If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.
My family spent a lot of time in the water. My dad was a college swim star, and my uncle would have gone to the 1940 Olympics if it hadn’t been for Hitler. We swam and fished and generally fooled around in swimming pools, farm ponds, reservoirs and miscellaneous creeks. At the pool, my dad loved to wrestle with us, and we soon learned the hard way that he could hold his breath a lot longer than we could.
Often when we went fishing, my brother and I would escape the Texas heat by jumping into the farm pond. Some were pretty big and we could find deep water without disturbing everything in it. In others, we had to make sure everyone was done fishing before we dove in. The water was usually muddy — or became that way very quickly after we entered — and was often obscured by a long stringy aquatic weed that grew up from the bottom and formed mats on the surface. When you waded in, you could wrap big wads of it around your arm, pull it up out of the mud, and throw it at your brother when he wasn’t looking.
I was always a little jumpy about swimming in dark water; sometimes a sunfish or something would nip at any bump on your skin, causing me to jerk back and sometimes get a mouthful of water. In spite of my fear of snakes, I took solace in the fact that water moccasins, which were prevalent but seldom seen in those waters, couldn’t bite you under water. Of course, in due time my brother delighted in asking me, “If they can’t bite underwater, how do they catch fish?” Swimming in tanks was never the same after that.
The summer camp I attended (and later worked at) was on a reservoir and had us swimming, sailing, water skiing, canoeing and doing any other water-based activity they could think of. We played polo (water and Marco) and even played watermelon polo. That’s a vigorous game where a watermelon replaced the traditional water polo ball, but being heavy and essentially the density of water, couldn’t be tossed about. You had to capture the melon, swim down below the other swimmers and push it towards the other goal. If you were good, you could swim, push the melon down, surface for a breath of air, then go back and get the melon before it surfaced again. Your opponents were more than happy to help you stay down too long, and take the melon when you had to surface. You could also hold the melon with your feet and slowly tread water towards the goal, acting innocent the entire time. Depending on the crush of bodies and the clarity of the water, this was either a brilliant strategy or a complete fiasco. It’s surprising that kids never actually drown during the games, and most injuries were pretty minor.
Each summer my family went to the Texas coast where we swam in the Gulf and fished or crabbed off the piers and jetties. The warm water was cloudy, and the beach was flat, so you had to walk out quite a ways to find deeper water or actual breaking waves. We learned to body surf in the meager waves, and stepped on plenty of shells or crabs.
When we caught fish or crabs, my dad would arrange for the restaurant at our motel to cook it for us. It was some of the best food we had, except for the shrimp. Back then a bucket of boiled shrimp, chilled in ice, peeled at the table and dipped in red sauce was pretty fine eating. Add a handful of saltines and you had a gourmet meal.
One year when I was a teen, I crossed the island over to the bay side, where the Intracoastal waterway cut near the shore. Using our casting net, I gathered some bait fish and cast out as far as I could, letting the tide pull the bait out further. I caught a couple of medium sized sea trout, and hung them on a stringer from my belt, and waded out further to fish deeper water. I got a hard hit and fought a larger fish for quite a while. As I reeled it in closer, I notice a fin sticking up as the fish swerved back and forth, but always pulled nearer. I realized that I was nearly waist deep in the water with two bleeding trout hanging from my belt. Slowly, I backed up until I was only knee deep, and brought the fish in. Of course it wasn’t a shark, in spite of my fears, but was a pretty fish with a tall dorsal fin (later identified as a bonito). I ended up catching two of those guys, and with the trout it made enough for another great family dinner.
One summer we drove to California to see the sights and visit with my dad’s old army buddy. One day we swam in a real ocean at Malibu Beach . Excited to see all the surfers (and beach bunnies), not to mention an ocean with real waves,we tentatively waded out and immediately discovered that even in summer, the Pacific Ocean is cold — bone chilling cold. My brother and I had never experienced anything like this, except for jumping into the cold end of the spring-fed pool at Barton Springs in Austin. But, this was a whole ocean of freezing water.
Our next surprise came when we tried to body surf in the waves. First, the beach was steeper than on the Gulf, so the waves broke closer in where we were swimming. Second, the waves were bigger than the Gulf’s limpid surges of warm cloudy water. We swam out to where they broke and caught one only to get a very exhilarating ride and land face first into the beach. The waves knocked us around and we enjoyed ourselves, but the cold and exertion wore us out pretty quickly.
Since, I’ve enjoyed water in all its guises. I’ve swum or snorkeled in Colorado, Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, Hawaii, Mexico, Greece, Jamaica, Nevis, St. John, the Red Sea and a few other places. I’ve rafted rivers in Colorado and New Mexico, and fished lots of lakes and streams and a few oceans. I’ve come to appreciate warm, clear water and small waves.
But these days, I mostly like my water cool, maybe with ice, sipped in the shade on my own patio. Of course, a little scotch doesn’t hurt, either.