Joe Dillon’s Early History Part 2: Learning to Swim

March 4, 2024

Learning To Swim title image with quail

Learning to Swim

When I was 9 years old, I learned how to swim at Clyde Devine Swim School on Old Country Road in San Carlos California – about 4 miles from my house. My teacher was a well-tanned man named Bob Ayers who was a full-time schoolteacher but taught swimming during the summer. Mr. Ayers was a kind but no-nonsense man in his late forties. During each of the 9 lessons of our series, Mr. Ayers very efficiently and clearly taught me and the other 2 students in my group how to hold our breath, float face down on our stomach, flutter kick in the floating face down position, add in our arms and finally tie the freestyle stroke all together with breathing.

After the first 3 or 4 lessons, I began to relax, and by the end of all 9 lessons, I could swim one width of the pool.

Vintage gray tractorAfter all my 9 lessons were completed, I went to visit my grandparents at their ranch in the foothills of Napa Valley. My grandfather, my father’s father, was a graduate of Stanford and Stanford Medical School. Dr. Dillon had been a very accomplished surgeon with a large practice in San Francisco as well as teaching a Stanford Medical school. In his mid-60’s, he was now retired.

My Grandpa, an avid hunter and fisherman, loved his 600-acre ranch of rolling oak covered hills. A former gymnast as a Stanford undergraduate, my grandpa was still a fit and able guy.  He did all the work on the ranch.  I loved riding around on the tractor with him.  My Grandpa had enormous confidence in me and continually taught me useful skills.

One of the very first things he taught me was the difference between a venomous rattlesnake and harmless snakes.He showed me the triangular head of the pit viper and the rattles at the end of its tail. With that, he let me roam alone anywhere on the ranch. That first summer I found 3 rattlesnakes. I will never forget the terrifying sound of the first upset rattler I came upon right near the door to the barn. Shaking from the incredible rush of adrenalin that upset snake’s rattles triggered in my body, I backed up slowly and carefully on trembling legs. I didn’t want to accidentally step on another rattlesnake. Then, I ran to find my grandpa.

Coiled rattlesnake

Take your Time

“Take your time,” was the first thing he said to me. My Grandpa got the .410 shot gun and we walked calmly but purposely back down to the barn. The rattlesnake now lay calmly coiled in the sun by the barndoor. After my grandpa killed the rattlesnake, my heartrate stopped pounding. Only then did I appreciate how beautiful the rattlesnake was.

Collage of native birds

The summers when I was 10 and 11 years old, I spent taking additional lessons to improve my swimming. Then, I enjoyed the ranch with my grandparents. I loved wandering alone exploring the ranch and enjoying the birds and animals.

Bowl of fresh-picked figsMy Grandma, who graduated from Stanford as one of the early female physical education majors, was as fit as my grandpa, and worked vigorously around the kitchen and the huge garden. In the summer, we often had fresh figs and cream with our venison and eggs for breakfast. For our toast, we had a choice of homemade jams and jellies.

For dinner, we often had venison steaks and fresh vegetables. My Grandpa was a hunter who ate what he killed.

Swimming to Diving

The summer I was 12, I took a set of diving lessons. I was then asked by the owner and head teacher if I would be interested in becoming one of his swim teachers. I was beyond thrilled. Clyde Devine, 6 feet 6 inches tall with silver grey hair and a deep year-round tan, had been an All-American football player at Oregon State University. He was a full-time biology teacher at Sequoia high school. Clyde was also the head diving coach at Stanford University. Clyde had 3 sons who were well-built and athletic like all his other swim instructors. Many were accomplished divers: collegiate champions, national champions and one Olympic medalist. I think you can begin to appreciate why I was so thrilled to be asked to join this group. And, they were great guys.

Public swimming poolThe very next morning I was up early. I rode my bike the 4 miles to my new job arriving at 7:30am. For 50 cents an hour, I scrubbed the toilets and the bathroom floors. I hosed down the pool deck and scooped any leaves from the pool. I cleaned out and tidied up the swimming teachers’ locker room. I had everything squared away before the first students began to arrive for their lessons at 8:30am.

At first, I was a gopher. I watched the dozen or so instructors teaching mostly young kids, but people of all ages, how to swim. After a couple of weeks, and after some coaching from some of the swim instructors, including Mr. Ayers – who I now called Bob – I began to teach swimming. Most of my early students were children 5 or 6 years old who did not know how to swim and who were afraid of the water. As the little boys and girls floated to me a few feet from the steps, I could feel the tension in their bodies.

Child swimming underwaterOne of my early realizations as a young swimming teacher was part of my job was to empathize with these young children and help them relax. No one, child or adult, can swim effectively with a tight, tense body. It sometimes took me 5 or even 6 lessons to help my young students relax and feel the water support them. Once they experienced that, they began to feel safe. Lesson by lesson, the tension in their body dissipated. Gradually, they began to actually have fun and enjoy being in the water.

Once the tension of fear left their body, I could teach them to swim in 3 or 4 lessons. I had some 5-year-olds diving off the diving board in the deep end and swimming to me. They popped up with a big grin on their fresh open faces. Their parents beamed with pride and amazement.

Boy swimming in poolGreat Mentors

I realized I had found something I loved to do and that I might one day actually become good at it. To this day, I appreciate the opportunity Clyde Devine gave me. How did he know? Maybe that was one reason he was such a great teacher and coach. He could see the talent in young people and had the gift of encouragement to bring out the best in them. After my grandpa, Clyde Devine was the next major mentor in my life.

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