From the Vault: Swimming Lessons

By Eilene Lyon

The “From the Vault” series features an artifact or family photo from my collection to illustrate a tale from my distant past.


In retrospect, I’m grateful my parents insisted we learn to swim as young children. That doesn’t mean I enjoyed the process, though. I don’t recall where I first began taking lessons, but these Red Cross certificates date from our time on a Naval supply depot in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

We lived in Pennsylvania for my 3rd through early 6th grade years. The base was a wonderful place to grow up. A tight-knit neighborhood with lots of kids. A golf course. An indoor pool and a park. A hidden Revolutionary War-era cemetery—very spooky. I loved it.

We lived in the unit at far left in this quadplex for three and half years.

My recollections of swimming lessons are that they always took place way too early on summer mornings. The pool was always freezing cold. I had to wear an awful, dorky rubber swim cap that smelled of latex. Lap after lap kicking across the pool while holding onto a foam board.

Eventually, as these cards attest, I mastered the freestyle, back stroke, and side stroke. I can sort of pass for doing breast stroke, but my legs just don’t quite get it right. We also learned to dive, float, and tread water.

I did enjoy playing in the pool on hot afternoons. We might get up a game of Marco Polo or toss a beach ball around. See how big a splash we could cannonball out of the pool. My dad was fun to have a swim with. He would crouch in the bottom of the shallow end and let us climb on his shoulders, then he would jump up and toss us as far as he could.

One particular lifeguard sticks in my mind. He was buff, with short dark hair and thick, black-rimmed glasses. He insisted that all the girls wear bathing caps, but the boys didn’t have to, no matter how long their hair. The injustice irked me. I asked how short hair had to be to avoid the cap: three inches.

I had my mom cut my hair so all of it was less than three inches long. Then I went splashing happily away sans bathing cap.

TWEET!! went the lifeguard’s whistle and he waved me out of the pool. Damn if he didn’t actually pull out a ruler and measure my hair! He did not seem to appreciate my smirky attitude. I don’t think I’ve changed much since then.

This is behind our unit where the giant sunflowers were growing as seen in the next pictures.
This is not the three inch haircut. It truly looked awful. The top photo expresses my personality much better than the bottom one. Don’t you love my banana bike?

35 thoughts on “From the Vault: Swimming Lessons

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  1. I grew up far from you, in St. Louis, Missouri, but I experienced those swimming lessons too! However we didn’t get cards and I didn’t learn to swim in that freezing cold water. My best friend’s mom was a gym teacher; on many warm summer days she took us to a local pool. We had a lot of fun, but she also taught me to swim on those trips. I learned well enough to later get certified to scuba dive!

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    1. The how isn’t really important, is it. I’m glad you have fun learning to swim and got your scuba cert. I got mine about 2010, but I still prefer snorkeling. Something about being deep and not being able to pop up to the surface gives me the willies. Sort of like claustrophobia. Too much dependence on tech.

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  2. Good for you for pointing out how ridiculous those rules were. I also hated that boys could wear regular gym shorts in gym at school and we had to wear those awful gym suits and boys could wear jeans to school and we had to wear skirts or dresses. GRRRR.

    I also have my Red Cross swim cards somewhere. I wonder if those still exist? Do kids still get those? I don’t remember my kids getting them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And it hasn’t changed, either. Witness what happened at the Olympics recently.

      I don’t know if that Red Cross program still exists or not. I would think so, but maybe now kids have other options.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hahaha! Quite the rebel, good for you! I failed “tadpoles” It took me three tries to pass. I think swim lessons should be mandatory for all kids. A life skill we should all have.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is fun. I remember those Red Cross swim cards. I had them, too. I also remember Tadpoles, but couldn’t tell you when I took that class. I’m sorry you didn’t like your swim classes. I liked mine until I got to the diving board one, then I lost interest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe if the water had been warm, no chlorine, no bathing caps, later in the day, etc. I’m sure part of me enjoyed it, but that isn’t my overall impression. Diving really sucked. I always felt like I was getting pounded on the head with a hammer when I hit the water.

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  5. When I was in high school (a private Quaker coed boarding school) girls had to wear either knee socks or stockings. Once the weather turned warm I hated having to put on either. I decided to use an eyebrow pencil to paint a dark brown line down the back of my leg to look like seamed stockings (this was 1964 after all). It worked for a few weeks until the dean caught!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great story, Trish! I’m glad you got away with it for at least a little while. Stockings and panty hose were utterly miserable things, but when I was in 6th grade, I desperately wanted to be allowed to wear them. Silly me.

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  6. I admire your rebelliousness in not wanting/having to wear that bathing cap Eilene. Grrr to the lifeguard measuring your hair length! I remember the bathing caps from gym pool time in Junior High. They pulled your hair and the chin strap pinched your skin and I’m sure I lost some hair every time I wore it. All that aggravation and I’ve never learned how to swim. I do like your collection of cards you’ve kept all these years. I’m a keeper too and lots of fun stuff my mom kept from my youth, then I added to her collection as I grew older.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Linda. Those caps were not pleasant in any way. If one person has to wear one, then everyone should. Sorry that you didn’t learn to swim. I think it’s true that we know how instinctively as infants. But we forget and have to relearn.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Methinks that lifeguard overstepped his authority, by . . . wait for it . . a hair. Okay, way more than a hair actually. But the base sounds like a fun place to find yourself as a kid, so many adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 🙄 Yeah, yeah. The base really was fun. Our parents learned not to worry about us running around doing our own thing. That attitude carried over when we moved to Guatemala, so I got up to all kinds of mischief!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m glad you bested that life guard in the end! I took swimming lessons at the Y, but never actually learned to swim. I almost drowned during a lesson when I went under a the instructor refused to jump in and pull me out. My mother ended up having to jump in with her clothes on to grab me, and we obviously never went back after that, so I still can’t swim, unfortunately.

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  9. That was an enjoyable look back. I think every kid should have swimming lessons. I never did as we lived in the country and the local pool wasn’t build at the arena/community centre yet, until I was in grade 8. I remember the injustice of attending a Catholic high school where the girls had to wear ugly navy and white uniforms, but the guys could wear faded jeans and t-shirts with sayings, and years later I confronted the (by then female) principal about that when I ran into her at a social occasion. I remember once having to serve a detention after school for a uniform infraction for wearing a scarf tied at my neck. It was actually 3 days of detention, as I questioned the (male) principal about the ridiculousness of the rule and the mean old nun who had reported me. They’d never get away with that today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It never made any sense to me having two sets of rules for boys and girls. I hope that has changed. I thought about you when I was writing this, as you had said you never learned to swim. I do find it a little hard to imagine, but you’re certainly not alone in that regard.

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