Tag Archives: summer

Cedar Water

The swimming season is coming to a close. Whether in Cedar Lake or the Pacific Ocean, the subtle shift has begun. Pockets of very cold water, previously a refreshing anomaly, are now asserting themselves like Trump followers. The vanguard will soon become the establishment and while “The Donald” will likely leave the race entranced and distracted by a new shiny object, the water will turn cold.

This saddens me because swimming is what I laughingly refer to as my exercise. I splash, guy4paddle, and tread water with joyous abandon. Between pretending I am Lloyd Bridges in “Sea Hunt” and frolicking underwater, I feel energized, youthful and refreshed. A jogger friend scoffed at the number of carbs I burn and how little cardio effect I gain from my water play. I was going to let his criticism pass or more correctly roll off my back, but when he added I looked childish, I was stung enough to retort, “At least when I finish my workout I’m not all sweaty.”

One of the few things I took from Camp Ockanickon (aside from a lifetime hatred of oatmeal and singing “Mamma’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin‘ Bread”) is feeling comfortable in the water. Camp was deep in the pine barrens of southern New Jersey on a dark, picturesque, spring fed cedar lake. Even at 4’ 4” I could not see my feet standing in waist deep water. This unnerved me and I failed the deep water swimming test (jump in and swim 25 yards any stroke) I was sent to remedial swim class every day after breakfast. As a non swimmers I could not join any other activity until I passed. Too terrified to leap into the ink colored water, I generally needed to be pushed. After splashing around frantically I would grab the pole and be fished out in tears.

In the afternoon during compulsory free swim time my stigma, wearing a red non-swimmer string around my wrist, confined me to the shallow area. Much worse, the caste system carried over to the mess hall, the cabin, and all non-water activities. Blue stringers (50 yards) and white stringers (100 yards) heaped scorn on us (“Red stringers, red stringers why are you here? Red stringers, red stringers have some beer!”). We would then be doused with whatever non-beer beverage was available.

I have been dancing around the most embarrassing part. I was the lowest of the red stringers: I wore nose plugs! Decades later I have difficulty admitting it. Even other non-swimmers scorned me. The plugs, pink to simulate a flesh tone I have never seen on a living person, was the only way I could navigate in the water. Blue and white stringers might deign to come into the shallow end but I quickly and painfully learned they were on a mission to pull back and snap the rubber strap. The sting subsides long before the red mark on the back of my neck. Perhaps that is why I never became a bra snapper in my adolescence.

Some of the counselors were college kids ready for “Hi Jinx” (it was the 50s) like sneaking out to the girls’ camp across the lake after lights out, then regale us with their exploits the next morning. Joey was different. He was an east Camden (N.J.) tough guy who someone (possibly a judge) thought could benefit from a summer of sunshine and fresh air. Even as a child I sensed his anger and despair marooned in a wholesome woodsy setting with a cabin full of brats. His surliness made what happened all the more surprising.

Joey was on lifeguard duty, supervising the shallow (red string/loser)area. Standing on the dock he beckoned me over. I’ll never forget his words. “Hey squirt! Yeah you, dum dum with the nose plugs. Blow a little stream of air out your nose when you go under. Just a trickle. Then you won’t need that stupid s_ _ _ on your nose.”

It was not a Hallmark moment, but I did it and it worked! It might have helped knowing Joey couldn’t care less. Other counselors had more patiently told me to blow air out. When I tried for them, I either panicked and, seeking to please them, blew all the air out at once, or I accidentally inhaled. With the breathing mastered my fear diminished and I was able to enjoy the water. Thanks to Joey I left camp a blue stringer.

My “instruction” was a momentary distraction for a bored, sullen teenager. Joey, if he is living could not possibly comprehend that I still give him thanks every time I wade into the water. “Blow it out your nose slow, dum dum!”

