It's that time of year again—swimming season. The Doc and I have lived in the same house now for thirty years, and since the pool was here when we bought the house, by now, I am an expert in all things poolish.
Evidently, the pool was added by a former Enema U football coach, who—like all the other football coaches—had a losing season and left town (probably before the pool was filled). According to the realtor, the team had such a losing season that, during one of the games, some disgruntled fan stole a car, and drove it through the wall of the garage. When I heard this, I had a John Updike moment: this house was pre-disastered! So, we bought the house immediately.
Before we get any further in this story, I should tell you that—if you are smart—you do not want a pool. Well, you may want one, but don't get one. If you are not convinced, perform a small experiment. In the center of the most useful section of your backyard, dig a small, but fairly deep, inconvenient pit. Put about five pounds of rusty rebar and broken glass in the bottom to make it realistically dangerous. After that, at least twice a week, jog around the pit until you are tired and sweaty, then pay every kid in the neighborhood $5 each to come and piss into the pit. Danger, inconvenience, work, money and urine—yep, that about sums up a pool. Don't get me wrong—I have enjoyed (and still enjoy) my pool, but have paid dearly for the privilege.
When we moved in, The Doc and I already had a toddler—What's-His-Name—and a second tricycle motor—The-Other-One was on the way. The Doc took one look at the backyard and immediately decreed that we had to have a security fence all the way around the pool. I agreed, I didn't want either one of the rug rats to accidentally drown.
So, I got quotes. Have you ever priced a metal security fence? You could build a five strand barbed wire fence around all the good grazing land in Southern New Mexico—both acres—for less money than it takes to put up a cute little four-foot security fence to enclose less land than it takes to make a good tomato garden.
I told my wife that I had a better idea, since no fence in the world would keep our sons out of anything, there was only one secure method of keeping the kids safe—we would have to teach the boys to swim just as soon as they could walk—anything else was too dangerous!
Now, when I said that, it was all bullshit—I was just too cheap to pay for that damn security fence. But, it turned out that I accidentally stumbled into brilliance. You really can't protect boys from a damn thing. (If you are still not convinced, read this.)
So, I taught the boys to swim. I made tons of mistakes, and during the long, loud, and profane process, most of the neighbors thought I was torturing the boys with power tools. From the screaming of those two small children, they were justified in their beliefs. In the end, both boys really learned how to swim—and by the time The-Other-One was about four, his mother would go into hysterics to find him sitting on the drain in the deep end of the pool calmly using my scuba tanks. The boys damn near developed gills.
Those boys spent so much time in chlorinated water that their hair first tuned white, then a rather strange shade of light green. I never did solve that pH problem in the pool water, though even this had an unforeseen benefit—even though I am face blind, I could always locate the boys in a crowded room. There just aren't that many extremely short, deeply-tanned punk rockers.
But, that was not the correct way to teach small children how to swim. It worked on my two sons, but it took weeks. However, after 30 years of practice, I have taught enough children to swim that I can now offer you a simple system for teaching children to swim.
Learning to swim does not involve floaties, padded bathing suits, or any form of flotation device. Seriously, when your child needs to swim, just how likely are they to have these things on? Sure, kids have fun in them, but they will never learn to swim looking like the Michelin Man taking a bath. If you won't let your child in the water without these aquatic crutches, you aren't ready for the child to swim.
There are a couple of conditions to the swimming lessons. First, you have to teach the child without his/her parents around. If the mother won't drop off the kid for about two hours and leave you in charge, forget it. As long as Mom is sitting nervously in the backyard, offering advice at every step, the child will never see you as the Authority Figure, and will never learn to swim. It's as simple as that.
Second, the child must be able to hold his breath and count to five. If she can't do that, you are wasting your time. It really doesn't matter how old he is, he just has to be able to hold his breath for five seconds.
Assuming you still have an attentive student, take him/her to the shallow end of the pool, as there is no need for water deeper than the child's height. Spend at least fifteen minutes having the child hold her breath, first above the water, then underwater. Standing in shallow water (or on the steps for younger children), the child bobs up down in the water like a top. If you can get the child to do this, you have already mastered the hard part: the child has relaxed enough in the water to pay attention to what you are telling him to do.
During this whole process, be lavish with you praise when the child does something correct, and firm when the chid does not comply. By the time the new swimmer is asked to do something difficult, she will already be used to obeying you.
After 15 minutes of this, have the child lie face down on the water for five seconds, then stand back up. This transition takes a little time and patience, but by now the child is so encouraged by the obvious progress, that he will make the transition, and once he complies, it is very simple to have him lie face down, make a stroke or two with his arms and feet, then stand back up.
The child will be astounded to see that she has actually moved a few feet in the water—that she has swum. From this point, it is simply a matter of distance and speed. He will quickly learn to lift his head out of the water to breathe, and though the tendency at first is to do this every two to three seconds, he is still swimming.
Taking the average of the students I have taught, after two hours the child will be able learn to swim sideways across the pool without touching the bottom. This really is a simple system.
By the way, if you want kids to really be safe around the pool, you will have to make them practice occasionally with their clothes on, and if the pool is filled during the winter, they will have to swim at least a couple of times when the water is way too cold. The child should swim at least far enough in cold water to get back to the side of the pool if they accidentally fall in. This is when the screaming part of the lessons comes back. (My sons erroneously believe this occurred in January, and The Doc correctly believes I enjoyed chucking them into the cold October water.)
And last of all, listen to The Doc, and build that fence anyway.