Lifeguarding is a vital job. Quite literally, many people owe their lives to lifeguards. These swimmers-and non-swimmers- are at the beach as much as poolside. Australia has a swimming culture, where everyone learns to swim. So much so that time in the water is an unspoken rite of passage for Aussie kids: a place to feel free and unfettered by daily chores because the water cleanses off the humdrum of school and chores. Not to mention that, in bathers, there is much more bodily flesh on offer than in any other public situation- something young love can appreciate.
I can still remember the pride I felt at getting my certificates stating I could swim 25 metres, then 50 metres. (My early childhood swimming tuition preceded Austswim’s more extensive water safety programs.) My mother said I was good enough then not to need lessons, and future pool visits were strictly for fun.
For a couple of years when I was in primary school my family camped at Robe in South Australia. The Holden station wagon would be packed to the hilt and my parents, my sisters and I would clamber in. The drive took a good day, and the lack of air conditioning made sticking to the seat a regular occurrence. Once camp was set up we had a blissful couple of weeks to hang out with our friends and swim in the ocean.
Our family friends were local to the area and showed us all the best places to have fun in. At night, planks ripped from the boardwalk would feed the fires on the beach: after a 30 degree day of swimming in the relentless sun I lay back on the sand, now dressed in a windcheater and long pants to ward off the cold ocean breeze. The fire warmed one side of me, and after a while I would change directions. Someone had a guitar and people were singing and laughing, the rhythmic sound of the waves everconstant in the background. The shooting stars in the moonless sky were plentiful and I was so filled up with happiness that there wasn’t anything better.
I learnt to body surf at Robe, my strong father holding me up to the swell behind the breakers- beyond my depth- and calling out, “Paddle! Paddle!” I turned my arms like a windmill and kicked with all my might and then I was gliding, carried by the wave, surging in its foamy power towards the shore. The feeling of freedom that accompanies this activity is rare… and cherished! There is such a feeling of accomplishment at catching a good wave! Even without learning to board surf!
Mind you I, like every ocean swimmer, copped my fair share of dumpers where I was tossed and turned in a tumble of water, as often as not to crash my head on the sand before I could rise above the turmoil- and breathe again. I copped my fair share of blue bottle jellyfish stings and crab nips. And I experienced the most painful sunburn I have ever had (and I used to burn every year, being in the days before the association with skin cancer was known and therefore before sunscreen): two huge blisters 10cm square on either side of my lower spine, when my protective T-shirt rode up thereby exposing my fair skin, while I was playing in the shallows. The remedy of the day was to rub in Calomine lotion and invariably (because we were camping at the beach) some sand got rubbed in as well. It hurt so much I couldn’t sleep on my back for weeks.
Robe was also the place where I started drifting out to sea, because I didn’t know how to control the board I was sitting on and kicked the wrong way. Watching my worried mother on the beach deserted by all but my family, the sun having set already and the twilight receding, thoughts of drifting on an endless ocean with no fresh water and plenty of sharks invaded my thoughts. My oldest sister swam out to get me: she got me lying on the board in the right direction and paddled me in. I don’t know how far out it was but in my mind it was a good kilometre: I was way behind the breakers… Come to think of it, maybe this has something with my never having learnt to surf with a board, comfortable to surf with my body. I still love bodysurfing and try to make it into the ocean at least once a year.
As a teenager I would walk to the pool with my mates, spend an afternoon or a day there, then walk all the way home again. Around five kilometres each way, around about. The walk, along a main road with cars whooshing by, was always hot and sticky and I regularly questioned whether the effort was worth it, but the refreshing coolness of the pool never failed to disappoint! Those were great times.
Once my friend and I stopped in front of the slushy machine we never had money for, said to each other, “If I was buying one of these I’d get a lime one”, and pressed the button. To our surprise and delight a cup dropped down, then crushed ice, then water and syrup. Someone must have left some money in there that they didn’t use. We felt lucky that day!