SURVIVING SURVIVAL CLASS
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
An email I received today revived forgotten memories of times when I was required by the various schools that I attended to participate in “sports activities”. To say that sports were not my forté would be the understatement of the Century. In high school, especially, the two team captains, first, chose-up, by one means or another, flashing one or two fingers, or grabbing a baseball bat, hand over hand, to see which captain got first pick of who they wanted on their team. When all the sides were divided evenly, they had to choose up, once again, to see which team had to have me.
Baseball season found me standing in right field with my entire team hoping no one would hit a baseball out to me, while every batter on the opposing team was trying to do that very thing. If a ball did come my way, my first impulse was to duck and get out of the way, so it didn’t hit me. Then I would scurry over to the ball to pick it up, half heartedly, and lob it half way into the infield again, where it would roll the rest of the way. By this time, the batter of what should have been an easy “out” would be arriving at home plate.
The gym instructor at Mumford High was so gung-ho that he even had us playing football in the snow. I wasn’t too bad at blocking; as the other player’s puny bodies bounced right off of me. Nonetheless, on the second snowy day I slid on ice, fell on my ass, and hurt myself to some degree, although, I was not injured half as bad as the kid who happened to be under me. Thanks to this calamity, I was allowed to spend the remainder of the year on Hall Duty.
Somehow, throughout my four years there, I was able to manipulate my schedule to avoid baring my ass in “swimming class”, an activity, in which I heard the boys participated in the nude. Oy! No way was I going to put all 260 pounds of me on display.
In my final year, I served as art director of the yearbook. In that capacity, a photographer and I were issued into a secret area where the faculty hung out to take their breaks. We were accompanied by a lady gym teacher, who happened to be extremely butchy. In those days, one was not aware of the likely significance of a haircut, known as a “DA”. There were two rows of windows there that allowed one to view the pool from underwater. It was actually a single pool, divided into two by a removable barrier that was taken away on swim meet days. We were permitted to take photos through the windows on the girl’s side, only. The girls, alas, wore bathing suits. While we did this, the gym teacher stood there, casually gazing through boy’s windows, just as anybody who happened to be down there could. This generally unknown information further strengthened my conviction that swimming class was not for me. As a freshman at the University of Michigan, I managed to meet my health obligation by studying badminton, at which I wasn’t bad. The next semester I took weight lifting. I was also quite adept at that, having lifted my own weight all my life. Then the following year, I went to Pratt!
Pratt Institute was ugly. It resembled, and in fact, might have actually been a factory. There was no gymnasium and no library. It was designed to be a trade school and had no athletic facilities. Pratt had always offered a certificate, not a degree; therefore, such extras were not necessary. But the year before I went there, the school had been newly converted into a 4 year “University”, offering makeshift academics and a Bachelor of Arts degree. This attracted a different caliber of student, including some girls who, not unlike those I knew at U of M, hoped to find a husband, and get through college effortlessly. Two dorms had been newly constructed, facing each other on a heavily fenced in area, across the street. The photo above was shot by me from the roof of the men’s dormitory. It was a closed and guarded community, located smack in the middle of the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, a neighborhood notorious for restless natives.
Visually, Pratt was a disappointment. Some guys in the dorm made up a song about it, sung to the Harry Belafonte calypso tune, “Mama Look a Boo Boo, I Cried”. The part I can remember went:
“Mama look, a factory, I cried.
My Mama told me, swallow your pride.
That’s not a factory, oh, no
A factory can’t be ugly so.
What we saw on this tour
Didn’t look like my brochure...etc.”
The fact is, if the brochure had disclosed what the mandatory athletic program would consist of, I would never have enrolled.
Female students were, apparently, not required to take athletics. That might have been because of Pratt’s total lack of facilities. We men, on the other hand, were offered a pitiful attempt at “bowling”. There was a single manually operated bowling lane in an adjacent building. With twenty students in each class, which were too many to all play a game in an hour on a single lane, some of us merely stood around and watched the others bowl, or were chosen to set up the pins, carefully on little X’s, marking their place on the makeshift alley. It was like a child’s toy bowling game, blown up to nearly life size, with a set of real pins and a single bowling ball that was strictly “one size fits all”. To graduate, one merely had to bowl “100”, at least, one time, before the year was done. Phew, I just managed to do it on the final day. The course, of course, was a total joke, a stupid way to waste our time. But in retrospect, compared to things to come, I considered it “OK”.
What this so-called University concocted for us, the following year, was nothing less than an exquisite form of Torture, a sadistic exercise in sheer perversity, intended to pass for “swimming class”. The course, itself, was the original invention of the “Athletic Instructor”, a person who we all suspected to be a pervert of the highest order. It was called “SURVIVAL”, and was, no doubt, born out of several factors: 1. The primitive facilities, 2. The 1956 sinking of the Andrea Doria, I kid you not, and 3. The fact that the “coach” just liked to see a lot of young men naked. Survival Class, alas, was mandatory! In order to survive at Pratt, every male student at every grade level had to take it. Thus, there was no way I could escape it!
One of Pratt’s few amenities that indicated it might not have originated as a factory after all, was a large old fashioned auditorium, complete with a stage. Along the auditorium’s right side wall, what once might have been merely a lavatory had been converted to what was now called “The Men’s Locker Room”. Throughout my first year at Pratt, I didn’t even realize it was there. Although, I would have only had to inadvertently enter an unlocked public “EXIT” door to find myself standing in the middle of a dismal gray antechamber with lockers lining the walls, a concrete floor, and open toilet stalls. Even though there were no showers, the atmosphere inside this so-called locker room was oppressively hot and humid, so much so that a person would begin to perspire the moment they walked through the door.