I am not talking about mentoring, adoption, or huge life changing sacrifices and good deeds. My focus is “Joey moments.” Serendipitous chance encounters where a word, an act, a small gesture made a huge difference. The classic is “The Lone Ranger” leaving before he can be thanked unaware of how he has altered history. I am not so grandiose but I really hope I have done small anonymous kindnesses that have been meaningful to others.

Tom H. Cook has often imagined writing a letter of support for Joey to his probation officer or appearing in court on his behalf

Time on a Leash

“Time is a jet plane; it moves too fast.”          -Bob Dylan

Beat the Clock was not the best of the 1950s television game shows, just the most prophetic.  Bud Collier, the gangly, affable host, had been the radio voice of Superman before he found his true calling – convincing “everyday people from all walks of life” to bury their spouse in a vat of ping pong balls or lime Jello on national television.  Bud, with his bobbing Adam’s apple and trademark bow tie, was so unintimidating that contestants soon found themselves crawling through a maze of hula hoops with a bucket of goldfish in their mouths.  Bud’s low key approach to the activities made you think that he may just put on a marshmallow sport jacket and leap through the hoop of fire after the show, before going home to Scarsdale.

The most memorable element of the show was the clock on the wall.  Not only were you expected to somersault 30 feet with a raw egg in your mouth, but after a look at the clock on the wall – you have 90 seconds!  Nowadays when I am running errands (like searching for a plastic replacement widget sprocket release for a Dino-juicer I could live without), the show comes back to me.  Much of what I do is absurd and time-consuming.  Leaving the absurd part to French existentialists and college sophomores, I think about how the giant clock on the wall dominates my life.

I am not a busy person doing important things like addressing the United Nations or convincing the Walker Art Center to take the stack of large iron landmines that grace the east wall back to where they found them.  I am more a plodder and a grazer, continually baffled by things like how to access the PIN number on my credit card from a touch tone phone.  Yet there is the constant press of time in my life.

Even sidewalk conversations with neighbors need to be timed because someone has karate lessons and the business call has to be returned before five.  Then eat quickly and drop off the library books (that are on the grace period) on the way to more kid pickup.  Granted this is not the stuff that would rival Roots, it is merely ironic that with answering machines, faxes and VCRs, we have only managed to rearrange our inconveniences.  After years of life experience and technology, I still have 20 minutes to rest before a meeting, ten minutes until guests arrive…

A friend calls the unclaimed time between two scheduled activities her leash, as in “I was on a 20-minute leash between the dentist and Girl Scouts.”  Twenty minutes is a pretty impressive bit of free time.  My friend chose to spend hers attempting to get out of a gridlocked parking ramp downtown.  It was cunning old crewcut Bud (he looked blond on our snowy old black and white Philco) that began to prepare us for a world of short, disjointed, seemingly random experiences that would be further robbed of meaning by a strict time clock.  “There is no gestalt,” Bud would snicker off-camera.

Bud would never tie together people who were not married.  It was the 50s, after all.  But he loved joining newlyweds and very heavy couples with rope or tape.  Then he would announce the task.

“Walk the balance beam with an apple under your chin, trade apples, skip back and ring the bell.”  The couple would smile, mentally spending the $200 prize money while those of us at home squawked that Bud had gone soft and sold us out.  Then the best part, Bud would grin and in a nonchalant manner add, “You will be blindfolded, and you have 90 seconds – GO!”

To this day as I receive a difficult but doable assignment, I hear Bud’s voice saying, “Oh and you will be blindfolded.”  The blindfold is meant to pay respect to those who function courageously without sight, and remind me how fortunate I am to be sighted.  It is also a metaphor for the kicker, the ‘oh by the way’ part that people and machines tend to throw in as an afterthought, to thwart the successful completion of the job.  (“Normally we fix these, but yours was made in Occupied China when pure steel was rare, hence the oxidation level forces covalent bonding when we increase the amperage…”)

So Bud even taught us to expect serendipity in life.  I miss the old rascal.

Here’s wishing you an enjoyable summer on a very long leash.


Tom H. Cook is not a candidate for mayor of Minneapolis.  He would, however, accept a sincere draft.