Growing up, I was the only boy in our pack of townies that wouldn’t jump off the falls in Chagrin Falls. It was dangerous and illegal, of course, and there were plenty of kids over the years who didn’t stick the landing – primarily because they dove instead of jumping out past the jutting rocks. But everyone did it anyway.
Eventually, somebody – some say it was the fire department itself - hammered an “x” into the rocks at the top of the falls to mark the safest jumping point. It was the ultimate “if you must” concession to teenage stupidity and boredom.
But as much as I feared heights, it was the splashdown into the surprisingly deep bowl of water that prevented me from taking my turn. I was a first-generation bad swimmer from a family of non-swimmers.
One side of my family had been through the Great Dayton Flood of 1913, rendering them “landlocked” forever. And while it’s tough to top the panic of a rooftop rescue, I believe the other side of my family may have experienced even more trauma. Their boxer-and-boxcar-building father threw them in the Shenango River to figure out swimming for themselves. To this day, visualizing that struggle still cuts my breath a bit.
It was no surprise, then, that I swam like a kangaroo. In my early swim lessons, I would swim holding my nose, eyes squeezed shut, paddling one-armed to the bottom of the pool to desperately grope for the gold stones that the teenage instructor had tossed into the pool. Of course, the odds of swimming successfully like this are nil.
In the end, every trip into the wave pool at Geauga Lake was a near-death experience, and every first-period gym class that required a mile-swim resulted in mouthful after mouthful of chlorinated water. (I barfed pool water so many times in second period Ancient World History that I still gag when someone mentions Alexander the Great.)
So let’s flash forward to today, and my next generation of aquatic hopefuls – living their life on the watery West Side lakeshore. Did I follow the lessons of my forefathers and fling my children helplessly off the fishing wall at Sweetwater Landing? No, I deferred to actual swim lessons, and the only anxiety my children experienced was a creepy taxidermy display outside the River Oaks Fitness Center’s pool.
But our water-resistant DNA still surfaces from time to time. This April, my fifth-grader tried to cannonball our policy of swim lessons and swim team every summer. “We don’t want you to know how to swim,” I said. “We want you to be a good swimmer.”
Clever, right? But in the back of my mind, I know this means that someday he won’t hesitate at the top of whatever waterfall he and his friends come across. In the end, all I can hope for is that he jumps like hell, and that he’s ready for the splashdown.
Call it a leap of faith.
Tim Piai is a freelance writer living in Rocky River.