Mercifully, the sheer panic and near riot of the first day was never quite repeated again. That was because,
throughout the week, “Survival” had become the main topic of conversation. And by the time the next class
began, we had conferred as a group, and plotted a course of action, or one might better say, inaction. We
all agreed that in the future, we would all move in the same direction and at the same slow rate of speed,
the slower the better. Showing off was strictly off the table, and bumping body parts was out of bounds.
And so it was, with each succeeding meeting, the pace at which we “survived” slowed down.
Meanwhile, on many days, before the actual endurance test began, the instructor invented bizarre things
for us to do, like standing around the parameter in the nude to hear a lecture on the dangers of a storm at
sea, or diving into the water, one at a time, while the others watched your every move, to retrieve the
coach’s submerged car keys. Throughout all this, my discomfort over being oversize never did subside.
The six foot ceiling was always there to remind me, by forcing me to slouch, even more than I would
One “lesson” that I found particularly embarrassing was the day we had to “get undressed in the water”.
The coach had a theory that the first thing one should do, when tossed into Davy Jones’ Locker room, is
take off all your clothes. So on this particular occasion, we had to stand around and watch each other, one
at a time, don a single set of sopping wet attire that the instructor had supplied; then jump into the pool and
take it off again. Who would have guessed that getting dressed could prove more embarrassing than
disrobing? This became a graphic demonstration that the myth of “One Size Fits All” is a lie.
All eyes were upon me as I tried to force myself into a shirt, too small to button up, and a pair of soaking
wet trousers, intended for someone half my size. Naturally, the waist and fly had to remain open wide. The
worst part was trying to get my size 13 feet into a waterlogged pair of size 10 shoes. I felt like one of
Cinderella’s ugly sisters cramming my toes into a small glass slipper, while hopping on one leg. With toes
barely inserted and heels protruding well beyond the shoes, the coach insisted that I “wear them” anyway.
My classmates found all this hilarious. I was not amused.
When I was dressed and ready, the instructor, who was always as serious as if we were doing cancer
research, with much bravado, blew his whistle, “TWEEEET!” And like a hippo from Fantasia, I hobbled
over to the edge on tiptoe, plopped into the pool, with a splash that felt spectacular, and disappeared
beneath the surface. Once my body hit the water, the striptease part proved more than easy, as I was half
undressed already. Even as my head resurfaced, the pants fell down around my ankles. And the shirt, as
well, was gone, before the tidal wave subsided. The shoes, on the other hand, had come off in mid-air,
before they even hit the water. Then using the skills I had developed by retrieving the coach’s car keys, I
dove to gather up the clothes, dragged my bare butt up the ladder, and handed them to the next in line.
And so the course continued. Over the weeks that followed, the instructor always managed to think up
something new for us to do, like timing how long each of us could hold our breath, while underwater, or
making us hop into the pool with our hands and feet tied together. One week, we had to stand one at a
time, beside the instructor and bend over, with our hands nearly touching our toes, while he coached us,
from behind, on how to dive into the water. And if you didn’t do it right, you had to do it over.
All these poolside activities had one theme in common; they meant we all had to stand there together, in
the altogether, watching each other individually endure inane and subtle forms of torture. We spent more
time standing around naked, in my case stooping over, than we did wallowing in the water. Eventually,
thank God, as the actual swimming times grew longer, there was no longer time for “out of pool activities”.
As the year progressed, a spirit of brotherhood and cooperation grew among our little band of nudists.
We learned to move together as a unit, slowly drifting around the tiny pool, like melting marshmallows,
floating on the surface of a newly stirred cup of instant coco. In the process, we unlearned everything we ever knew
about swimming. Our strokes had become jokes. And the flash cards were just a code for variations of a
float. The Crawl became an exceedingly lame doggie paddle; the Breast Stroke became a wallow; the
Side Stroke was the same thing on your side, and the Back Stroke, everybody’s favorite, became merely a
welcome excuse for floating motionless on your back and wiggling your toes.
