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Coffin: Learning to Swim

He was a formidable specimen, a crew-cut Tarzan, all tanned and muscular. Ace Kruger was his name -like someone holding a glass of ale in one hand the high card in the other. And he was a mighty contrast to skinny little me that morning in 1949 when we met as I shivered knee deep in the chill waters of Barnard’s Silver Lake, at 7:30 with the fog not yet burned away.

Ace was a counselor at Camp Kichegamunk, 10 miles from my Woodstock home, and it was his job this June morning to teach a busload of Woodstock grade schoolers to swim. Ace blew his ear-splitting whistle and, in his commanding voice, told us to get wet. I held my nose and ducked my head, coming up with my skin turned blue.

For the next freezing hour, Ace and a couple of assistants tried to teach me to swim. It didn’t work, I wasn’t buoyant, and I was so c-c-cold. There wasn’t a quarter of an ounce of fat on me. Finally, blessedly, we all went home, I not even able to float. When my mother saw my purple lips, she said that was the end of swimming lessons. She couldn’t swim, either.

Now we jump ahead a quarter century plus. It’s a lovely August afternoon in the hills of Townshend. I’m visiting my friend Peter Galbraith, at the home of his father, John Kenneth Galbraith. He’s the economist, JFK’s ambassador to India, and author of more than 40 books.

We’ve finished lunch and Peter suggests going fishing, so we head for the large pond on the Galbraith property. We’re just climbing into the family rowboat when father Galbraith is suddenly looming above us, all six feet eight inches of him.

“Put on that life jacket,” he commands me.

“Why?” I ask.

“Because you can’t swim,” he says.

I ask how he knows this.

“Because you’re a Vermonter,” says Ken Galbraith.

And he was right. It wasn’t just Ace Kruger’s dictatorial mien, or a Vermont morning’s deep chill, that was to blame. But as Peter’s father understood, many Vermonters who grew up in my era could not swim because we lacked PLACES to swim. That was before sewage treatment plants, when rivers and streams, as well as many lakes and ponds, contained raw sewage. Woodstock’s Ottauquechee River teemed with suckers, bottom feeding on refuse and various flushed unmentionables seeping by.

Now, more than 40 years later Peter and I remain friends. I still can’t swim, much. But blessedly, most of Vermont’s bodies of water are clean and clear, home to far more trout than suckers.

THAT’s real progress, something all Vermonters can take pride in. And Ace, I CAN do the breast stroke now, sort of.