You Have to Float Before You Can Swim

Baw* taught me how to swim when I was four or five years old in Puppy Creek, a little tributary of Dog River just outside of Citronelle. We’d take the old truck and head off down the Prine Road and when it turned to dirt at the stop sign, we’d turn left onto the Lott Road. At the top of the big hill above the creek, Baw would let me “steer” the truck as we coasted down toward the bridge because in the days before car seats, I always rode in his lap.

Just before the bridge, Baw would put the truck back into gear and slowly guide it off the side of the road, down the washed-out, rutted trail that took you a little closer to the water’s edge. We’d park and collect our towels and get Baw’s gold, nylon-strapped folding chair out of the back of the truck. He’d always get his pistol out from under the seat too. It came in handy a time or two when Old Mr. No Shoulders came calling. Then, carrying our things, we’d pick our way down through the weeds and brush to the sandy edge of the creek shaded by the bridge above.

Creek water in South Alabama is brown like iced tea. I once read somewhere that, just like tea, it gets that color from tannins in certain plants that flourish there like sumac and bay. The creek beds are white, white sand like at the beach and are sometimes barely tinted with a little brown here and there where some water might stand a little while. The banks have deposits of bluish-gray clay, just perfect for a little girl to fashion crude teacups and saucers out of.

Now this brown water is generally shallow in Puppy Creek, barely shin deep on a grownup in most places. But at our swimming hole, there where you could hear the cars going ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunk over the bridge, was a place where there was a little dam of logs and sticks that created a deeper spot that came up about to Baw’s waist and was nearly up to my chin. That’s where I learned to swim.

Before you can swim, though, you have to learn to float. I remember leaning back while Baw supported me with his hands and he held me in the current. The cool water flowed around me. And as my ears filled up with water, I could hear my breath. In and out. In and out louder than I’d ever heard it. I could feel the hot, hot sun on my face. Baw’s voice seemed very far away.

Slowly he took away one hand. Then he took away the other. The current carried me along with it until the water got too shallow to support even a small child. Over and over, I would float from deep to shallow, deep to shallow, deep to shallow. Just as many times as he would hold me and let me go.

Then the day came when Baw showed me how to float on my stomach. Again he supported me. Again he let me go to float away as far as I could. Over and over.

One day we added some kicking. You float down to the shallow part a little faster when you kick. Another day he showed me how to paddle with my arms just like a puppy in Puppy Creek. And when you move your arms and your legs all in concert with one another and manage to float and not sink, that’s swimming. That’s what Baw said.

When Baw and I didn’t go to the creek, I swam at the community pool. I swam every chance I could get. But as much as I loved propelling myself through the water, arms cutting through the surface making as little splash as possible, legs kicking and kicking and kicking, I still loved to just float — to feel the hot sun and the cool water, to hear my breath and heartbeat and the muffled sounds of the other kids screaming and playing, to close my eyes against the bright and lose myself in the colors behind my eyelids.

Baw died not too long after my tenth birthday. He floated away from me one night, just like I had floated away from him so many times before only this time there was no shallow spot to stop him. No water to keep him afloat. No arms to keep him from sinking. We had to let him go. It was a heart attack, they said.

I didn’t get to go to the creek much after that, but I kept on swimming. And as much as I still like to swim to this day, I mainly love to just relax backward and let the water lift me up. And as my ears fill up with water, I hear my breath. In and out. In and out. I feel the hot, hot sun on my face. And sometimes I still hear Baw’s voice very far away and feel his hands supporting me. Supporting me as I float.

*”Baw” is what I called my maternal grandfather.

(Have you gotten your copy of my new book, They Call Me Orange Juice? If you’re in Birmingham, head over to Little Professor Book Center or Church Street Coffee & Books, and in Citronelle, you can get one at Jeanna’s Flower Shop. Or you can order your copy today!)