This morning, as I sat sauna-ing my aches away, I was watching the local mums and dads teaching their cherubs to swim. You can see the small heated pool where these things take place through the glass door of the sauna.
Other things take place in that pool as well. Unpleasant things. Old people exercise in it because it is heated. I’m convinced most of them are not continent. I do not go into that pool.
Anyway, when the old people aren’t there, parents take their kids for swimming lessons. Such a nurturing environment it is too. Each parent helps and holds their child, the instructor is encouraging and full of smiles, and there are flotation devices to assist the children with their first strokes on this very important journey.
This was not how I learned to swim.
Sure, I was about five, which makes me a few years older than some of these kids, so maybe I was a little more robust. I was certainly no less terrified. That’s fucken water, bitches. People sink in water.
Both my parents realised I needed to learn how to swim. But we could not afford swimming lessons, and quite frankly, I doubt there were any such things in 1965 – certainly not for the children of immigrant parents who did not speak English very well.
Still, once a year, my parents would load up the family car, and head for Moree in the far northwest of NSW to engage in a water-based ritual I remember vividly to this day.
The attraction in Moree were the artesian baths. Scalding hot water would be piped into two enclosed 15-metre pools (one for males and one for females), and it would emerge via three different-diameter pipe-nozzles. The little nozzle sprayed this hot artesian water much like a garden hose. The middle one fired it out like a firehose, and the big one jetted the scalding shit out in a geyser as thick as my leg.
The water is now 41-degrees. It was much hotter in the 60s. It was at the same temperature it was when it started its journey from Hell.
And it smelled and tasted funny. But, if you ask any Eastern European, they would tell you it was the most therapeutic of liquids. It would allegedly heal everything from rheumatism to cancer. So as often as they could, every crazy wog in Sydney would head to Moree to drink and bathe and blast himself or herself with this water all day for at least two weeks.
And my parents were as crazy as the rest of them. Maybe even crazier, because we would go in summer, when the ambient temperature was in the low 40s.
The first time I went there I was maybe three-years-old. And I remember being placed in this hot water for brief periods of time. I couldn’t swim, so I sat on mum’s lap, or held onto the side of the pool when she was jetting herself. Three-year-olds don’t have many choices in their lives.
But by the time I was five, the broiling cauldrons were of no interest to me at all. I was allowed to go to the normal pools adjoining the enclosed artesian ones and splash around in the cold water of the kid’s pool with other kids.
That was heaps of fun. I got sunburned. Australian kids would try and drown me. The wog kids would chase them off. Then they would try and drown me. My mum would treat my sunburn by rubbing the area with a dissected tomato. I tried to explain to her that the tomato business would only increase the drowning attempts by the other kids, but she never listened.
There was no sunblock in those days. The wogs used olive oil and baked themselves like hams. Luckily, many of us were olive-skinned, so we had an advantage over the fish-belly white Aussies, but if you ever wondered where the term “greasy fucking wog” comes from, I’m thinking this was it.
Anyway, the year I was taught to swim, Serbian style, I had begun to venture into the big Olympic pool. I would basically bounce up and down in the shallow end for hours on end while my parents healed their ills in the artesian pools. Now and again one of them would emerge to note that I was not dead, sternly tell me not to drown, and go back to healing themselves.
Then one day, over lunch under the colourful beach umbrella my father would stab into the grass – directly opposite the magnificent Victoria Hotel, which could be seen through the fence – my mother told my father I had to learn how to swim.
“OK,” he said. “I will teach him.”
Cool, I thought. My dad’s going to teach me to swim. I was not at all aware my fridge-sized-and-shaped father was much of a swimmer, but there were many things I did not know about him at that age.
“Come with me,” he said after lunch.
“No!” my mother yelped. “We must wait half-an-hour after eating before going in the water because ‘Grch’!”
I had never heard that word before, but it sounded awful. I later learned the Serbian word for “cramp” was “grch”, which, along with the dreaded “promaya” (draught), had killed more Serbs than cholera and Nazis.
I could see my father did not believe in “Grch” by the way he rolled his eyes, but he waited the allotted half-an-hour, then led me off to the Olympic pool.
To the deep end. Where the diving board was. I was very excited. I was never allowed to even be at this end of the big pool. But I longed to bounce off that fucking diving board like I’d seen so many other kids do.
My father led me to the side of the pool beside the diving board.
“It’s very deep here,” he told me.
“How deep?” I asked, peering into the blue depths.
“Ten feet,” my father said. “You cannot touch the bottom. So you must swim.”
I nodded. That sounded entirely reasonable.
The he pushed me in, which was not at all reasonable.
I went down, and then my natural buoyancy slowly floated me to the surface. I did not gulp any water down because I had long ago learned you cannot breathe underwater, so I held my breath as soon as I hit the water. Which was good, because I sank again as soon as I’d gulped some air upon resurfacing. I did not go down as deep this time, and my crazed flailing and splashing kept me on or very near the surface, and maybe a metre from the side of the pool.
