“Editor’s Note: When I learned Hunter Grimes was writing about the River, I quickly asked if we could have a peek! Martha Grimes promised to ask, and we received this wonderful story. Most of us remember the first time we road a bike and the first swim, without a life ring. Enjoy.”
You could always tell the river kids who were living the really good life from the ones who were not. It had nothing to do with family fortunes or social status. Quite simply, some kids could swim and the others had to wear life jackets. Life jackets back in those days were not the racy type like the hotshot bass fishermen wear today. They were big, fat orange things that made normal kid stuff impossible. Non-swimmers had to have one on anytime they went near the water and anytime there was a chance they night get out of sight of parent or guardian. This meant almost all the time.
It was a mighty bleak thing to even have a kid hang around with a life jacket on. Things like that would severely hamper your group style. It was sort of like being stuck with a little brother or sister….which was usually the case anyway. They were the most apt to be unable to swim. The only way to get out of the life jacket hassle was to learn to swim.
Swimming was a big deal since the season for it started shortly after the ice went out and went on into Fall. At least once a day after school and ten times a day on weekends, someone would test the water to see if it was warm enough yet. About mid May some kids would attempt immersion on sunny days. Being first to go in was good for brief admiration from kids and a switch on your bottom if you got caught. Sometime in mid-June the serious swimming season started.
If it was a hot and sunny day, you went swimming sooner or later. The water temperature might only be in the fifties, but it didn’t matter. Amid a lot of shrieking, we jumped in over and over, only to dog paddle to a way out and do it again. Most of us were so skinny we had to paddle furiously to stay up. None of us knew anything about efficient swimming and the water was so cold early on that getting a lung full of air to assist in buoyancy was impossible. Most of our energy was expended trying to keep our bony heads above water. When we got exhausted after ten feet or so, we would swim underwater. We must have looked like a bunch of furless muskrats playing around. Since we were furless, we eventually got awfully cold…teeth chattering, blue lipped, goose bumped cold.
After a while one of the dominant kids would declare that it was to time to go lay on the rocks in the sun. No towels or blankets were allowed or needed. In the racking shakes of advanced hypothermia, you would just ease yourself down on the sun warmed rock surface and revel in the heat from both sources. It worked best if you put your backside up first. The wonderful heat of the rocks soaked through your ribs and went right to your heart. Also, that way you could fold your arms under your head. Kid talk would be spotty with all those chattering teeth. Mostly, you lay there and stared at the icy looking drops of water on your arms. Sometimes they would do neat prismatic things to little rays of sun. Some drops would roll off and disappear. Some would cling mysteriously to an arm hair and slowly evaporate away. It was all like magic because we did not yet know about “evaporation”, or the color spectrum in sunlight, or any of that stuff. After a bit, the shivering and goose bumps would disappear, too. Then you rolled over and toasted for a while and asked the kids next to you what he was going to do the next day. If it was real early in the season, this was also the time you got a sun burn.
Sometimes it felt like hours, but it was probably only minutes before both sides of these bodies were done. Some kid would holler, “Last one in is a rotten egg”, and the whole process would start again.
Yeah, it was a real drag if you didn’t know how to swim. Lots of kids in these parts learned to swim by being dropped in by a dad who thought this was the best way. Ever notice how a lot of river people don’t care all that much for swimming? Just as many kids learned by crawling around on the shallow bottoms until one day they found themselves dog paddling. This method was nearly trauma free, but took a long time. And, everyone could tell who was crawlin’ on bottom. Most kids that did it would sneak a glance around first, knowing that it was impossible to be out of the sissy stage, cheating like that.
The way I learned to swim might have had a lot to do with things I found myself doing years later. When I was in the early crawlin’ on bottom phase, my father’s brother came for a visit. He was the first human I had ever seen that was totally fearless in the water. I was too young to know much, but when I watched him I knew instinctively that he was a magnificent swimmer. Family legend had it that he swam against, and on a par with the great Olympian of old, Buster Crabb. My uncle must have had huge lung capacity as well as swimming prowess. He could stay underwater for frightening lengths of time and cover amazing distances in that airless environment.
I don’t remember much about his visit except him swimming in our river and teaching me to swim. Since his resemblance to my father was strong, it was easy for him to assume the role of taskmaster for this major event in my life. I had been taught to respect my elders and do as I was told, no questions asked. On the first day of my swimming lessons he told me not to be afraid. It wasn’t allowed. I remember that I was, indeed, not afraid.
The whole event was surprisingly fast paced. My uncle was in the water with a plastic beach toy life ring beside him. He told me to jump into the middle of the ring with my arms out. I did this several times and found it to be quite exhilarating since I did pop up to fresh air every time. Next, I was told to jump outside the ring and grab it as I went by. It took a little longer to come up, but the result was pretty much the same. Then came the jump altered at the last minute by my uncle, who moved the ring out of my reach while I was in mid-air. I went down, came up and that was about all there was to it to convince me this could be fun. All future refinement of my swimming was aimed at going farther and faster.
