"What made you afraid of the water?"
The two women were changing into their bathing suits in the locker room of the Fairfax Young Women's Christian Association in Vienna, Va.
"When I was a very little girl," said the first women, "my father grabbed me and tossed me into the water. I never got over the horrible feeling of choking as I went down, and he finally had to jump in and pulled me out."
"Much the same thing happened to me with my father," said the other woman.
They were both enrolled in a class at the YWCA swimming pool, titled "ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIED."
I was taking the course to limber up stiff limbs and to conquer fears brought about by illness. With my snow-white hair, I was by far the oldest. But the others were in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
We only knew one another by our first names, but we soon learned all the childhood traumas that had to be conquered. It was so comforting when our teacher, Kathy, told us that one "graduate" of the "ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIED" had gone on to become a strong, fearless swimmer.
It was comforting, too, to see children, ages 1 year to 3 years, being gently lifted into the water by a parent (father sometimes, mothers usually) and given their first feel of the warm water caressing their tiny bodies. Children in diapers came out glowing as their parent lifted them tenderly and bounced them about. No cruel choking there. Only tender, loving care in the "Water Babies" class from parents and teachers.
The ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIEDs were divided into two groups. The less terrified were in four feet of water at the shallow end of the 75-foot pool. These were people who did not Kathy's gentle persuasion to keep them trying in three feet of water.
Kathy was a tall, slender young woman with golden hair piled atop her head. A former WAVE, she had learned personal discipline and how to handle other peoples' fears. She had endless patience as the older women around her trusted her to pick them up the instant water started them choking.
As I would sink while trying to float on my back, I would feel Katy's capable lifting me up. Everyone else gained that same confidence that nobody would ever let us drown. Little by little, Kathy led each pupil out of the waves of fear that dashed our confidence as water dashed our faces.
Tall, slender, gray-haired Ruth was taking the course because her husband was about to retire to Florida.
"We want to have a swimming pool in Florida," said Ruth. "But my husband says we won't go unless I learn to swim."
Ruth had been frightened as a 9-year-old when she went swimming in the Missouri River.
"I learned to dog-paddle out to a log anchored in the river," Ruth recalled. "Then on day, the log gave way, and I sank, sank, and came up spluttering and choking. That ended my swimming."
Lola, a dark-haired mother of four, had been given a challenge by her 12-year-old son.
"He insists I learn to swim," said Lola, "so that is why I am taking this course."
Lola's terror had first been sparked by two teen-age friends when she was a teenager.
"They shoved me in, and I never got over that terror," Lola recalled.
Eventually Lola gave up the course. She decidedly she really did not want to learn to swim and did not like the water.
But Marvella had more persistence than anyone. And hers was the best tale of all of youthful terror. She was one of 13 children. All the others had learned to swim.
Then one day when Marvella was only 7, her mother took her out in a boat and anchored not too far off shore. She picked up the golden-haired little and shouted at her as she pitched her into the water:
"Now, you sink or swim to shore!"
The child sank, sank, and sank and finally had to be rescued by her brothers and sisters.
"I never forgot that horrible feeling of water flooding through me," says Marvella.
So when she had five children of her own, she saw that each child had swimming lessons at an early age.
"I took no chances on childhood traumas," says Marvella. "So here I am trying to get rid of my own."
So here she was, a member of ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIED, working night and day to overcome those early terrors.
Every night in bed, she went over the day's lesson.
"I imagine myself kicking and stroking my arms in the crawl stroke and am sure that next lesson I shall really swim. One of these days, I shall, too."
And Marvella did.On the day that she kicked and paddled half way across the 45-foot wide pool, she came up triumphant. And the rest of us ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIEDs applauded as wildly as if we had been watching a winning football player. Marvella was our heroine.