Swimming

If foreigners were to be shown an aerial view of Portrush with calm ocean and relatively blue sky, peaceful harbour, small western and extensive eastern beaches, they would reasonably conclude that it was an idyllic location.  And on a rare perfect summer day, they would be partially correct.  But the water in the North Atlantic is never less than quite cold, there is a steep shelving beach and strong rip tides.  On a rare warm day, swimming in the harbour can be pleasant, albeit bracing.

I never learned to swim when I lived there.  My parents could not swim, few of their generation could, and of my age group only a handful, mostly those who had relatively prosperous parents, who took them away to more temperate climates on holidays.

When I was growing up, there was only one small indoor swimming pool in the area, that of the Northern Counties Hotel in Portrush.  I recall that a small group from my school used to go there for lessons on a Friday evening, mainly those who were from the rowing club; to participate in rowing, the oarsmen had to be capable of swimming a length of the pool, a not very challenging task.  The group was led by Dan Cunningham, our physics teacher, who, when a younger man, was reputed to once having swum from Portrush to the Skerries, a chain of islands off the coast.

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Portrush, circa 1960, with the Skerries to the north

When I first migrated to Canada, I stayed for a few days with my grandparents in Brampton, outside Toronto.  The first weekend, they arranged for some older university students, grandchildren of their friends, to take me out for the day.  Unfortunately, nobody told me that their idea of a day out meant a beach and swimming.  We went to a nearby lake, where they immediately plunged into the water, leaving me ‘on the beach’.  The students were quite incredulous that I could not swim and that I was not going to attend a university.

My day brightened up momentarily, when they offered me what I understood to be a beer.  It turned out to be a can of something called Root Beer, a disgusting soft drink.  When they told me that I had to be 21 before I could legally have a beer – I was 18 at the time, I felt quite discouraged.

It was when we were in Hawaii, on our way to Australia, that I decided that I had to learn to swim, at least well enough to survive.  I swore that I would not leave Hawaii until I could swim out to a raft anchored a short distance offshore from Waikiki Beach.

But for day after day, I struggled.  I had no problem with being under water, but I could not take my feet off the bottom.  Sandra, who swam like a fish, tried her very best to encourage me, but to no avail. Both the problem and the solution were in my head.

Finally, I set off for the raft, swimming backstroke, and with no problem, I made it.  And once there, I discovered that I could dive.  It was a new element for me.  Later, in Tahiti, I had the incredible experience of diving in the lagoon, and swimming among the multi-coloured fish.  An unforgettable experience.

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Waikiki Beach, Honolulu (photo from internet)

In Australia, I frequently went to the beaches – Bondi, Coogee, Manly etc.  I even spent one Christmas Day on a beach.  And when the waves were relatively friendly, I often managed to bodysurf.  On one occasion I found myself caught in a riptide, and although I had no problem getting back to shore, it was a sobering experience.

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Bondi Beach, Sydney (photo from internet)

When we lived in Kirribilli, across from the Opera House, we used to go to the nearby Olympic pool, just by the harbour.  In those days, there was a 10-metre high diving board, and from it I used to throw a coin in the water, dive in and retrieve in from the more than five-metre-deep pool.  I found that much more exhilarating than swimming length after boring length.

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North Sydney swimming pool in recent years (photo from internet)

We only once owned a house with a pool, in Miami.  After the initial surge of  enthusiasm, the pool sat empty for month after month.  Sometimes I would jump in after a run or while working in the garden on a hot day; there is not much else an adult can do with a small pool.  I was left with the weekly chore of cleaning it and replenishing the copious expensive chemicals required to keep it relatively pristine.

I did once swim in the harbour at Portrush, during one of my fleeting visits.  I tried to go into the water at the Western Strand, but the water was so cold that my feet pained me within a short time, before it was up to my knees.  I went to the harbour and the water seemed to be more inviting, at least to tips of my fingers.  In those days there was still a diving board near the harbour mouth and from it I dived in.  I will never forget the shock of the cold water.  I got out as soon as I could, and I have never been back.

As with the weather, I don’t do cold.

That’s why I follow the sun…  🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hawaii

Uppsala

9 December 2017

It is late afternoon and already bible-black.  Earlier it was universal grey.  The sun seems to have long-deserted this forlorn northern country in winter.  It is no wonder that the old people have a look of desperation when they pass.  They know that they have several months before they may smile again.  Younger people seem to be more cheerful, but in time, many will also succumb to glum.

I pass my time waiting for my long-sought South African residence permit.  I started the process back in June.  I had all my papers and certificates available within a month, except for one; an FBI certificate from the US.  Somehow the Americans managed to take more than four months to respond.  When I thought that I would patiently pass 6-8 weeks in Europe in pleasant autumnal weather, waiting for the wheels of South African bureaucracy to slowly grind, I have found myself shivering once more in the frozen north.  Two years ago I was stuck in winter months waiting for a new passport and last year it was a wintry wait trying to prove to my bank of more than 30 years that I was not now a money-launderer.

