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2004-09-19 - 5:23 p.m.

A Childhood Fear That Lingers On

POY Topic: Childhood Fears

Do you remember what you were afraid of when you were a little child?
What brought it on? How did you deal with it?

I remember vividly. And it has haunted me all of my adult life. We lived on a farm across a dike road from the Humptulips River a few miles from Copalis Crossing not far from Copalis Beach, one of the Pacific Ocean beaches of Grays Harbor County in the state of Washington. Copalis Beach is ideal for bathers and is known as the “home of the razor clam” in the Pacific Northwest. My brother and his friends reveled in driving their cars along miles of its hard packed sand. But I digress. Copalis Crossing is known for almost nothing – a wide spot in the road or at least it was when we lived there.

The driveway to our house was directly off the dike road, probably no more than 50 yards I’m guessing. From the gravel beach, I’d sit and watch my Dad and his friends with their hip-high waders fish for coho, steelhead, and chinook salmon. Sometimes the river was low and shallow enough for wading, but not a good swimming hole by where we lived. But during the rainy season, the river became swollen and angry, sometimes even breaking through the dike and flooding our property. My mother would load my brother, sister and me in the car with clothes enough for a week or so, and drive us in to town to stay with my aunt and uncle. My Dad would stay on the farm to get the animals to high ground before finally giving up and escaping by boat.

It seems something of a miracle that kids survived as well as they did in those days; there seemed to be very little adult supervision, especially after even one of the crowd got his driver’s license. Usually the older kids would pile into one jalopy and the younger ones followed along in another. A common destination during the summer was the swimmin’ hole down by Meservey’s. A favorite activity, which even then seemed especially dangerous and daring, involved the boys diving headfirst off the railroad trestle into the river. I guess the first boy to dive “tested” whether it was deep enough to avoid complete disaster and permanent disability. I don’t ever recall a disastrous dive, but it was something of a miracle.

My sister Jean wasn’t much of a swimmer then, or now, for that matter. And it is no wonder! The boys, including my brother Bill, of course, were always teasing and “ducking” her whenever she went swimming, causing her eventually to find any excuse to avoid going into the water. I’ve never been a swimmer either, but for an entirely different reason. I blame the circumstances of living across the road from the river. I must have been admonished a thousand times, “Don’t cross the dike, Joni! You’ll fall in the river and drown.”

Then when I was about six years old and eligible for Red Cross swimming lessons, what did they do? Why, they took me down to that same murky, dark river (where children drown!). “They want me to do what? They want me to put my face in the water. To bring my feet up off the ground and TRUST THEM? Can you believe it? They must be kidding. Forget it. I’m never going back.”

The coup de grâce came shortly after we moved into town after selling our farm to the family of our housekeeper. Doris had cooked, cleaned and taken care of me while my mother worked and traveled around the state. Her two children, Gary,a couple of years younger than I, and three-year-old Baby Roy had been my constant after-school companions. First, Gary had a calamitous mishap with some dynamite caps he happened upon in a neighbor's garage, leaving him totally blind. Shortly thereafter, Baby Roy went missing from the yard and was found in the dreaded river. I mourned his drowning doubly, I think. With the magic thinking of a ten year old, in my heart I believed that if we had not moved, I would have been with him and he would not have crossed the dike and fallen in the river and drowned. This solidified my fear of the water.

Even in high school I used some ploy like, “I’m allergic to chlorine,” which was partially true, to get out of mandatory-for-graduation swimming classes. I can still barely swim and it is certainly not my recreation of choice; I still don’t like putting my head under water even in our clean, clear swimming pool.

One result of this early terror is that I made sure that my children learned to swim before they were out of diapers…and even then, when we went to the lake or out on a boat, it seemed like I spent all of my time counting kids! Life jackets at the lake or around a pool were mandatory until each child was judged totally proficient. And, of course, always swimming with a buddy. Each spring all would be required to practice “drownproofing” before any boat rides or expeditions to the lake.

My insistence on practicing “drownproofing” nearly led to my children being expelled from the University swimming pool. One spring afternoon after we moved to Davis, my teenage daughter Marci took her 8 year old brother Keith over to University pool where he decided to get some of his practicing in; he went out into the middle of the big pool and started “drownproofing”. After about his third time of bobbing to the surface, the lifeguard unbeknownst to Keith drove in while another guard started clearing the pool. Keith, an accomplished swimmer by this time, was more than a little insulted by this intrusion on his practice. From then on, we asked that the children notify the lifeguards in advance of any of these maneuvers.

I have several friends who have repeatedly urged me to join them in water aerobics, assuring me how therapeutic it would be for my arthritic joints. I’d rather have a root canal!

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