By Tim Murphy:
With summer in the rearview mirror as we head into fall, I was thinking back to how much I loved swimming when I was a kid. We had a 2-foot above-ground pool in our backyard. It was maybe 10 feet across. I can still remember the days when my dad would put it up. Those were gold-star days in my memory: summer was here. I also remember the first swim of the year in that pool. It was so cold it might have delayed my puberty, but it didn’t take long before the water warmed up.
We didn’t have air conditioning; the pool was our air conditioning. My parents threw us in the pool after dinner, and that cooled us off enough to go to sleep. When I got to be about 8, we upgraded to a 3-and-a-half footer. It was 15 to 20 feet across, and it had a ladder to get in. That was a big deal. It had a pump and a filter; the 2-footer didn’t—which is kind of gross to think about now, but it didn’t matter back then. Maybe that’s why it warmed up so nicely.
Swimming everyday had one drawback: my nose ran all the time. The more I swam, the more it ran. It didn’t just run while I was swimming—it ran all day. My mom figured out that I needed a nose plug. She got the kind of nose plug that had a rubber band that would hold it around my neck so if it fell off, I wouldn’t lose it. It was very smart, and very efficient, and it kept the water cleaner.
In seventh grade, we moved a couple blocks away to a bigger house (the one we were living in only had one bathroom, and there were seven of us). The pool didn’t come with, and we still didn’t have air conditioning. It was a hot summer in a lot of ways. It was the summer of ’68, when our nation went through a lot of issues similar to today.
We joined the Surf Club; we learned that everybody who was anybody belonged to the Surf Club. It was a gigantic pool with a low dive and a high dive. Lifeguards too. The Surf Club was awesome. We didn’t know anybody, but it was still awesome. My mom would let us each bring a friend, one apiece, so that made it even better. It meant that there were often 10 kids in the car, but seatbelts weren’t a thing back then, and we were all small. We spent all day going off the low dive until August, when we got up enough nerve to try the high dive. Then it was all day jumping off the high dive. I was too scared to dive headfirst, so I perfected the cannonball and the can-opener dives. They were feet/butt first. I tried going without the nose plug, but jumping off the diving board that way shoved a lot of water up my nose, so the nose plug became more and more important.
The one drawback to standing in line for the diving board at the Surf Club was kids would grab my nose plug, pull on it, and then let it snap back to hit me in the throat. That didn’t happen in the backyard. My Adam's apple took a beating. Kids that I didn’t even know would do it. They would come up like they were my best buddy, then pull it back and snap and then laugh their heads off. Sometimes they even pulled it right off my nose and snapped it. Once one kid saw it happen, then every kid had to do it. So, it was an emotional struggle: stand in line with the nose plug or not wear it and stand in line with my nose flowing like a river. Either way, it led to abusive behavior.
Somewhere around this time, bathing suit fashions changed. The summer of ’68 was a cultural revolution on multiple levels. Maybe it was the exposure to more things at the Surf Club, branching out beyond the pool in the backyard. Up until that time, the swimsuits were the big, baggy kind that had a netting inside to keep the goods intact. But to be honest, up until that time there weren’t really any goods. But the Surf Club offered a new fashion experience. The kids on the Surf Club Swim Team wore speedos. My mom was not going to allow those. I don’t think Catholics could wear them, and we weren’t on the swim team anyway. But all the other kids wore tighter-fitting swimsuits. The leg of the suit went down to mid-thigh or so, but they were tight, stretchy, form-fitting material—not at all like the baggy ones I had grown up wearing. We were finally allowed to get a pair, but after the swim season was over when the suits went on sale. Because there were seven of us, our family was always a year or so behind the fashion. We had to wait for things to be out of season or out of fashion and went on sale.