Ya basta…

But I am never lost for things to occupy me: my investments, writing and family research, never mind my daily 2-hour walk, regardless of the weather.  And in the late evening, I have the life-long habit of reading before going to bed.  At the moment, I am once more reading James Mitchener’s Iberia, based on his four decades of travels and extensive research in Spain.  It is a book that never fails to whet my appetite for walking on the Spanish caminos.

Over the years, I have read many of Mitchener’s books – The Drifters, Sayonara, Caravans, Centennial, Chesapeake, to name but a few.  The first that I read was Hawaii.  When we set off from Toronto in February 1971, I had that book in my bag, and most evenings I slowly progressed through the epic tale, covering the history of the islands, from their creation to modern day; it is a formula that Mitchener has oft repeated in other novels.

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James Mitchener (1907-1997) in 1991 (photo from internet)

For four days we crossed a frozen Canada by train, to be welcomed by Vancouver to four days of torrential rain.  We flew south to San Francisco, but the weather was not much better, with more rain and fog.  By the time we flew west to Hawaii, I had had enough of crap weather; I never wanted to be cold and wet again.  And with its tropical climate and luxurious vegetation, Hawaii did not disappoint.

For the first few days we stayed near Hilo, before moving on to the island of Oahu and Honolulu.  We found a lovely small hotel on the beach.  It was bliss to lie at night with the screen doors wide open, a warm breeze, and the sound of waves crashing on the shore.  What luxury that was!

On one of the days there, I set off alone to walk into the nearby hills.  I walked all day, following a quiet country road, seeing nothing more than occasional plantation buildings.  At one point I came across a small museum, set back from the road.  I paid the modest entry to an old regal-looking Hawaiian lady and for a time browsed among the exhibits.

As I was about to leave, I noticed that I could buy ice-cold drinks there, so I rested in a comfortable chair, while I sipped on a beer and chatted to the lady.  It turned out that she was something of an expert in Hawaiian history and culture and the contents of the museum were items that she had collected over very many years, for she appeared to be quite ancient.

When I mentioned that I was currently reading Hawaii and asked if she had ever come across it, she clapped her hands and with enthusiasm told me that not only had she read it, but that James Mitchener was a great friend, and that she had assisted him in the research for his book.

I have never forgotten that day.  My life has been full of coincidence.  It is almost as if there is an unseen plan for me and every now and then I come across an encouraging sign that I am on the right path.

And here I am, once more in the frozen north, waiting to go back to the warm south.

As Yogi Berra once said, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again‘.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rattlesnake

Los Angeles, California

1976

I had not been long in Los Angeles, when I met Dale Williams, and through him, at a Saturday night party, Tom Anderson.  Tom had an asphalting company and when he heard that I was looking for casual work, he offered me a temporary job.  The schools were on summer holidays and he had just started a contract to resurface the playgrounds of eight of them in Long Beach.  He needed somebody to follow behind his crew and clean up the mess they always left in their wake.

So, on the Monday morning I turned up at Tom’s yard, where he gave me the keys to a big pickup truck, tools, a large can of solvent and the address of the first school, where I was to meet the foreman, who would show me what to do.  After most of an hour’s drive to Long beach and ten minutes of briefing, I was on my own.

I had to trim the edges of the asphalt and load the surplus onto the pickup truck and take it back to the yard at the end of the day.  Once the truck was full, I spent the rest of the day cleaning the tar marks off the concrete edging and paths, using the solvent and a stiff brush.  It was hard back-breaking work and the solvent gave off strong fumes in the hot Californian sun.  Each school yard took me about two days to clean and I was happy to have three weeks of paid work ahead of me.

When I had finished, Dale offered me a similar role as an odd-job man.  He was a real estate developer, with a foreman and a secretary and he built houses for eventual sale, sub-contracting all the trades.  When I was there, he was building a small apartment complex in Santa Monica and a large house in Malibu.  He had also recently bought a burned-out plot north of Malibu, the house having been destroyed in a bush fire; all that remained was the concrete slab.

So, for the rest of the year I went back and forward between the sites, clearing up and doing odd-jobs.  At one time, I hired a pneumatic drill and towed it up to the burned-out site overlooking the ocean, and broke up parts of the slab that would not be required in the new design.  I drilled holes in the concrete and inserted bolts to retain the wood frame.  Not being accustomed to working with a heavy drill, I could still feel the vibrations hours later.

