Learning to Swim: Muir vs. Wayne

Via our friends at The Art of Manliness, a meditation on learning to swim by John Muir. It involved almost drowning.
One hot summer day father told us that we ought to learn to swim. This was one of the most interesting suggestions he had ever offered, but precious little time was allowed for trips to the lake, and he seldom tried to show us how. “Go to the frogs,” he said, “and they will give you all the lessons you need. Watch their arms and legs and see how smoothly they kick themselves along and dive and come up. When you want to dive, keep your arms by your side or over your head, and kick, and when you want to come up, let your legs drag and paddle with your hands."...

As soon as my feet touched the bottom, I slowly rose to the surface, but before I could get breath enough to call for help, sank back again and lost all control of myself. After sinking and rising I don’t know how many times, some water got into my lungs and I began to drown. Then suddenly my mind seemed to clear. I remembered that I could swim under water, and, making a desperate struggle toward the shore, I reached a point where with my toes on the bottom I got my mouth above the surface, gasped for help, and was pulled into the boat.... I was very much ashamed of myself, and at night, after calmly reviewing the affair, concluded that there had been no reasonable cause for the accident, and that I ought to punish myself for so nearly losing my life from unmanly fear. Accordingly at the very first opportunity, I stole away to the lake by myself, got into my boat, and instead of going back to the old swimming-bowl for further practice, or to try to do sanely and well what I had so ignominiously failed to do in my first adventure...

Never again from that day to this have I lost control of myself in water. If suddenly thrown overboard at sea in the dark, or even while asleep, I think I would immediately right myself in a way some would call “instinct,” rise among the waves, catch my breath, and try to plan what would better be done. Never was victory over self more complete.
Confer with John Wayne's similar lesson.


raven said...

In the sleepy rural New England town where I grew up, there was an old mill pond, with a lovely little hand cut stone dam, over which the clear water splashed in a thin sheet a few yards wide to the stream below, maybe a 10 foot drop. It was our pleasure to edge behind the sheet of water, backs to the dam, standing on a small ledge- from there we would dive through the waterfall into the pool below.

One fine summer day we went swimming after a heavy rain. The little sheet of water was a solid ugly yellow/brown torrent unbroken by a bubble, dense as 90wt gear oil, the stream below with a foot thick foam on it. Diving through it I was expecting a massive slam across the back. What I was not expecting was to be smashed face first into the stone bottom of the pool, and rolled violently in the maelstrom. Not a problem, just swim to the surface, 12 feet up. So I did, and reached to break through the foam, and touched rock. The tumbling had upset the inner ear to the point of not knowing which was was up, and I had swum straight back down to the bottom. By this time air was in short supply. and I was imagining what the paper was going to report. "local youth drowned at old mill dam, etc". Fortunately I was able to retain reasoning power, and figured if up was down, than the reverse must be true- so without any sense of direction, pushed off the stone bottom and swam the other way, and got a lovely sweet sip of air through the foam before being sucked under again. That went on for a little while till I got pushed downstream enough to gain the surface on a more permanent basis, and swam to shore. Unfortunately it was a tiny island in the stream. It was hard to get the courage up to get back in the water and swim back to the other side.
Till then, that was the second or maybe third time I nearly drowned. Sometimes I look back at all the close calls and wonder what God is saving me for.
This is a long winded reply to the post, but yes, reason, and the willingness to keep working the problem right to the end, is our trump card as humans. Keep trying, no matter what. In every survival story I ever heard of, the single most significant trait was pure stubbornness, the refusal to quit.

Grim said...

Good story. I don't think God will tell you what he's saving you for; it may even be one of those butterfly-wings-cause-hurricane moments, such that you'll never know you did it. But faith in a divine order means trusting that there is some such purpose, even if you are never told what it was.

Texan99 said...

Someone must have taught me to swim when I was so young I can't remember it, like learning to read. Now I have the dangerous sense that it's inconceivable to drown, which I know isn't realistic. You can get caught in debris or currents, all kinds of things could happen. But the simple inability to stay above water is as unimaginable as suddenly not remembering how to walk.

I never did learn to do any acrobatics, though, like flips while diving. I still vividly remember how hard it was to learn to dive even the simple way. I wanted to hold my nose and found it difficult to let go so both arms could stretch out in front.

raven said...

What really taught me about the power of water was rafting in the arctic, on the North Slope of the Brooks range. Anytime there is an interaction between moving water and a fixed object, weird things can happen.
True anywhere., of course ,
I watched a woman kiss death during a long struggle to free her from a bridge pier- she was trapped on the upstream side, in the water up to her shoulders, with a canoe folded around her from the force of the river. Some rescue guys got a 5/8" poly rope on the canoe and tried to drag it off her with a boat. The line snapped. Probably saved her life-when the canoe bent, there was a little triangle of free space at the apex of the fold-if the full force was on her I am sure it would have crushed her. Eventually they gave up on this idea and dropped a harness to her from the bridge deck and winched her out. She lived, she was in the water for at least an hour. Things can go wrong all at once.

Anonymous said...

This is a fun story, but the underlying truth is that the mother had failed to teach her child an important life skill.

Because my parents had a place on a lake, I made sure to drown-proof my children as infants. I read "Teach your baby to Swim," and had each of them in a pool in my arms by about six weeks to three months, depending on the weather. I taught them how to catch their breath, now to float, and how to keep from choking on water and getting it up their noses before they could talk. The real swimming part, with measured strokes, etc., came much later.

My ex's mother decided that she didn't like water and did not have to teach her children about it. She was all passive-aggressive about having the schools (then, it was required for high school graduation) do it, either. This meant that my ex, who barely passed the swim test in his late teens, has always feared water and does not enjoy any aspect of it except hearing the sound of waves. He also came away with the firm notion that he does not have to do anything he does not want to, an attitude that has sharply limited his adult life.

There is a lot of merit in teaching a child to overcome an imaginary barrier. A rough lesson is not necessarily a bad one.