In the winter of that year, some of my buddies found out that Bremen High School opened their pool up one night a week for open swim. Swimming in the winter in Chicago was unheard of, but it was so exciting. We got our moms to take us. When I put the new swimsuit on, it was tight. It didn’t have the netting to hold stuff together. It was a bit awkward to look down there and see . . . lumpy stuff. Instead of the usual baggy, puffy swimsuit it was . . . very different. I overheard somebody say you needed a jockstrap with those kind of suits. I didn’t have a jockstrap. At Catholic school, we didn’t have gym class, so we didn’t need jockstraps.
An interesting side note, when I got to public high school, we had to prove we had on our jockstraps during gym class. The teacher checked. We had a jockstrap check at the beginning of class. I just now thought of that . . . weird. And people thought Catholic schools had all the weird stuff, but that was the public high school.
I played park district basketball that winter for the first and only time. I didn’t have basketball skills. I was very small, but maybe more importantly, I had bad aim. I had very poor eyesight—near sighted with astigmatism—and I wore pretty thick glasses, which didn’t seem to help my aim. Part of the equipment for basketball was coincidentally to get a jockstrap. We were to get our own socks, shoes, shorts, and jockstraps. They would supply the jersey. I told our mom. She told our dad.
Our dad had gone to Catholic school too, so he didn’t have a lot of experience with jockstraps either. Our neighborhood didn't have a sporting goods store. We had Ed Shirley's Sporting Goods, but that was only fishing and hunting, and they said you don't need jockstraps for those sports—just places to hold and protect your whiskey and beer. Ed Shirley, who owned the store, only had one arm—which kind of adds up. So, my dad went to the local Zayre's Department Store and came home with a pair of shiny blue shorts (the kind boxers wore) and a padded jockstrap.
When I opened up the jockstrap, the padding wasn't what threw me. It was not having a back end that took me off guard. Jockstraps don’t cover your butt. I didn’t know that, and I found it shocking. What if I went up for a shot and somebody pulled my shorts down. There was nothing covering my butt! All the fans in the stands would see my butt! And why wouldn't they pull my shorts down if they knew I didn't have anything covering my butt? You couldn’t just Google “jockstraps” back then. Good thing, because you didn’t want to have that on your screen, and my mom was the type who would have checked my browser history, and if she saw pictures of jockstraps, she might have gotten the wrong idea. But there was no Internet back then, and the Sears catalog didn’t carry them. So, the only way to find things out was to ask somebody. My brother had a friend who played basketball, and he told me that's what jockstraps were, and that there was no back end. He said that they don't often have the inch-thick padding in the front like the one I showed him. The padding part still didn't bother me. I figured if I ever had to go in and be an emergency catcher in baseball, the padding might come in handy. So, I played with my underpants under my jockstrap.
The next time we got to Bremen High School to go swimming, we went into the locker room to put on our swimsuits. I put the jockstrap on and my tight swimsuit. The padding protruded in a very noticeable way. It was pretty thick. My basketball/boxing shorts were baggy, so it didn’t show when I wore them to play basketball. But with a tight swimsuit on it was a little shocking to look down there—way more shocking than just looking down at the lumpy, un-jockstrapped swimsuit, which was awkward enough. But the padding kind of looked like a cone or an extra cheek but on the wrong side.
I suppose I should mention that I was not just small but very, very skinny. When I wore a swimsuit, I looked a lot like a poster for undernourished children. Being that skinny wearing my tight swimsuit and the padded jockstrap looked somewhat unusual.
I dismissed it though, thinking this is what they said to do, and I was a rule follower. I didn’t know there were other jockstraps. This was the only one I ever saw. So, I put on my nose plug and my thick glasses and headed out to the pool. As soon as I got into the pool area, the glasses immediately fogged up. That was kind of good though, because I couldn’t see people looking at me. Funny, kids came up like they wanted to pull my nose, but then they turned and walked away. I guess they could see my padding and figured that I was not to be messed with.
