After one traumatic day at the pool, a lifelong dread

Feb 22, 2012
Outside Magazine

Hydrophobia    Photo: Chris Buck; Prop styling by Sandra Swieder

HYDROPHOBIA NAMES NOT ONLY A FEAR but a disease—a generally fatal one, rabies, whose agonies of swallowing are stimulated by the sight of water, hence the name. Of course most phobias have at their root a fear of death, and my fear of water began, I believe, when my father, treading water in a swimming pool, invited me to jump from the tile edge into his arms; I did, and slipped from his grasp, and sank, and inhaled water for a few seconds. It felt, when I gasped, as if a fist had been shoved into my throat; I saw bubbles rising in front of my face as I sank down into a blue-green darkness.

Then my father seized me and lifted me back into the air. I coughed up water for some minutes, and my mother was very angry with my father for his mistake. Even then, it seems to me in the wavery warps of this memory, I took my father's side; he was, after all, trying to teach me to swim, a paternal duty, and it was just bad luck, a second's slip-up, that in fact he delayed my learning for several decades. Part of our problem, that traumatic summer day, was that we had little experience of swimming pools; not only did we have no pool ourselves, but no one in our neighborhood or circle of acquaintance did, in that blue-collar Depression world. We were not country-club people. It is a mystery to me how we found ourselves at that particular pool, in bathing suits. Nor do I know exactly how old I was—small enough to be trusting but big enough to surprise my father with my sudden weight.

Henceforth I knew what it was like to look through a chain-link fence at a public pool, its seethe of naked bodies in the sunshine, and inhale its sharp scent of chlorine, but not to swim in one. At the local YMCA, the pool was a roofed-in monster whose chlorinated dragon-breath, amplified by the same acoustics that made voices echo, nearly asphyxiated me with fear. Aged twelve or thirteen now, I tried to immerse my face in the water as the instructor directed, but it was like sticking my hand into fire; nothing could override my knowledge that water was not my element and would kill me if it could. At college five years later, where one had to pass a swimming test to graduate, I managed a froggy backstroke the length of the pool, my face straining upward out of the water while a worried-looking instructor kept pace at the poolside with a pole for me to grab in case I started to sink. I think I did sink, once or twice, but eventually passed the test, and stayed dry for years.

In the movies of my adolescence, Esther Williams smiled through the hateful element, using it to display her rotating body, but other movies, glorifying our wartime navy, showed sinking ships and sputtering submarines. One of my nightmares was of being trapped belowdecks and needing to force myself through adamant darkness toward air and light. My lungs felt flooded at the thought; my hydrophobia extended to a fear of choking, of breathlessness. Life seemed a tight passageway, a slippery path between volumes of unbreathable earth and water.

And yet, graduating from college, I took the Coronia to England, and contemplated the ocean calmly from the height of the deck, and slept behind a sealed porthole. Adulthood strives to right the imbalance of childhood, and to soothe its terrors. My fear of water eased as, in my mid-twenties, I moved with my wife and children to a seaside town. Paternity itself, with its vicarious dip into the amniotic fluids, made me braver, and the salty buoyance and the shoreward push of seawater were marked improvements over perilously thin fresh water. We bought a house by a saltwater creek in the marshes, and that was better yet; I plunged into our private piece of creek as if I were one with the grasses, the muddy banks, the drifting current, the overhead vapory clouds—one with the water, my body mostly water. By middle age I had learned to swim and take pleasure in it, but still tended to float on my back, and to keep my face averted from the murky, suffocating depths beneath me.