"You can't swim?" My roommate John was peering owlishly at me through his wire-rimmed glasses, as if he had just seen my soul. John was one of those college freshmen who come out of prep school thinking they have terrific insights about practically everything, and right now he was having one about me. Which he was sharing with my other roommate.
John, in his 18-year-old wisdom, had noticed a certain ... character flaw in people who couldn't swim. A certain ... timidity, he was saying. A certain ... reluctance to plunge into life's adventures. A certain distrust in the natural environment, yes he had it now, a certain feeling of separation from Mother Earth, from the waters of the maternal womb.
Yes, I thought miserably, a certain cowardice.
Not that I lacked excuses. I was born in South Dakota, which by any fair definition has no water. My parents didn't swim. The pool where Mom took me for swimming lessons required us to float face down before advancing to the dogpaddle area, and my body wouldn't float. So I stood in the can't-float area for two awful months, watching other kids graduate to dogpaddle and beyond. Then I quit. I told Mom our Little League coach warned us not to get chlorine in our eyes before ballgames.
As a teen-ager I stood by the fence outside this pool and watched young Sonia Hart, a budding Miss South Dakota, perform swan dives into the water among the boys. Oh, I was heartsick. I watched my little cousins happily bob around in inner tubes at Lake Kampeska. (Okay, there is some water in South Dakota.) I watched my girlfriend and another boy go for a swim in their underwear one night. All I could do was watch. I had a certain ... disability.
Until I went to college, where I learned that this disability, this dread which my roommate diagnosed so casually, would not be tolerated. Swimming was, incredibly, a degree requirement. In lieu of phys-ed classes, we had to pass a modest set of physical tests. One was to swim 100 yards, any style.
This was a venerable all-male college with some odd traditions. One was that all males had to swim naked in the university pool. Consequently, swimming lessons involved little physical contact. The instructor taught us from the side of the pool, using a bamboo pole to fish us out if we got in trouble.
He saved my life with it one day. Using a kickboard, I had flapped across the university pool one too many laps, and as I climbed out my left leg cramped. I tried to shake it. My right leg cramped.
Thus paralyzed, I fell face first into the pool.
Some eternal seconds later, I emerged spitting water and clasping my instructor's bamboo lifeline. "Now you know how to dive," he said.
Eventually I learned to flap across the pool with a motion that he called the elementary backstroke and that I visualized as the upside-down frog stroke. One day I swam 100 yards this way. I didn't go back.
As an adult I tried to get by with my elementary backstroke, even after moving to Florida, a state surrounded by water. I went canoeing in rivers, hoping I wouldn't tumble out in a deep spot. I went canoeing in lakes wearing an orange vest that practically screamed, "He can't swim!" I hopped into friends' pools and ambled lazily around on my back, feigning that I had a choice of swimming styles.
On weekends I floated in the Gulf on a tanning raft and prayed not to get bumped off by a wave or a big fish. Then, one brave day, I tried sharing my raft with a woman. It capsized, and into the water we went.
In my case, this caused an immediate, familiar and disappointing physical reaction: panic. Both legs cramped. I thought I was going to drown.
"I can't get back up!" I yelled helplessly.
"I'm standing on the ground," she replied.
She told me I was a fool to take such chances, and I certainly looked it. I thought about this for two years, and then I made a solemn pledge: In the year 1990, I will learn to swim.
1991 began with resolutions and a dose of guilt. One January day, I walked one block from my newspaper office to the downtown St. Petersburg YMCA and asked, as softly as I could, what hours "adult lessons" were taught. Thankfully I saw nobody I knew.
Adult swim was the last class of the night. Better yet, I was the only student.
Beth, my new swimming instructor, had won a national championship when she was 14. At 70 she still swam like a dolphin, and she assured me that many, many frightened adults had learned how to swim in her class. She also told me many adults overcome their fear of the water long enough to pay for lessons, but then they don't show up. This night she had expected four adults. She got me.
We began with the basics. Taking a breath, putting my head underwater, blowing air out, surfacing. She asked me to try imitating a crawl stroke in shallow water, and I obligingly flailed my arms and fluttered my legs. She asked me to try an elementary backstroke. I flipped onto my back and glided easily across the pool.
"Oh," she exclaimed happily, "what we have is a face-in-the-water problem."
Half-hour lessons came and went. Beth was patient and encouraging. At any faint sign of progress she would exclaim, "You're doing great!" One night I noticed having my face in the water wasn't such a problem. We counted milestones. The night I swam the width of the pool. The night I swam from the deep end to the shallow end. The night I swam from the shallow end to the deep end. The night I swam two laps. The fateful night I took a deep breath, jumped feet first into the deep end _ and came up again.
After months of solo lessons, some other adults came to Beth's night class. One man had four kids and a boat. He envisioned helplessly watching one of his kids drown someday. Another had helped race sailboats across the Caribbean, but couldn't swim. He had been terrified of water ever since his big brother tried to teach him to swim by tossing him from a boat. Another was a colleague at the paper. He wasn't thrilled to see me. Sure, he could swim, he had told a new girlfriend who invited him to go sailing. "Now you know my dirty little secret," he said.
They stood with Beth at the shallow end of the pool, as I had months before, learning to bob and breathe and thrash across the pool. I moved to the deep end and worked on technique. Lifelong swimmers must think fearing water is awfully strange, I thought. As strange as fearing the outdoors.
I decided we were a brave bunch, to face our phobia. I also realized I was glad, so glad, to have come for lessons first when nobody but Beth could watch me learn. And I wondered where my roommate John was, because I wanted to tell him something.
David Olinger is a Times staff writer. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.