Bremen’s pool had a diving board, and we all wanted to get as much time on that as possible. I took my glasses off, put them with my towel, and got in line. I did my first dive and swam over the side of the pool to climb up the ladder. Once I stepped on the concrete, I felt a lot of weight in my swimsuit. I looked down and realized that my padded jockstrap absorbed water. The weight of the water-filled jockstrap was pulling at my swimsuit. The tight, stretchy material hung down in an extraordinary way. As skinny as I was, it was pulling my swimsuit down, and the jockstrap didn’t have a back-side, and I didn’t wear my underpants . . . and my butt was showing. So, I grabbed the jockstrap to hold it up to keep from exposing my butt.
As I stood there, holding up the sagging jockstrap, a little bit of panic started to set in, and it seemed like the whole pool stopped swimming and went quiet. I noticed a lot of people were all looking at me, and I realized that I was holding myself. My brother had told me before to quit doing that—that I would get a reputation—so I instinctively let it go. The jockstrap drooped and my tight swimsuit stretched, and water was gushing out of it. I spent the rest of the night wrapped up in my towel on the side of the pool.
I didn’t go to open swim at the Bremen High School pool anymore after that. The only time I ever went to that pool was my freshman year of high school when the football coach told us we all had to play a winter sport. I was no good at basketball, and wrestling didn’t seem fun because my brother and I always got in trouble for doing that, but I liked swimming, and I had finally gotten the right kind or jockstrap for high school, because they checked. Our high school didn’t have a pool, so we had to use the one at Bremen. I showed up with my beach towel and nose plug thinking it would be fun to sit around with the guys and chat. Well, there was none of that. It was just get in the pool and start swimming laps. I wasn’t good at that kind of swimming. I just liked to float around and do whirlpools and stuff. Swimming lap after lap was hard, and people were swimming over me because I was slow. So, I told the coach I had to go to the bathroom, and I hid in there until practice was over. I never went to that Bremen pool ever again, and the joy of swimming somehow slipped away.
This story made me think about things we loved when we were kids that dropped off along the way growing up. That was one of the drawbacks of having to grow up I suppose; sometimes we lost interest. Somewhere we got shortsighted when we learned to think long term. Sometimes things got a stigma about them, and they weren’t fashionable anymore. Sometimes things pulled away. Sometimes other kids snapped it away from us and we couldn’t learn to turn the other cheek. Sometimes our noses got out of joint. Sometimes we made it into too big of a thing and the pressure got too heavy. Sometimes we just got too competitive, and that took the fun out of it. Mostly, we just had to grow up—and we forgot to have time for fun.
Those things are behind me now. If I live to be hundred, then I am entering into the final third. That has me starting to think about aging and how to age well. I have seen some do it very well and some not. There are some traits I have noticed that seem to be prevalent in the people who age well. They stay physically active. They have a sense of play. They seem to find joy when they don’t act their age. They do things that give them a sense of purpose—a sense of meaning to their life—giving something back and being of service to others. They laugh a lot.
My Aunt Ronnie, who was a riot, often wore silly hats, came up with crazy games to play, and could be heard laughing from the minute she walked into a room. She arranged card games to raise money to give Christmas gifts to people in nursing homes who often were younger than her. Her daughter Rita, who was brilliant—Mensa-grade IQ, PHD—taught math at several universities and drove a school bus. She wore socks that never matched. Towards the end of her life, when she was asked why, she said it was to remember to not take herself so seriously. I like that. I want to do that.
So, there are a couple of warm days left. The little lake that I live on is still warm enough to swim in. Time to take advantage of that before it’s too late. I wonder where my nose plug is
. . . CANNONBALL!!!
Tim Murphy grew up on the south side of Chicago in a home filled with Catholic Irish traditions. He has kissed the Blarney Stone and been given the gift of storytelling. He attended Catholic Grade School, public high school and a Lutheran College—which perhaps has shaped his somewhat irreverent style. In his sixty-four years, he has received many blessings, and despite his misbehavior, they seem to keep coming.