I could see my father looking down at me from the edge, and I do believe he was saying: “Come on, swim!”
But he was saying it Serbian, so there was some sun-fucking added after the instructions. Each time I splashed my way to the surface, I would hear: “Ajde, plivaj! Sunce ti jebem!”
And bit by splashy bit, I made my way to the edge of the pool, were I hung on for dear life, and blinked the heavily-chlorinated water out of my eyes.
“Very good,” my father observed. “Now you must practice.”
And then he walked off.
I considered my options. Clearly, for this practice business to work, I could not be in the shallow end. In the shallow end, I would cheat and put my feet down on the bottom. The fact that the bottom here was three metres below me meant I would only touch it if I sank there after drinking as much of the water as I could before I died.
It was clearly the right place to practice my new swimming ability.
So I hand-over-handed myself along the edge of the pool until I got to the ladder in the corner, then I climbed out, and jumped straight back in. I splashed wildly and made my way to the side, climbed out again, and then did this over and over until I was exhausted.
My mum had been watching me the whole time. I had not noticed her, but she had made her way to the deep end of the pool straight after my dad had told her that I was practicing my swimming lessons. Mum swam pretty well, but it was mainly breast-stroke, like all Eastern European ladies. And she did tend to fret some when dad wasn’t watching. That said, they did not diverge much on child-rearing policy.
When I climbed out for the final time, she came up to me, covered me in a towel, and asked me if I was alright. I told her I was, and no more was said about it. My father gave me a smile, handed me a drink of water, and then went back to submerge himself in the hot pool.
The next morning, I was into the deep end like a seal. I jumped out further and splashed harder and opened my eyes underwater and peered at the staggering depths below me.
As I climbed out of the pool, one of the lifeguards came over to me. He was very tall and broad-shouldered, and he held out his hand and said his name was “Alan”.
“What are you doing?” he asked, while I peered at his outstretched hand and considered running for my parents. The “Don’t talk to strangers” thing was uppermost in my mind. But he was a lifeguard and I had seen him around, so I wasn’t overly concerned.
“I reckon if you’re gonna be jumping into the deep end, you might wanna learn how to swim,” he said.
“I can swim,” I told him. Had the prick not been watching? I swam like a motherfucker.
Alan laughed. “I was wondering if you’d like to swim better.”
I considered this. Then I shrugged. As far as I was concerned, I swam pretty damn good.
“Where are your parents?” he asked.
“Over there,” I said, pointing to where mum and dad were setting up the umbrella.
“Let’s go and see them for a sec,” Alan said.
I followed him as he went over to my parents, introduced himself, and then asked them if they would mind if he showed me the basics of how to swim.
“How much this cost?” my father asked.
“Nah, no cost, mate,” Alan grinned. “It’s pretty quiet here in the mornings. I can show your son some things that will help him swim better. Be a pleasure.”
And so it came to be.
For the next few days, each morning Alan would show me the basics of freestyle, the breathing you should use, and how to kick your legs. It was pretty messy at first, but I seemed to be naturally buoyant (must have been all the sarma and goulash mum fed me), and I had no fear of putting my head under water.
A week later, I was leaping off the diving board and swimming across the pool.
In the years that followed, my swimming improved out of sight. My father had a huge hand in this as well. He would take the family to Colo River many, many times throughout the year, and for extended stays in the summer months.
My father loved rivers, and that river in particular. We would stay at the caravan park immediately on the right after the Colo Bridge. That area is now a time-share thing, but back in the 60s and 70s, it was a caravan park with a petrol station and milk bar out the front.
Dad had a little row-boat he’d leave there, because fishing was one of his great callings in life. I hated fishing because it required me to be quiet and not eat the bait, but the old man kept taking me, thinking he would wear me down and I’d come to love it as he did. He was wrong.
But a consequence of this fishing business was that dad would get me to row the boat maybe a kilometre up or down the river, depending on where he wanted to fish, and then he’d fish. When the fishing was over, he’d instruct me to jump over the side and swim back, following his boat as he rowed slowly to the caravan park.
As a safety device, he would throw a rope over the back of the boat and when I got tired, I would grab the rope and he would pull me along for a bit. Then he would tell me to stop being lazy, and I would let go of the rope and continue to swim.
I got so good at this swimming business, I actually won a few races in the school swimming carnivals, made it to the zone finals, and it has stood me in very good stead my whole life.
And while I owe my freestyling expertise to Alan, the amazing and generous lifeguard from Moree pool, I reckon it was dad’s Serbian method that sealed the deal for me. As a result, “Sink or swim” is pretty much how I have lived my whole life.
You see, he didn’t frighten me with how dangerous water was, and how the deep-end was for big kids only. I think he understood kids better than he ever got credit for. If the parents are nervous, the kids will be nervous. If the parents are scared, the kids will be scared.
But when your parents radiate confidence, then what do you have to fear?
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Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.