For all the water oriented way of life we led, it is surprising that little, if any, formal swimming instruction was available. This, and the fact that most of us were so skinny we had little natural buoyancy, caused us to rely on underwater styles to go any distance over twenty five feet. With occasional deep breaths and vigorous stroking a kid could get around easier under water than on the surface. The technique eliminated the tiring work of keeping your head above water and was probably good for developing lung capacity.
Proof to your parents that you could swim underwater got you out of the dreaded mandatory life jacket. Underwater was also a fun environment where adults almost never ventured. All manner of ridiculous things could be tried down there; stunts with the most satisfying results never got old. Banging two rocks together near another kid’s ear always had great effect.
Unless a boat was going by, it was quiet under the surface. We tried mixing vocalization and making stupid faces at each other. You could hear yourself in your head, but only bubbles would escape your mouth. The silence of the underwater world also made it easy to sneak up on another, kid, preferably smaller and younger, and give them a good scare.
At least once a week a pecking order of sorts was established to add structure to our watery cavorting. This was usually part of the process of evaluating new swimming spots or new kids. You had to dive down and come back with a handful of sand or mud to verify getting to the bottom. A handful of seaweed didn’t count because everyone knew the weeds often climbed close to the surface. Of course, if you got weeds and no one else had anything, you were begrudgingly recognized.
The underwater world was blurry and dim. It is understandable that we never found anything exciting, nor noticed much of beauty in the murky water. I don’t think of my generation as having been kids in the “good old days”, but looking back I don’t recall any of us having a face mask or goggles. Nor do I remember any hanging on a rack in the local stores. Maybe those were the “good old days”.
My own most memorable unanticipated dip was in the dead of winter and probably gave my father nightmares for years after. You don’t think of this until you have kids of your own. Several of us were fooling around on the ice in front of our neighbor’s house. Most of the ice was snow covered and the game got boring real quick. At the end of the dock there was an inviting patch of dark, smooth, glare ice. Too young and inexperienced to be suspicious of the lack of snow on it, I got a running start and slid across the spot on my booted feet. The desired effect did not last long enough to enjoy any childish glee. I remember feeling like I had tripped, then seeing stars. The cold water closed over my head, but I still saw the bright hole I had entered. I wasted only milliseconds flailing back through that hole. My father happened to be home, and as he was partial to doing, looking out the picture window in our living room. He saw me break through and nearly dove through the window. However, he opted for the door and by the time he reached the end of the dock in his sock feet, I had my head out of the hole, supporting myself on the rim of ice. The cold water had robbed me of the ability to cry and kept taking my breath away, as only cold water can do. I am sure his gratitude was profound that it was now apparent he would not be robbed of his namesake. He, however, would never pass up the opportunity for an object lesson. When he finally did speak, he said, “You got yourself in there. Now get yourself out.” I did, and I will never forget the overwhelming numbness that lingered long after I was out. I was to fall in cold water many more times through the years, but never like that first time.
Luckily most kids fell in during warmer times because that was the best time to be messing around the water. My younger brother and a friend were dangling worms along side of the dock inside our boathouse, hoping to catch pan fish. I was close enough to hear a splash and a yell…………..the splash being from the little kid and the yell from my brother. I arrived on the scene fast, following my brother’s bulging eyes downward to see this three and a half foot kid scooting along the bottom like a mudpuppy. He probably had no experience doing it, but he was swimming underwater. I was about twelve at the time and the water was shallow so it was easy to grab this kid and yank him out. The whole scenario couldn’t have lasted more than ten seconds, and resulted in no more than a couple of really scared kids; scared at what might have been and what would happen if either of the moms found out. It was a classical falling in and variations on this theme occurred dozens of times in our neighborhood. Thankfully, they all had happy endings.
Swimming sessions got more demanding as we got older. We sought out cliffs and boat house roofs to jump from. The “cannonball” landing qualified for double competitive value. Esteem was earned by jumping from the greatest height, or by making the biggest splash. This feat did not require much athletic ability and was usually painless.
Diving from these heights was a different matter. Most of our water sports took place at the Edgewood Resort. The spring board on the platform was six or seven feet above the water, but seemed like twenty. Bouncing, soaring dives hurt my bony head even in well executed efforts. Mess up and do a belly flop, or go over too far and land on your back and you really had to concentrate to pretend it didn’t hurt. I never aspired to be an Olympic diver.
One of these spring board sessions set up the major occasion in my development as a swimmer. Edgewood guests often watched the local kids enjoy the water and one singled me out to ask why I made such a chore of swimming. Out of curiosity, I paid attention to his sage advice: that effective swimming was mostly a matter of controlling breathing. After a few lessons of putting my head in the water, exhaling at the right time and stretching in the desired direction I discovered a practically tireless way of swimming. Unknowingly, I had already been doing a fairly good breast stroke with my underwater limitations. Now, with rhythmic breathing applied I discovered that a roll of the head slightly for a breath and reaching out to grab a chunk of water, a kid could churn through the water pretty good. My formal training was over in five minutes, but swimming was profoundly different for me ever after.
