Posted by: wrmcnutt | December 30, 2009

Swan Wings

As you might imagine, my father has been on my mind a lot lately.  I’m not real proud of my performance as a son.  I pay his bills, I talk to the doctors, and I make his decisions.  It’s not that hard.  The part I’m failing on is spending time with him.  He’s so wasted. He’s never been a large man, but I patted him on the leg to say good-bye the other day, and my middle finger and thumb fit around his leg.

Not his leg.  His thigh.

He doesn’t look like my father.  He doesn’t act like my father.  And I hate every second I keep company with him.  I suck at hiding my feelings.  He has to know.  I’m sorry – I can’t help it.  I feel like a bad son, and a lousy human being.

Over a half-century ago, my father was a world class athlete.  For a brief period of time he held the world record for the fastest 100 m butterfly.  He was presented with a plaque with the names of the greatest swimmers in the world, and his name was on it.

Swimming wasn’t his sport.

Think about that – he was one of the best in the world, and it wasn’t even his game.

Dad’s game was springboard diving.  Twists, spins, turns, flips, jack-knives, and, of course, swan dives; he knew them all.  Somewhere in his house are about ten pounds of medals.  There’s literally a large bucket of gold, silver and bronze medals somewhere in my Dad’s house.  The trophies are gone, as is the plaque.  Someone broke into our house before I was born and stole the trophies and plaques.

I was fourteen, and my family belonged to the King’s Grant Country Club, near Charleston, South Carolina.  I know – you’ve got images of Chauncey and Cyril in their worsted wool blue blazers and ascots.  No – middle class people have country clubs too.  Doctors, lawyers, and non-profit administrators want swimming pools and golf courses, and can’t afford them.  So they band together, buy land, build something, and call it a country – club.  That was King’s Grant, back in the day.  But I digress.

The day was cloudy.  My mother, my father, my sister and I had gone to King’s Grant to enjoy the pool that Saturday, as we had most of the summer, and the summer before.  The pool was not large.  Six, eight lanes, and a diving well.  It was a standard L-shape, with the well off to one side.  There was a one meter springboard and a three meter board there.  In those days, it was still possible for a private pool to have diving boards without being immediately sued into bankruptcy.

Dad was always lean as a rail.  Not skinny, but if the man was over 5% body fat in the past 35 years, I’ll be amazed.  He always wore black swim trunks.  Not Speedos, but a sort of close-fitting boxer.  He stood and walked across the concrete deck.  I’ll never forget the expression on his face . It was calm, and serene, but not soft.  He walked with the complete confidence of a man who was the utter and supreme master of his environment.  Every glance, every move said, “This is where I belong.”  He walked to the three meter board, and mounted to the ladder.  He went to the edge of the board, and hung his toes over the edge.  Nobody was paying much attention.  Kids had been doing cannon balls off of the one meter board all day, and the occasional teen had dared to jump off of the three meter board.  He turned around, pacing back one, two, three steps . . . and turned again.  He stepped off one, two steps, and then jumped.   Straight up, he threw his arms straight up into the air, and piked up a knee.  He rose up high, higher, higher . . . and came down on the very edge of the board.  It bent down, down, down.  Far farther that I would have expected my small father to flex a springboard.

And then I found out that men can fly.  The springboard released, and threw Dad about ten feet into the air.  The springboard bounced three times on it’s padding, something it had yet to do that day, and the noise rang across the concrete decks and the low hills around. Heads turned.  As he reached the apogee of his arc, his head drew back, and his arms flared out in the classic posture of the swan.  Then he piked over, and dove straight down.  He cut the water with hardly any splash, curved round beneath the surface, and popped up to the surface near the ladder, like an otter.

As he climbed the ladder, heads continued to turn.  He walked back to the three meter ladder, and again addressed the board.  Again he paced, stepped, and flew.  The board rang, and conversations ceased.  This time it was a full somersault with a feet-first entry.  There was only a very small splash.  This time, when the otter swam to the ladder there was a smattering of applause.  He barely smiled, but strode over to the ten-meter board again.  He stepped out again, and this time when he took flight, we were treated to a one-and-a-half-somersault and another  head-first entry.  This time there was more than a smattering of applause, and there was no conversation on the pool deck at all.  After that, we saw a double somersault with a feet first entry that went over just as well.

And then he stepped out in what would be his final dive.  When he took flight, I thought he was going to come apart.  The dive was called a single-twist-and-one-and-a-half and it was jaw-dropping in its complexity.  He was spinning on both a vertical axis and a horizontal axis at the same time.  Just like the prior dives, he completed all the rotations before he passed the plane of the board, and cut the water cleanly.  The applause was thunderous, and I was just astonished.  That was my Dad who was the center of attention.  He had drawn all that admiration and approval and he did it without saying a word.  Wow.  Just wow.

And that was the last time he ever flew.

Mom was fairly bursting with pride, although she didn’t say much.  I passed some sort of comment appropriate to an eleven-year-old, and her response was, “you should have seen him in his prime.”  If the truth were told, he was showing off for my sister, his daughter, who had never seen him fly.  I’d seen him, but I was so young that I didn’t remember.  That was the only time that I saw the master craftsman work his trade.  But it set the picture of my Dad in my head.

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  1. Don’t beat yourself up about how you feel. It’s inevitable for those of us who end up watching a parent’s slow decline. It seems like there are always one or two defining moments that burn themselves into our mind’s eye – we are fortunate when, in those moments, they – or their genuine essence – really shine.

    Love you –


  2. You should think about telling your dad this memory. About how you were amazed when he flew.

    And don’t worry about the rest. You’re doing all you can do, and I think he knows that.


    • I might. Right now I’m having a really hard time talking to him.

  3. Will, from my own experience with my Grandparents….Do talk with him….My Grandmother died of cancer when I was 18. I couldn’t bring myself to go and visit and talk with her…I have regretted that decision for the past 31 years and counting….I doubt I will ever get past my feeling of deep regret and loss that I did what I did.

    When my Grandfather had his stroke and was in a home, I visited and talked with him any time I could….Even knowing that he was having a very difficult time talking and even understanding everything said to him…I would not trade that time for anything, even as painful as it was at times watching him in the state he was in….and yes it was painful to see him like that…As he had been completely independent and still working his half acre garden until his stroke (he was 82 when this happened).

    I know it is hard to get past the block, especially when you have all the rest that needs to be done….Though after taking care of the finances and talks with the Doctor….Take time to heal yourself and don’t let the pain stay there…..for it will be there forever, trust me on this one…..I live with it all the time and it pops up to hit me in the face at the worst moments….like right now as I try to put all of this into words.

  4. *wow* Just wow.

  5. That is the memory you keep. Ultimately, it will be the one that counts.

  6. beautiful. painful, but beautiful.

  7. *brushing away tears* — that is beautiful Bill.

    Try not to be too hard on yourself.

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