On another occasion at the house in Malibu, I dug an 80 m trench out to the main road, to contain the electricity cables.  It was that feat that earned me the affectionate title of the ‘human back-hoe’.  And one of my proudest achievements was building the road from the gate up to the front door, using perforated concrete slabs, filled with compost and sown with grass seed.

Dale had found that the fire insurance on the Malibu property would be greatly reduced, if the hillside behind the house was cleared of scrub bushes, up to a minimum distance of 50 m.  That task took me a several days.  There was no shelter and the temperature was around 40 C.  The bushes had to be dug out and tossed down the steep hill for later disposal.  At one point, I was reaching into a bush to pull it out, when I heard a loud rattling sound and spotted a huge snake poised to strike me.  Without thinking, I sliced it in half with the spade which I had in my other hand.  I carried both halves of the snake down to the house and the workers watched it with fascination, as both halves crawled around the yard.  They told me that it was a diamondback rattler and one of the workers cut off the rattles.  It had six rattles, so was at least six years old.  Each year when it sheds its skin, it adds another rattle.  I buried the head, as it can strike up to one hour after being severed from the body.

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A rattle snake poised to strike, with the rattles raised and vibrating

Clearing the hillside created an enormous pile of brush.  Dale obtained permission from the local fire authority to have a bonfire on a Saturday, providing that a water hose was laid on.  So, that Saturday I spent almost an entire day feeding the fire, until all the brush was burned and all that remained was a small pile of ashes.

Those months that I spent doing labouring chores were unforgettable and the modest amount that I earned allowed me to extend my stay and experience the local way of life. I loved being in the open air, especially in the beautiful southern Californian weather. The hard work certainly toughened me up, but most nights at dinner, I could barely lift a knife and fork, my knuckles swollen and stiff from the lifting, carrying and digging, especially when I had been working with the pneumatic drill.

Yes, I have such fond memories of my stay in California and I feel forever grateful to Tom and Dale for having given me the opportunity to participate in it.

 

 

New York, New York

Competitive running played a dominant part in my life, from my first race in Venezuela in 1978 (see here), to my last, in 2003 in the UK.  In all I ran in 350 races.  I was very fortunate in being able to remain relatively injury-free during that period.

When I started competing, the Nirvana of marathon running was Boston, for which a qualifying time was required, and New York, where so many world records were made.  So, with the goal of attaining a Boston qualifying time of sub-2:50, I entered in the 1980 Cleveland marathon.

But before I left for Cleveland, my friend Fidel Rotondaro and I decided to organize a group to go to the New York marathon later that year, in October (see here for the article about Fidel).  We split up the responsibilities – Fidel with the transportation and me with the race entries and the accommodation.

Earlier that year, I had completed my first marathon in 3:09:45 in Miami, in what felt relatively easy, but a goal of 2:50 would be a marked increase in pace.  As it turned out my pacing was almost perfect, as I finished Cleveland in 2:49:52, with eight seconds to spare.  That Boston qualifying time resulted in a flattering write-up in one of the main Caracas newspapers.

On the way back to Caracas, I stopped off in New York and went to the New York Road Runners office.  There I met Fred Lebow, the founder.  He introduced me to his assistant, who would be my contact for any problem with runner entries.  He also recommended me to an hotel, close by the race finish, where later I made a block booking of rooms.

So, in October we all set off to New York.  Fidel had arranged for a bus to transport us from the airport to the hotel.  I will never forget the spontaneous singing of New York, New York on the bus, as we drove into the city.

The morning of the race, it was very cold.  The last buses to the start, on the other side of the Verezano Bridge, left long before the roads closed and there was a lot of hanging around, waiting for the start, with frequent visits to the toilets or the ‘longest urinal in the world’.

But eventually the race started and for me it flowed like a dream.  I was running at a pace to beat 2:45 and it was feeling easy.  When I entered Central Park with only a few kilometers to go, I turned up a gear and finished in 2:42:36.

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In Central Park, with about 5 km to go and feeling the ‘power’
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One of our group from Venezuela featured in the next publication of Runner’s World

I only ever beat that time once, in Miami, in 2:37:27.  I was quite convinced that I was eventually capable of sub-2:20, but a dusk collision with a bollard in a park and a new job that involved a lot of travel to Central and South America, placed my running ambitions on a back burner, where they have remained.

That year in New York, Alberto Salazar broke the world record and Grete Waitz, from Norway, won for the third time.  She went on to win the NY marathon a total of nine times.  Fred Lebow was struck down with brain cancer, but in remission, ran the 1992 marathon in 5:32, together with Greta Waitz by his side.  Fred Lebow died in 1994.  Later, Greta Waitz had her own losing battle with cancer and she died in 2011.

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Fred Lebow and Greta Waitz reaching the finish line in 1992

These days, I don’t often hear that melody – New York, New York, but when I do, it is always the memories of that era that come flooding into my head.

Those were good times…