A Ray of Sunshine

May 7, 2024

The rest of the first semester of my sophomore year in high school passed in sort of a gray fog. I went to my classes each day, sat glassy-eyed and numb, then robotically moved on to my next class when the bell rang. I retreated to my home every lunch time and over-ate on homemade desserts, not much interested in “real” food. My dog Clancy loyally kept me company. It was like pulling teeth getting myself off that couch and back to school for my afternoon classes.

My end of semester report card reflected my distant, distracted, benumbed state: almost all D’s. It’s a wonder I did not outright flunk classes as I did not study at all.

Christmas that year was sullen and grim.

Two major changes took place during my second semester. My parents got a tutor for me and drove me to her house once a week. A middle-aged lady, kind and patient, she helped.

The second major change was varsity swimming. I had gotten chubbier during my first semester – which did not help. I was used primarily to pick-up an extra point where all I had to do was finish the race – no matter how far I was behind. The other swimmers made jokes that speeding up my music might help.

There was one highlight to my otherwise lackluster season: Ted Stickles.

Ted had been the star of the team from day one. Now a senior, he trained like a man possessed. Toward the end of the season, we had a dual meet with a team from a different league: Sequoia High School – yes, the same school where Clyde Devine taught biology.

Sequoia had one of the best high school swimmers in the country: Marty Hull. Ted and Marty were a contrast in body types. Ted was tall and slender. Marty was of average height but built like an adonis. The climax of this dual meet was the 200-yard individual medley between our Ted Stickles and Sequoia’s Marty Hull. They went stroke for stroke the entire 200-yard race – 8 laps of a 25-yard pool. Ted touched out Marty Hull by maybe a couple of tenths of one second. It was the most exciting swimming race I had ever seen in person up to that point in my life.

To put a cherry on it, Ted Stickles had just set a brand new National high school record, meaning, Ted Stickles had just swum the 200-yard individual medley faster than any other high school swimmer in history. When the record was announced, Marty Hull congratulated Ted and graciously shook his hand. Given the subsequent histories of both these swimmers, this was an historic moment. On a minor note, it set the stage for special moment for me a couple of years later.

The swimming season was over. I did win my letter. Then, I made an unusual decision. 100% on my own and with my own money, I bought a modest weight lifting set. It had a barbell, 2 dumbbells and a bunch of weight plates of various weights. It also came with a couple of pages of suggested routines. In the privacy of my own room, I began to try to actually get myself in shape.

With my tutor’s help, I brought all my classes up to C’s. Still, it was a relief when the semester was over.

I went back to Clyde’s as a more seasoned swim instructor. I was also a part of kind of a gang. I was accepted as a more or less equal though they were all far superior athletes to me.

I still rode my bike to and from work 6 days a week and I life guarded on Sundays. I took all the late lessons no one else wanted and saved my money. I wanted to buy a cheap used car and become even more independent.  

My father was smoking more heavily than ever. He walked around our backyard smoking by himself. Or he took his bucket of used golf balls down to the high school and practiced hitting 7 irons toward a red wooden stake he had driven into the ground. He was down there by himself till dark. After dinner he watched TV while putting into a shallow green metal practice hole cup. Smoking and drinking coffee, he putted until Johnny Carson went off at 1am. He was developing quite a pot belly.

My mother continued her low skill office job and cooked uninspiring meals. She did excel at home-made desserts:  home made semi-sweet chocolate chip cookies with crushed walnuts (my job was to do the walnuts); peach cobbler and apple pies which, of course, we did with vanilla ice cream which we bought by the several half gallons at Mayfair Market. But her tour de force was a 2 layer chocolate cake with Eagle Brand filling and chocolate frosting.

To give you an idea how rich this chocolate cake was, people sometimes brought in birthday cakes to Clyde’s for lunch at the pool. We inhaled those cakes and didn’t leave a crumb. When I brought my mother’s Eagle Brand chocolate cake, they could not finish it. It was that rich.

For no clear reason, I had a better feeling about my upcoming junior year.

As the fog cleared, a metaphorical sun peaked through the dissipating clouds. Maybe there was hope.

Thank you for listening.
As always, I wish you and your family the very best of health.