The Boy Who Was a Fish
My grandparents lived at 351 Main Street on the one curve. It seemed close to town and far from the water. But any map will tell you we were closer to North Cove, South Cove, and the Back River than to the old town hall. But my experience with going to the water was the Dock ‘n’ Dine or the town beach.
My grandmother was generous with her time when it came to taking me to the town beach. It was more often she than my mother who took me to swimming lessons, and she was more often available on weekdays in the summer than my mother.
The Valley Shore YMCA offered the swimming lessons, and I started when I was about five. I worked through the levels as early as I was eligible; tadpole, guppy, minnow, fish…
Our beach was amazing to me. I went to plenty of other beaches. Short Beach, Horseshoe Beach, Rogers Lake, Hammonasset. I’d been to Ocean Beach and to the Rhode Island beaches, most often Jerusalem. But our beach was welcoming, fun, and safe. Most of the time.
There was one occasion when I got hurt twice on the same day. It was the day of my test for the Fish level. They took me out beyond where I could touch so I could swim the required distance. I made it close to the beach and the girl grading me signaled that I had completed that part of the test.
As I stood up in the water and raised my arms in triumph, my forearm came up under a pink jellyfish and I lifted it out of the water before I felt the sting. My reaction was to shake it off, but by then it had stung me badly.
Jellyfish had stung me before a few times, but just a glance each time. This was bad, and I immediately yelled and held my arm. It was obvious what had happened and the YMCA first aid training those girls got kicked in. In moments I had meat tenderizer on my arm and I was being held and hugged as I sobbed.
The girls were smart and got me back in the water to finish my test as soon as possible. They didn’t want me to become afraid of the water, constantly scanning for jellyfish. That sometimes happened, and it could take a long time for the kids to get back into the water.
I finished my test, and I got some sympathy from my mother when she saw my arm, still red from the sting. She took me to the ice cream vendor and bought my then favorite, a huge Popsicle they called a Sky Blue Pink.
That’s when I got hurt the second time. I was so busy telling my mother about my swim test and so excited about getting that Popsicle, I ran my head straight into the little counter that projected a less than a foot out the side of the ice cream truck.
Wham! An egg raised up quickly on my forehead and the Popsicle was first used on my head before I stopped crying enough to eat it. Thankfully, the satisfaction of being a Fish kept my spirits high.
I was seven years old the last summer I was in YMCA. The next summer, we lived at Chalker Beach and I swam more at Rogers Lake than at the town beach. But one of my very favorite childhood pictures is from that summer. The sun and salt water had bleached my hair blonde and I was wearing a gray sweatshirt that said Valley Shore YMCA on it.
Whenever my mother showed that picture in her photo album she would say, “There’s my little fish.” And my mind would go back to that hard-won designation and my jellyfish encounter. And to the pride of really being a YMCA Fish.