Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Naked Boys Swimming

What seemed perfectly normal to one generation often becomes head-shaking at the very least and scarcely believable to many in later generations. One such practice was naked swimming in physical-education classes. I had the “privilege” to swim au naturale in both high school and college. It seemed quite normal to me back then.

Swimming was an important part of physical education at New Trier East High School during the mid-1960s. Coach Dave Robertson was an Olympic coach, and the team (a girl’s team didn’t exist yet) won numerous state championships. I learned additional swimming strokes as well as the practice of drown-proofing, which luckily I’ve never had to use. Swimming was part of a rotation schedule for phys. ed., which meant you would swim five days a week for a month.

I was in the last class at New Trier East that graduated intact before New Trier West was a four-year school, which meant we had approximately 600 boys in all. The school claimed it made the boys (not the girls) swim naked for hygiene reasons, which makes sense if you buy the premise that boys are inherently, shall we say, more unhealthy than girls. I think it had more to do with not having to purchase 600 pairs of swimming trunks and launder them daily.

New Trier High School swimming pool

The routine was simple. First, a shower – coach Robertson always gave a lecture before the first class of the year on how to reach those nooks and crannies – and then on to the pool deck to take attendance. Like regular phys. ed. classes, you stood on your assigned number on the floor (deck), and a visible number was noted as an absence. The pool was locked down tight so nobody would wander in and see 60 boys of all shapes, sizes but usually only one color standing butt naked at attention. The unwritten rule was eyes forward, although for me it didn’t make much difference because of my severe near-sightedness. 

For swimming, the early periods were preferred over the afternoon ones. By the 11th period, one never knew what might float by and, no, I’m not going to relate that anecdote (somebody actually ‘fessed up to it). Swimming laps took up most of the class, which ended with free swim. To graduate, each student was required to swim 50 yards. A boy in the class ahead of me finally did it at his final phys. ed. class, after which he reportedly said, “Great.  I’ll swim 50 yards, then I’ll drown.”

I’d guess that almost all of my colleagues naked swimming days ended after graduation, but mine continued on a more limited scale as a freshman at Lehigh University, which was all-male at the time. Physical education was required, and classes were either two or three days a week. Swimming was only one of those days, which caused one of the most bizarre occurrences in my life. First, to Lehigh’s swimming requirement: only 25 yards, one length of the pool. On the very first day, the instructor told us that anybody who can’t swim or didn’t think he could swim the length of the pool should step aside for the remedial class. “Don’t be embarrassed,” he said.  “Every year, we have to go in and fish somebody out who thought he could do it.”  Sure enough, after jumping in and swimming a vigorous crawl stroke to the end, I looked back through my foggy eyes to see a classmate about 20 yards down his lane being pulled out.

Lehigh University swimming pool

A combination of logistics and forgetfulness resulted in the bizarre occurrence. The locker room was one floor below the Grace Hall pool, which meant we had to walk naked upstairs to reach the pool. Why nobody donned a towel I’ll never know. Our instructor was assistant football coach Wally King, a nice guy who would join our basketball games in his wing-tip shoes if we needed one more player. One day (and it may have been more), King forgot it was the swimming day. I reached the pool area to find a number of naked classmates shivering outside the locked pool door. Hoping against hope that King would show up, we stood there, trying to make conversation while looking any way but down, for a good five minutes. Finally realizing that waiting for King, like Godot and Lefty, was futile, we headed back downstairs. He was genuinely embarrassed (maybe not as much as us) and apologetic after hearing the news.

I returned to Lehigh to speak before a student group in 2000 and walked around the campus the day before. A student was standing at the entrance to the pool, which was in use for general swim. I was going to relate the story of the naked boys standing right there but figured he’d think I was nuts. You, my readers, were not so fortunate.

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