With Thanksgiving approaching, we had become a well coordinated team of synchronized floaters,
capable of circumnavigating the pool in slow moving ovals, without touching or intruding on each other’s
space. Our sole goal became, to stay aloft as long as possible, as, with each passing week, the time
Then, suddenly, a most mysterious MIRACLE, took place, and we all got a Reprieve! Overnight, for no
apparent reason, the water in the pool turned BLACK! I’m not kidding! This being Pratt, “black” was not
merely a figure of speech. When one said black at Pratt, they meant it! The pool water had turned as
black as India INK! Furthermore, all attempts to explain or cure the mystery proved to be in vain.
“Bacteria” was mentioned! Therefore,” SURVIVAL” was suspended. We all hoped, never to begin again.
And thus, we went home for Thanksgiving with ample reason to be thankful.
THE FINAL EXAM
When we returned to school again, no one was disappointed to discover that the pool condition had NOT
been remedied. I was rumored that Pratt had simply pulled the plug, emptied the pool, and that was that!
Alas, our joy was to be short-lived, for the Athletics Instructor was determined that SURVIVAL would
survive, at least, long enough to administer the Final Exam. Therefore, he managed to arrange a Grand
and Glorious ALL Inclusive, One Time Only, Final Hour-Long Examination to take place at a local YMCA.
Thus, one cold bleak morning in December of 1957 two hundred and fifty miserable disgruntled students,
comprising half of Pratt’s male student bodies, everyone from all the Survival classes combined,
reluctantly trudged across a mile of Brooklyn sidewalks, with towels tucked under their arms. One by one
or in small groups, they found their way to a seemingly abandoned rundown building that clearly had seen
It was in this Behemoth of a Bathhouse that the final chapter of Survival was scheduled to take place. The
Grand Finale proved to be both Spectacular and exceedingly surreal. Imagine an enormous chamber, sort
of a cross between a huge gymnasium and an aquatic auditorium, a far cry, indeed, from the tiny sweatbox
in which we had labored for months to increase our endurance, and whittle down our swimming skills. In
the center of the structure was a massive pool, not merely Olympic in size, but bigger still; sort of like an
The decor consisted of predominately tile covered walls and floors, white with dark green accent lines.
Much cracking and crazing clearly indicated that the individual tiles, like the building they adorned, had been
deteriorating for a long time. The vast interior conveyed a feeling of austerity that, at the same time,
radiated a hint of elegance and faded glory. This must have been wondrous place to bring the family,
around the turn of the Century.
Surrounding the pool was a tile clad skirting, approximately 12 feet in height. Behind the deep end, where
the top of the tiles ended, a massive window, made up of many individual panes of glass, began. It
extended from one side wall to the other, and clear up to the ceiling, which was easily 40 feet high.
Through this enormous wall of windows, the desolation of a dismal December morning poured in and
bathed the room in cold gray light
As the chamber began to fill with all of the two hundred and fifty reluctant swimmers who had been
required to take SURVIVAL class that year, it became increasingly clear that this YMCA must have been in
some sort of shutdown mode, possibly marked for demolition, or just closed for the season. Standing
there, still with our coats on, and the steam of our breath, visible and unabated, we began to realize that this
massive room, in which we would soon be swimming, was NOT heated!
Much noisy speculation and careful observation resulted in the conclusion that, mercifully, the water was!
This could be deduced from the fact that a blanket of steam rose from the pool, and hovered, like a low
flying cloud, above the water. As a cacophony of complaints reverberated in the chilly air, it also became
clear that this vast tile covered space formed, in effect, a rather dramatic echo chamber. And thus, the
ruckus rose to a playful ROAR, then, stopped abruptly, when the shrill sound of a silver whistle shattered
the air, signaling the Coach was there!
“Take your clothes off!” he commanded “Just put them anywhere!” If there was, in fact, a locker room, it
clearly was not being offered. At least, we didn’t have to undress in the water! The shallow end faced
several rows of rising bleachers. Some of us laid our towels and clothing there. Others stacked their stuff
against a wall, while many more, cursing and complaining, just let their belongings fall to the floor, and left
The coach, dressed in his usual attire, to which a winter jacket and gloves had been added, stood beside
the pool, surveying his minions, two hundred and fifty naked men, including one, who, to my surprise, was
nearly twice my size. Then, while we all stood there, shivering, shriveling and turning blue, he slowly took
attendance! After two hundred and fifty names were called, and nearly the same number of teeth
chattering replies of “Here!” were heard, he raised the silver whistle to his lips and blew! A mighty
TWEEEET, ricocheted from the walls of the vast echo chamber, and a crowd of pissed off polar bears
stampeded to the water’s edge, eager to immerse themselves in what they hoped would be Warm Water.
