Learning to swim during the dog days of summer

Photo courtesy of Jerry Nelson Bella enjoying his pool during the dog days of summer

We’re in the dog days of summer, that time of year when temperatures can reach the point where you could cook a hotdog on the sidewalk.

I hate to brag, but our dog, Bella, has her own private swimming pool that she can use on sweltering summer days. It’s true that it’s just a cheap little plastic kiddie pool that we purchased at the Dollar Store, but this does nothing to decrease Bella’s enjoyment. She will take a dip in the pool’s cooling water, then share her good fortune with me by standing nearby and shaking herself vigorously, baptizing me with warm dog water.

Bella has it much better than I did when I was a kid. We didn’t have any sort of pool on our dairy farm unless you want to count the wooden stock tank that sat near the windmill. The tank was far too shallow for swimming. Besides, its water contained such large quantities of algae that you would likely emerge from a swim looking like a slimy version of the Incredible Hulk. You would need to take a bath after bathing in the stock tank.

Growing up, the only access we had to an honest-to-goodness swimming pool took place once a year when we went to the park in Madison, South Dakota for the annual summertime Hammer family picnic. Spending one afternoon per year wading fearfully about in the shallow end of a swimming pool is hardly a formula for producing the next Michael Phelps.

As such, I never learned to swim. I have also developed a healthy paranoia regarding any water that’s deeper than my boot tops. Even using a high-flow shower can cause me to freak just a little.

During our honeymoon, my wife and I stayed at a hotel that featured a hot tub. It was somewhat disconcerting when she encouraged me to join her in that bubbling cauldron of liquid death. It made me wonder if she had been perusing the fine print of my life insurance policy.

It’s not like I haven’t tried to teach myself how to swim. But teaching yourself how to swim is much different than teaching yourself how to, say, ride a bike. For one thing, if you fail at riding a bicycle you might suffer a few scratches and scrapes. In my experience, failing at swimming is much worse because it often involves getting water up your nose.

One dog day afternoon when I was a teenager, my buddy Steve and I decided to explore the aquatic environs of the nearby Big Sioux River. The river was quite low at the time and was flowing at a rate that could best be described as “slower than continental drift.”

The Big Sioux is generally the color of hot cocoa and even less transparent. Steve and I donned our cutoff blue jeans and waded into the tepid brown liquid, warm river mud squishing up between our toes.

The water was only about waist high in many areas. The exception was the outer arcs of the oxbows, where it became unsettlingly deep. I avoided those areas as if they were chocolatey death traps.

We often paused during our stroll down the mucky river. At such times, we might feel a little something bump against the bare skin of our legs. Perhaps it was just a curious bullhead who was wondering what we were and how we tasted. Or maybe it was a vicious crawdad searching for an appendage to latch onto with its merciless pincers.

I didn’t say anything, but secretly worried that a river shark might be lurking in the murky water. I knew that there had never been any such thing as a river shark in living in a shallow stream in the middle of the Dakota prairie, but there’s always the first time. Besides, we had recently watched the movie “Jaws” and I had a vivid imagination.

After a couple of hours of wading in the Big Sioux under the blazing August sun, my upper body was as red as a newly painted barn. My legs, however, remained their usual fish-belly white. We should look into using Big Sioux river water as a sunscreen. It must have an SPF of 100,000.

I arrived at home reeking of river mud and fish that was long past its sell-by date. I was in dire need of a bath, but at least I hadn’t gotten water up my nose.

Some say it’s never too late to take swimming lessons. I think Bella should be my swimming instructor. Because I bet she would be really good at teaching me the doggy paddle.


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