Swimming for your character

There is no sight quite like a New Englander meeting his ocean -- on an August morning, on a perfect day for a swim. The chin is up. The shoulders are back. Tha arms akimbo, hands on hips, seem to cry out for the uniform of a Marine sergeant.

The eyes have the look of a man about to develop character.

A New England swimmer heads east into his ocean with the same determination his ancestors headed west 361 years ago.

The New England swimmer knows the full meaning of a "stern and rockbound coast," and, being a New Englander, he loves it.

Not for him the blue balmy bathtub of the Pacific. Icy water with a touch of undertow, plus gray stones, seaweed, and old calm shells rolling beneath the feet -- that's his notion of a swimming hole.

The old navigators called the Atlantic "the wild ocean," and the New Englander goes for a swim rather like a man stepping into a ring to wrestle a bear. When he makes his sudden, slightly desperate move from land to water, he actually tackles that first breaker.

"Bracing" is the highest praise a New Englander can give his swim. The purpose of a New England swim is to make one tingle -- on the verge of goose- flesh, at the edge of a scream.

There is something Ahab-like in the New England swimmer that admires the Atlantic for its very fierceness. As he squints at the giant rocks of breakwaters strung out in the general direction of Liverpool, the New England swimmer tells folk tales about how much land the ocean has eaten up during the past 10 years. Why friend, the foundations of a house may lie beneath where you stand, hip-deep, trying to keep your own underpinnings in place against the ebb and the flow.

Herman Melville voiced the attitude of a New England swimmer. He regarded the ocean as a plunge into the unknown -- the stormy mystery of life. Those who remain on solid land, with their earthy illusion of safety, never learn what human existence is all about -- gales, 10-foot waves, and other metaphors fit for a sermon by Cotton Mather.

The New England swimmer, in weaker moments, may dip into every fresh-water pond from Cape Cod to the White Mountains, but somehow those swims, like swims in the "Y" pool, don't quite count. Where is the white cap that knocks you down when you're not lookking? Where is the cold wet smack of salt across your face when you are looking?

Even Thoreau left his calm Walden to contemplate the Atlantic, thundering like a dragon against Cape Cod. He seemed satisfied to keep his feet dry and report on "the roar of the surf a mile distant." The understating natives, he noted, described a ship-wrecking storm as "a pretty high sea running."

In fact, the Atlantic can reduce the New England swimmer to the cosmic loneliness of sole survivor of a shipwreck. On August mornings, when the sun is hidden behind clouds and the sea is gray and the breakers are foaming like a snarl, the contest of swimmer vs. his ocean may well become a touch too "bracing."

E. B. White, a self-styled "salt-water man," has confessed: "There are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind that blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods."

But not for long. Complaining all the way, he steers his course back to what he calls "the salt world."

"Why does the sea attract me in the way, it does?" he asks, along with all the New England swimmers. None of us can really put it into words; and maybe that says most of all.

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