Eighty degrees Fahrenheit was the most important temperature in my childhood. My mother decreed that if it was 80 degrees outside, we could go SWIMMING. I loved swimming beyond any other pastime, but it required both parental consent and (usually) transportation. My sister and I would gaze intently at the red column in the thermometer on the back porch, willing it to rise beyond the 80 degree mark. We may have tried to breathe on it or use our hands to warm it, but I don’t think my mother was ever fooled.
Going swimming involved one of several possible destinations.
One was a small lake a few miles from our summer cabin in the woods. The water was shallow and warm, the lake surrounded by trees. Unable to actually swim, we wore bright red life jackets and were forbidden to go deeper than armpit depth. No matter! We loved it, splashing for hours.
Another destination was Fernridge, a public park less than two miles from home. Initially, we used the wading pool, a shallow concrete cavity with a fountain spraying in the middle. This unfenced feature was “guarded” by an employee (who interfered with any roughhousing) and was drained at the end of each day. Mothers sat on benches around it, chatting.
There was another pool at Fernridge, a real pool left over from a WPA project. I called it “the blue watered pool”. How I longed to go into the big pool! Alas, it was restricted to those age 8 and up. We moved away at just the wrong time, to my intense disappointment.
But our new home 100 miles away had a public beach on Long Island Sound! The “80 degree” rule still applied. I think we made it to the beach about once a week, sometimes taking along a friend or two. The ocean was exciting, and cold. I was a skinny kid, and delayed coming out of the water until I was blue and shivering. I’d lie down on the blanket and my mother would layer on dry towels and another blanket. The whole pile would shake. I loved it! I still wasn’t really able to swim, so the beach was a little risky, but nothing bad happened.
Two years later, we moved back to our house near Fernridge, and I finally got swimming lessons. I was two years older than most of the other kids in my class, always the tallest, and I learned quickly and easily. At age 12, I passed Junior Life Saving and decided to swim competitively. I loved racing! There followed several years during which I “lived” at Fernridge all summer. I would arrive in the morning at 8:30 for team practice and come home after dinnertime at 6:30, with 3.5 hours of swimming and diving practice (and even some synchronized swimming) under my belt. When we weren’t training, we taught little kids to swim, fooled around during public swimming hours and worked on our tans. A great life for teenagers! I was an average team swimmer and an incompetent diver (but I managed to avoid injury). One of my proudest moments was when I won the “Most Improved Swimmer” award.
When I joined the swim team at age 13, the 80 degree rule vanished. The team practiced and competed in almost any weather, limited only by the unwillingness of our coaches to work in pouring rain. August could be chilly in Connecticut. My parents were baffled by the emergence of an athlete in the family, but they supported me in my summer aquatic activities. It paid off later, when I earned college money as a locker room attendant and then a lifeguard.
Once in a while, a report that the temperature is 80 degrees triggers in me a thrill of excitement, and I remember all that swimming – the play, the practices, the meets…