Swimming with Orders of Nuns and
Mrs Kelly taught me to swim when I was five years old. She taught half of Coogee to swim. It was imperative for a little boy to learn to swim in Sydney's coastal suburbs because we were surrounded by water. The Tasman Sea, the South Pacific Ocean (OK two names for one body of water, but it was a huge body of water, with big waves), Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay (originally called Stingray Bay for obvious reasons).
My parents learned to swim in rivers. They were born and brought up in a landlocked country. Amazingly though, Czechoslovakia, while not producing top swimmers, did have an amazingly high level of water polo. And the champions of Czech water polo, before the second world war, were a Bratislava Jewish team (after the war there were barely enough Jews left alive to form a polo team).
To this very day, I still do not know if my mother learnt to swim, but my father did a pretty good breaststroke. He just couldn't swim with his face in the water. No crawl, but a mean breaststroke. In the new country however, they taught crawl right off. Australian Crawl of course. In Australia, real men crawl!
My mother faithfully took me swimming (and to many other places too, like, can I admit it publically -- yes, to ballet) at the appointed times of the lessons. The pool in which I learnt to swim was universally known and loved as the "Ladies Bathes". It is a rock pool located just south of Coogee beach. Entry to this swimming facility is (very) restricted to females and little boys. Only much later did we realise that this was a hang-out for nuns. Remember, Coogee was a very Catholic area, and a number of religious orders were represented here.
The nuns sunbaked topless behind a few little seven foot tall wood fenced-off enclosures, scattered around the grounds -- sunbathed for American speakers of English, but believe me, the Australian term is much more descriptive and applicable in our story -- these ladies really baked, themselves -- their skin was tanned like leather. They used to rub oil all over their enormous blubbery bodies in order to speed up the tanning process -- they should have called the place the Ladies Tannery.
We were young and naïve; we were brought up in a very sheltered environment. When "they" told the little boys not to enter these enclosures, well, we just didn't. (For all I know now, they were sunning themselves in the all together.) We did wonder a little about what might have gone on there, but we were good boys. We were so dumb that we even thought the pool had been built as nature reserve for penguins swimming north for warmer water in the winter. I remember one day seeing a moustached walrus, and on another, a slippery seal (or sea lion) -- nuns came in all shapes and sizes.
In the water, we "felt" plenty of oozie, slippery objects: sea anemone (a sea flower), sea urchins (soft bodied echinoderms, enclosed in a round shell covered with long spines like finger nails) and other slimy nameless creatures. They were stuck to the pool walls -- the pool was covered with them. We would inadvertently rub against each other continuously -- yuck! -- it was hard to avoid. And crabs and shrimps shared the water with us: the nuns and the little boys and girls. At high tide, the Tasman sent its waves crashing over the barrier which divided us from the outside, the unknown expanse of ocean. Wedding Cake Island, a hundred and fifty yards out to sea, was the extent of our known world. Daily, waves would bring a new colony of crustaceans and sea anenome, and suck back the old. We were environmentally correct. (Yes, crabs do bite.)
The nuns, after returning to the habits, sat by the exit and sold sticky homemade toffee to the little boys (and girls) for a penny a piece. Stuck to your teeth they did. The Church should be paying my dental bills! But I admit, we enjoyed chewing and sucking that sticky muck off our teeth.
When I was eight years old, my mother decided that my brother too should learn to swim. Since she had nowhere to dump me after school, when his lessons were on, she took me along too. Because I am a bother when I have nothing to do, she enrolled me in the pool swim squad. And that's where my bad habit started. Since that day, there has barely been a day in which I have not been in a pool somewhere or in the surf. I swam competitively as a kid and now I compete in masters (euphemism for old fellas) swimming events.
In those days, the real swimmers also swam in the mornings -- at a different pool, the Coogee Aquarium. The "Akka" started life as a shark pool. In the twenties and thirties, people would pay money to come and watch the sharks swim around in captivity. By the forties, the killer creatures had gone (people lost interest -- anyway you could stand on the sand at the beach and watch the sharks eat one or two people every now and then -- that was before any nets). The pool allowed people to swim there instead. The "Aqua" was located about a hundred yards from the beach. Water was pumped in from the ocean. This pool was tiled. This was a difference experience to the ladies pool. Men and women, boys and girls. Serious swimming only. From age nine, I'd be there daily, at six o'clock in the morning.
In those days we didn't swim in the winter. I remember arriving at the pool on the 1st October, the first day of the new season. I guess I was ten years old, and my previous swim was in the nice warm April waters. I got up on the blocks. Mrs Kelly (that's what the boys called her -- the girls called her Auntie Rose) said, "Take it easy and start with an eight lap warm-up". I dived into the pool. I thought I had just died; a short life flashed before me; I thought perhaps an unnoticed, escaped iceberg was parked in the pool. It was freeeeeezing! I froze, literally. I managed two laps, panting like a dog. I thought I was dying of frostbite, my teeth would stop chattering. Mrs Kelly hauled me out of the ice water and wrapped me in every towel she could find. (I was the only swimmer who braved the pool this first day.) She hugged me lovingly to stop me shivering. When I finally warmed up, probably by noon, I got dressed and she drove me home in her little mauve Morris Minor.
Ever since that day, I have never entered a swimming pool with a dive. I ease in slowly, excruciatingly so, very gently. These days the pools are heated, but I still take no chances. The trauma remains. I always slide into the shallow end, and once in the water, I slowly walk towards the deep water, very slowly, until the water is up to my chin. On then do I start to swim.
While I turned up to the pool early every morning, I was not always that keen. Coach would say, "16 lap warm up, followed by 16 by 110 yard sprints, on the two minutes". "Yes coach." She had a big squad, kids at many different levels, some needing more attention that others. If I wasn't in the mood, I'd do a couple of the warm up laps, hide in the boys' change room for half an hour and come back for the last sprint. Ah the advantages of having a female coach -- she'll never find me. Well . . . there I was one morning, minding my own business, meditating in the little boys' room, an occasional visitor entering for a pee. Suddenly she was standing there -- in the mens' room! -- what? -- I let out a yelp, a scream. Did I get a lecture, was I in trouble. She said, "No-one makes you come here, so what gives. Swim or stay in your warm bed." She had a point there, but I was too speechless to get a word out. How embarrassing. How did she dare to enter this all male domain. (The last visitor to the urinal had been sent by Mrs Kelly to ensure I was in there on my own. Outsmarted by coachie!)
But I did keep coming to the pool everyday. And later to beach for a bit of bodysurfing. I love to be in the water. I love the weightlessness. And I've become addicted to the endorphin rush.
Coogee has other pools too. They probably have different names today. First there were two little rock pools on the beach itself, right under the Surf Life Saving Club (Coogee SLSC) building. We swam there when the surf was too high, which on Coogee Bay is rare. To the south of the Ladies Bathes was Wiley's swimming pool. It was also a rock pool, but bigger than the others and with a higher wall. Less waves and less sea creatures. We didn't go there much except when were learnt Life Saving. And then there was Giles Bathes into which I have never ventured and about which I know nothing. There were no indoor pools in those days.
P.S. No, I not aware of a pool in Coogee [Randwick or Clovelly] for priests and little girls or boys or other creatures. [If there was, it was certainly well disguised and hidden from my view.] But in hindsight, given the Pope's apology during his recent visit to Royal Randwick (racecourse), to the people of Australia (who were once children), I really can't say I know what was happening to my neighbours.
Perhaps I should be thankful I was too stupid to enter the wooden enclosures at the Ladies Bathes.
19th August, 2008
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