I soon discovered that how far I could swim was mostly a function of how long it took to get miserably cold. If I wanted to go to the village in summer I was likely to just jump off our dock and swim across to the dock near the boat works, then swim home again…day or night. I took special delight in swimming from the rocks at Sand Bay to Cherry Island, ducking underwater in front of boat traffic just to be smart. The fun part was paddling quietly into the boathouse and causing the caretaker to jump out of his skin when I came up by the dock to yell, “Boo”. He would yell a few epithets at me for his revenge. By the time I was a teenager I still had respect for cold water, but was quite fearless of swimming any distance. It never occurred to me that I was a good swimmer and that this might be a source of small personal pride. Being a quiet kid and somewhat insecure, I could have used some pride. However, like most River Rat kids, I just regarded swimming as a natural fact, like walking. I didn’t imagine that all of this stuff would be important to my life someday.
My generation was introduced to TV. If I had it to do over, I would choose to grow up without the dubious benefits of that invention. Lloyd Bridges played Mike Nelson in Sea Hunt, one of the early shows. After seeing the first episode, I wanted to be Mike Nelson. There must have been a lot of people who wanted to be Mike Nelson because scuba diving became a trendy recreational sport faster than Mike could escape the clutches of a giant octopus. Acquiring a face mask would at least put us on the road to being Mike Nelson. We ended up with one face mask for about six kids. This turned out to be enough since you could only hold your breath so many times without a rest in the warm sun. Even only down eight feet, the water was noticeably colder.
Previously our underwater world had been a blurry one. Now we could look right into the eyeballs of a rock bass or perch. “Diving” was best when you actually found something. The edges of docks were usually good for things accidentally dropped in the river. One buddy of mine actually found a Rolex watch. Not having much spending money, I was always happy to find fishing lures I couldn’t afford to buy. We learned to make our ears pop and reach ever greater depths as we expanded our search areas. I had a lot of ear infections in those days, but the total effect was probably healthy. My diving career kept me occupied at all sorts of strange times…like if I had been spanked and sent to bed, I would lay there and hold my breath while watching a clock, or counting in my head. Practicing this was important because I thought I needed to be able to hold my breath for five minutes. This should have made up for not having tanks like they had on Sea Hunt. Making it to a minute and a half was pretty good for a kid with rather severe asthma.
One summer day I found a neat anchor off the rocks at Sand Bay. It was machined steel and worked by weight rather than digging in. It didn’t have any rope on it and was down as far as I had ever ventured. It was my best discovery up until then and I had to have it. It took many attempts. I hauled it up the ledge a few feet, found a spot to set it so it wouldn’t roll back down and burst to the surface for a breath of air. It is a wonder I didn’t do significant brain damage from all the oxygen starvation and exertion. I was successful in getting the anchor up and enjoyed using it for a long time. I eventually got it hung up outside of Cherry Island in a hundred feet of water. Some other, better equipped, Mike Nelson type has probably found it by now.
I considered some of the folks who rented dock space at our small marina rich because they seemed to have all the toys they wanted. One boater showed up one summer with some honest to gosh scuba tanks and all of the Mike Nelson paraphernalia. This was before the day of scuba training classes. This great guy showed me how to wriggle into the straps on the tank and put the thing in my mouth. Away I went. With that wonderful experience, I told the US Navy many years later, “Heck yes, I can be a frogman.” And so I was.
It now occurs to me that learning to swim in the St. Lawrence might be the same as anyplace else. I don’t know. What made it a special part of a different sort of childhood was that we didn’t have to go anywhere special to swim. The river was right there and everywhere. It couldn’t be avoided. Everything revolved around the river. Swimming led to everything else. Fishing, boating, water skiing and regular River Rat stuff all came after your parents decided you were, for all practical purposes, drown-proof.
By Hunter Grimes
Hunter Grimes served in the Navy from 1966-1970. In 1968-70 he was with UDT 21 and Navy Seals. He is currently owner of Diverse Construction Group, LLC. He attended SUNY Oswego, University of Alaska at Fairbanks and Syracuse School of Forestry. Hunter is certainly a genuine River Rat – a reliable term given for those who spend their lives on, in or under the River. In 1989 Canadian author, Shawn Thompson wrote his book, “River Rats: The People of the Thousand Islands”. Page 68 has the Hunter Grimes story. Hunter and his wife Martha have devoted their lives to their community, both being recognized for their volunteer and leadership.
Editor’s Note: Having served on the Save the River Board of Trustees in the 1980s, I knew Hunter as the president and a committee man for the organization. When I see these photographs I realize he brought a wealth of experience on River issues to the table. We are lucky to have Hunter and Martha as River neighbors.