BOSTON — Early on a summer morning in 1967, at Boy Scout camp, I waded into a mountain lake and slowly stroked my way to the other side. For this feat, I received the Mile Swim award, a patch emblazoned with a seahorse. In my case, it should have been floating on its side, with little Xs for eyes.
Scout protocol said I could wear the patch on my swim trunks, but I never did. The event left me with an attitude, an aversion to immersion that continues to this day.
During oppressive heat waves, everyone has a mental picture of a remote oasis or other exotic setting for cool relief. It's nice to imagine that an ideal watery venue is out there somewhere, deep in the land of sky-blue waters.
But I remain dubious, because my own expectations of aquatic pleasure have often been washed away by the wet splash of reality.
The lake where I attended camp was fed by melting snow, which sounds wonderfully bracing. In fact, the temperature was cold enough to make my head feel like it was being squeezed in a clamp whenever I dipped below the surface. The nicest part of the Mile Swim was stumbling ashore like a survivor of the Titanic and grabbing my towel.
The media loves to play on our collective fantasies about the ol' swimmin' hole. Anyone who saw the movie "Breaking Away" remembers the wistful scenes of the four main characters horsing around in the flooded rock quarry. Such wholesome adventure! Still, you have to wonder if the water quality in an old stone pit wouldn't be much like a badly maintained aquarium. I think "skanky" is the way kids of this generation would describe it.
Airline commercials frequently show tourists frolicking under a jungle grotto waterfall. Is that a real place, or a special reserved area of Disney World? It certainly looks idyllic, but in a genuine tropical habitat it seems likely that wide expanses of soft, exposed flesh would provide an easy target for hungry piranhas, stinging insects, or predatory reptiles concealed in the surrounding foliage.
I don't think my feelings on this subject are extreme. The TV ads for Sandals resorts in the Virgin Islands show fabulous, smooth beaches with calm, clear surf. Yet even with these pristine shorelines, the spots also feature aerial views of huge, ornate swimming pools. Obviously, many travelers do not want to risk sand in their hair - or sandals.
To be honest, a well-maintained pool is my personal refuge of choice when the mercury soars. Has any movie ever portrayed scenes more refreshing than Esther Williams and her sparkling 1950s aquatic duets with Ricardo Montalban? If I could travel back through time and space, I'd place myself in a chair poolside while the MGM cameras roll.
During a break, Esther approaches me and says, "I noticed from the patch on your trunks that you've completed the Mile Swim. How about a screen test?"
As we stroll hand-in-hand toward the diving board, I can see Ricardo sulking in the shallow end, and he looks very jealous.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society