When our local Jewish Community Center suddenly shut its doors last December here in Walnut Creek, it was the second time in my life I experienced a JCC shutdown. The first was back in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. It was the early 1960s, when the city was hellbent on constructing a freeway that took out the JCC.
When the original Portland JCC closed all those years ago, and more recently the Contra Costa JCC, people lamented the loss of the institution that serves the most important function for Jewish communities — providing a swimming pool. I know this because when I was 7, my mother enrolled me in a swimming class at the JCC.
The teacher was Mickey Hirschberg. I liked the name. It had a friendly, folksy ring to it. Even better, Mickey was a woman. She would eventually become a renowned athletic director honored for her hydrotherapy programs for polio patients. But back in the ’50s, all we knew was that Mickey taught swimming.
Mother pointed her out as I entered the JCC for my first swim class with my swimsuit carefully crushed in the de rigueur rolled-up towel kids carried. Mickey was thin, with short, wispy, graying hair, cat-eye plastic-framed glasses, and a bosom that bespoke the benefits of intensive breast strokes.
After I scrambled into my swimsuit, I emerged out of the locker room dripping from the mandatory cold shower and breathing deeply of the humid, chlorinated air that hung above the indoor pool. The pool itself was contained in a room with bright alabaster walls to compensate for Portland’s permanent lack of sun.
I was unprepared for the spectacle before me: Assembled at the shallow end were hordes of children — like grunions — jumping, yelling, splashing, whistling, spitting, pushing and no doubt pishing in the water. Mickey strode regally into the room and took her stand by the side of the pool. By this time I had cautiously entered the water and stood alongside the edge of the pool, wedged between squirming bodies.
Mickey eyed all of us, then slowly opened her mouth. Somewhere, high above the steamy, chlorine-saturated cavern, a rasping, grating voice of a behemoth exploded out of aerobically perfect lungs.
“Everyone to the side of the pool NOW!!!” Then a roar: “Kick! Kick! Kick!”
The detonation exceeded any known incendiary device, capable of causing paralysis and loss of bowel and bladder control in the young listener. Despite my stupefaction, I found myself paddle-kicking alongside the crush of frenzied bodies clutching the side of the pool, arms stretched out in front. Like a paddle wheeler churning up the Mississippi, little legs kicked and kicked and kicked up foamy waters until every tendon and joint and bone ached and groaned, not daring to quit as the Castigating Colossus boomed out names and commands. (“YOU! Get out of the pool!”)
Though quivering with terror during that eternal half-hour, I realized Mickey could have told me to walk across the water, or drown another child, or drink the entire pool, and I would have done it.
When class was over, I padded down the white-tiled floor on wobbly legs to the locker room, peeled off my suit and ran through another freezing shower. My clothes were stretched onto still damp, chlorinated skin. I believe I changed in 15 seconds and tore out of the locker room, ears stuffed with water, nose running and saturated hair clinging to my scalp.
A few survivors of the swimming lesson stopped off at the snack counter for a hot dog or candy bar where Mickey was standing close by, chain smoking. Although I flinched walking past her to get to my mother’s car waiting outside, I realized Mickey would never see me as an individual, just as one of the hundreds of children she would go on to tame for three generations. Many of these children whose growth was not stunted by the experience developed into adults who could swim, but who were abnormally startled by loud noises like turning on kitchen tap water.
After two or three of these Lessons from Hell, I refused to go. My savior finally came in the form of a gentle man who also taught swimming at the JCC. Kindly and soft-spoken, he showed me how to enjoy the water. I am forever grateful to the Jewish community for providing the pool, and especially the teacher whose unlikely name was Mr. Bacon.
Trudi York Gardner lives in Walnut Creek and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her blog, www.tygerpen.com.