet?”

“Nossir,” I replied. “Mom says she’s going to enroll me in lessons at school next year.”

My dad reached over and took the rod from my hands and said, “Son, there’s no time like the present.” and shoved me off the dock into about 12 feet of water. I began to spurt and flail, coughing and choking on the water that ran into my mouth faster than I could spit it out. I was so busy choking, I couldn’t yell for help, but a couple of guys setting up a Sailfish, a small sailboat just one step above a surfboard, hopped into the water and guided me to where it was shallow enough to stand. Meanwhile, a couple of the fisherman atop the dock had seen the even and thought it was downright unacceptable for a grown man to pick on a little boy, and took it upon themselves to explain their position to my dad. My dad managed to see the error of his ways, but with great difficulty trying to see out of the two swollen and blackening eyes he was sporting, thanks to my saviors. After delivering their opinion to my father, they chucked him off the pier –but I don’t think they were trying to tech him to swim. As my dad passed me on the way to shore, he gave a dagger eyes, but didn’t say anything. Instead, he stomped home, angry at the world and stretching the tolerance of his Presbyterian upbringing using language he rarely resorted to. Talk like that was reserved to hammering his thumb trying to start a nail, or learning that my mother miscalculated a parking space and sheared a fire plug off at its base while altering the designer’s idea for the shape of her Thunderbird.

On the other hand, I went on back to the pier and recovered our gear, and made my way to the end to try for a couple of trout. While there, I was chatting with a couple of the residents –who offered to show me the basics of swimming. I accepted and they taught me the basics right there in Emerald Bay.  About the same time, I got an offer to learn to water ski, and to my delight and joy, found that I was taught the basics of that water sport tied to the back of a Cessna 172 with floats attached. Yep, I took my first pratfalls off of water skis being towed by a sea plane.

My father was furious with the man who was showing me the roaps, and the man, a guy names West, was also the pilot of the charter plane that ferried us up from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe. I should mention here that the rgument was significnt enough that we rented a car for the trip home, West refusing to do business with an over protective child bully, which is what he called my father. My mom, who sided with West in both the argument over how to each a kid to swim and how to water ski, managed to get home hours before us kids and my dad, what with her riding in West’s pontooned Cessna.

Until he died, my dad asserted that I could have been minced in the Cessna’s propeller, although it seemed pretty obvious to the rest of us that such a thing was highly unlikely, what with the propeller on the plane up front and all. I seemed to the rest of us that a boat propeller was more likely to inflict damage to a hapless ski student.  When I say till he died, I’m serious That’s one argument that spanned almost as much time as the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys.

I actually really learned to water ski behid a beautiful mahogany Chris Craft inboard with my dad at the controls the following year. By then, my swimming skills were improved at school, where I was a student of the Palo Alto Military Academy.  But my first real intoduction to swimming came from tt unxpected shove from the dock on that warm summer morning. Thanks to that, and the privilege of living right on the shores of Long Island Sound, much of my youth was immersed in water.

Kinda fitting, I think.

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