Thank God, the water proved to be, not only, warm, but Hot! Or, maybe, it just seemed that way, in relation
to the frigid air. Standing there, we were able to easily compare the water temperature to that of the air,
because the water only came up to our knees. The shallow end was even shallower than we expected it to
be. And to our glee, we soon discovered, as we eagerly dove forward, that relatively shallow water
extended well past the center of the pool. Thus, unlike the seventh circle of Hades, where we had trained,
our feet could secretly touch the bottom, throughout three quarters of the water.
Once again, the Whistle blew, and the Wild Rumpus Began! “Crawl” the flashcard said, and it became
clear that all the various classes, who had studied Survival that year, had come to the same conclusion as
our little group of twenty: “Go Slowly and Don’t Make Waves!” And so, two hundred and fifty wet doggies
began to paddle in a circle around the massive pool. All of them were talking, shouting, laughing, roaring,
as if to test the echo, which answered back with a resonance that was sonically rewarding. The hubbub
rose to a near deafening crescendo. While the coach, who didn’t seem to mind the din, blew his whistle
again. “Side Stroke”, the flashcard read. This was the best stroke, as one leg could wiggle at the surface,
while the other, inconspicuously, touched the floor. Around the middle of the pool a great clog of humanity
formed, as no one was eager to venture into the deep end, where they would actually have to swim.
There was much poking, prodding, and whispering, “Come on, it’s your turn” “You go next”. Half the pool
was almost empty, as, one after another, we each reluctantly took our turn, circling the deep end. It was
surprising how quickly we all fell into this pattern, with the better part of an hour still ahead.
Then, to our amazement, about five minutes into the Exam, a kind of Miracle began. Slowly, we started to
realize that visibility was decreasing rapidly. Two hundred and fifty warm bodies in hot water, breathing hot
breath into the freezing air, began to generate a fog that supplemented the cloud of steam that was already
there. As what was happening became apparent, the chorus of whispers changed from “Swim slower!” to
“Breathe faster!” And the universal challenge was no longer to swim for an hour, but rather to huff and puff,
and generate as much steam as possible, so that, hidden from view, rather than “swimming” we could walk
instead. It worked!
Slowly, but surely, fog filled the chamber. Throughout all this, the instructor continued to periodically blow
his whistle. But he had to read the cards aloud, for no one could see them, any longer. Nor could the
coach see us. Soon visibility was down to zero. And amid laughing, joking, and general hilarity, the Crawl
became merely walking on the bottom, the Side Stroke, hopping on one leg, and the Back Stroke, turned
into brazenly walking backwards. Before long, the circle of “swimmers”, now invisible, had transformed
itself into a half moon shape that avoided the deep end altogether.
This fogbound Free-for-All continued to escalate, as hoots and hollers and peals of laughter echoed from
the rafters, until, at last, the final whistle blew. And, in the end, which for many of us arrived too soon, this
much dreaded Final Examination turned out to be a FUN Occasion! It had become a Raucous Romp and
Celebration, a winning combination of sweet revenge for a semester of humiliation, as well as, forgive the
pun, a welcome chance to “let off steam”! And so, in joyous anticipation of the impending Christmas
Vacation, another precious year of my fast waning youth came to an end.
SURVIVAL class was not offered again. Therefore, the other half of the male student bodies, who didn’t
take it the first semester, escaped it, altogether. Pratt closed the little pool under the stage, perhaps
forever. And, if there was any lesson to be learned from this endeavor, it might be that if there is ever to be
another Andrea Doria Disaster, hopefully it can be arranged to take place, in cold December, at the
Bedford Stuyvesant YMCA!