Uncle Walter’s superior school of swimming

On The Way

By Olivia Fowler

When we have an especially hot summer day, my thoughts turn to the river, because that’s where I want to be.

Olivia Fowler

Olivia Fowler

One of the reasons I love the Twelve Mile River is how it calls to my heart. Floating down Twelve Mile takes me straight back to childhood, when my brother and cousins and I spent countless hours immersed in the icy waters of the Lumber River.

That river is where I learned to swim. Uncle Walter had a unique teaching method. His swimming school only held one class. If you passed you were certified to swim upstream against the current. If you flunked, you were in danger of drowning.

The first and only lesson given could be titled the “sink or swim” class.

The victim, or student, depending on your viewpoint, usually enrolled in Uncle Walter’s school of swimming when 4 years old, depending upon what time of year the fourth birthday took place. I was 4 and more when I enrolled in his school, as I enjoy a December birthday, which all born in December know means few if any gifts are received, because “it’s too close to Christmas.”

Anyway, at summer’s beginning, which we considered to be May as we were allowed to shed our shoes May 1, on the first warm-enough day we would go down to the creek behind Grandmama’s house — which was actually the Lumber River — and begin our learning experience.

The other children waited until the lesson was finished to jump in, but they usually didn’t have to wait very long.

Uncle Walter would first put a strong belt around the student’s waist and buckle it firmly into place. It was an old leather belt of his cut to an appropriate length with new holes punched in. Every child had worn this thing at one time or another.

Once the belt was in place, he’d attach a plow line, always a handy thing to have, to the back of the belt. Then, he’d tuck the child under his arm and wade through the shallow part until he was standing on the sandbar next to the deeper river bed and deliver the brief and only set of instructions necessary.

“Paddle and kick,” he’d say, before throwing the child out into the deep water while keeping the rope tight enough to pull the child in if necessary.

I don’t remember being afraid or dreading my lesson. I do remember being excited and determined to master this necessary skill.

Everybody else could already swim, and I desperately wanted to be able to go upstream with the others and make it across to the big sandbar around the bend.

They swam across together to reach the sandbar. This was the part of the river so shallow the sand shone golden through the water.

Uncle Walter threw me out, and I gave it everything I had, struggling to keep my head above water while creating as much turbulence as possible. We were taught to keep our heads above water while we swam so we could keep an eye out for the water moccasins.

I did swallow a lot of water in this process but finally realized that as long as I dog paddled I’d stay afloat.

Once I stayed up for about a minute, Uncle Walter pulled me in to rest for a bit, then threw me out again until he judged me fit enough to swim without the rope in shallower water.

Water was judged shallow if you were able to touch bottom with your head above the water line. In this area you could be shown more advanced styles by the older children, all secure in the knowledge that the dog paddle might not be considered a sophisticated stroke, but was guaranteed to save your life if necessary. We all learned the breast stroke, back stroke, side stroke, dead man’s float and how to tread water. Once every child in the family could swim, the adults could relax on the bank and supervise our amazing feats while drinking iced tea and fanning gnats.

It was our ticket to a great summer and the source of countless memories we all review and treasure.