The excess humidity, I soon learned, to my dismay, emanated from, a small inconspicuous low-ceilinged room, actually located beneath the auditorium stage. Sunk into the floor of this claustrophobic cave was a relatively small concrete lined container, about 20 by 10 feet in size, and as deep as it was wide. This rough textured rectangle, which, long ago, had been painted a flaking shade of baby blue, had now been newly filled with water. This, apparently, made it eligible to be referred to as “a swimming pool”, although, it really was too small to swim in. God knows for what purpose it was originally intended.
The entire room was only two feet wider, on all sides, than the so-called pool itself. These dimensions formed a narrow ledge, around the water’s edge, just wide enough to stand on. A wooden rail ran along the walls, with a section cut out for the door. Further adding to the creepiness of this secret chamber was the fact that its ceiling measured no more than six feet from the floor.
Thus, being that I was 6’4” tall, whenever I had the misfortunate of being in that tiny enclosure, I had to stoop even more than I normally do, for my head touched the low ceiling at all times, unless, of course, I was in the pool. Unfortunately, all twenty of us were in the pool, all at the same time, most of the time. It was sort of like packing a circus clown car; cramming twenty naked “athletes” into such a small container was not an easy feat. And the temperature in this claustrophobic chamber, as well as that of the water in the pool, was always 95 degrees!
I’ll never forget the first day. We chose a locker, arbitrarily, and shed our clothes, reluctantly. Then, one by one, we entered the single narrow door that led to the secret room, and lined up, around the pool. The water looked less than appealing, a slightly cloudy shade of green.
After managing to get through high school, successfully avoiding this very situation; now, here I was, stark naked, 6’4” and stooping over, with my head touching the 6 foot ceiling, surrounded by a group of my peers, all peering at each other, and taking inventory. My classmates were all able to stand tall, being that they were shorter than me. That being true in other respects, as well, I wasn’t as embarrassed as I imagined I would be. Thus, after the first shock was over, I began to feel tentatively at ease.
Now the athletics director appeared. He was a middle-aged man with a salt and pepper brush cut and a stubbly beard. In contrast to our nudity, he was covered completely by a bulky gray sweat suit with elastic at the wrists and ankles that overlapped his high top sneakers. In spite of the intense heat, splashing water, and sweltering humidity, he remained fully clothed in that attire, every day, throughout the whole semester. Around his wrist, he wore an oversized stopwatch. And from his neck, a silver police whistle dangled on a silver chain. Several large hand lettered flash cards were tucked under his arm. It was rumored that he couldn’t swim.
Now, with a startling blast from his silver whistle, he announced abruptly: “Everybody into the pool!” and the Nightmare began! Some hot-shots jumped right in, exuberantly, with splashes that hit the walls and ceiling, and proceeded to show off. While others, like me, waited our turn patiently, and soaking wet with sweat, already, climbed down the narrow ladder, cautiously, and eased ourselves into the water, which, to our surprise, was body temperature. It was also somewhat disconcerting to discover that we could not touch the bottom, and there was no shallow end. Furthermore, to my distress, I got the distinct impression that several “bottoms” [pun intended] had, already, touched me.
Now, the Athletics Instructor positioned himself at the mid-point of one of the longer side walls, leaning against it, which is where he stood, each time, from that day foreword, to conduct the class. Ordering us to quiet down, he proceeded to passionately explain what course was all about. It was clearly his original creation. Thus, while we clung to the edge, treading water, neck deep in what felt like a pool of our own perspiration, he delivered an oration.
The course was called “SURVIVAL” and it derived its inspiration from the sinking, just the year before, of the Andrea Doria. It seems that more people could have “survived” if only they had known how to stay afloat longer. Thus, throughout the following semester, we were going to be trained in the fine art of keeping our heads above water, so that we might SURVIVE the next time we were in a shipwreck. One had to admit the premise was clever, an ingenious way to concoct a swimming course for a school that didn’t have a legitimate swimming pool … or a legitimate instructor, either.
The course plan was as follows: On this first day, we would have to swim for five minutes, without touching the sides. Of course, we couldn’t touch the bottom either, even if we tried. Nothing was said about touching, I mean colliding with, each other. Meanwhile he explained that he would blow his whistle, every so often, to signal that it was time to change the stroke. The flash cards would tell us what stroke to do next. The plan was that in each succeeding session, 5 more minutes would be added to the time, until the “Final Exam” in which we would be required to SURVIVE for an ENTIRE HOUR, without stopping, drowning, or grabbing onto the side.
He blew the whistle, and once again, a deafening “TWEEEET!” echoed through the chamber. The first flashcard read, “CRAWL”! And, then, the Pandemonium began! Who would have ever guessed that the sheer horror of being dumped into the ocean, amid panic and commotion, and scrambling for one’s very life could be so accurately replicated in such a tiny box of water? It was a genuine fright simulator, with everybody crashing, thrashing, and bumping into one another, while doing their own thing, with butts and other body parts in close proximity to, or flashing past, your face.
Among us, that first day, were those who thought themselves Olympic Swimmers. They were the worst offenders, as they saw this as an opportunity to impress everybody with their spectacular form and speed. Therefore, they raced haphazardly, from one end of the pool to the other, crashing mindlessly into any body or body part that had the misfortune of being in their way. To add to the commotion, each time we heard the whistle blow, it gave these assholes an opportunity to show off another flamboyant stroke. The Overhand Back Stroke, The Butterfly, all executed dramatically with arms flailing wildly, hitting people in the eye.
Others, like me, were getting angry, and going at much slower speeds. We were merely trying to avoid collisions, a feat that proved impossible to achieve. Amid crashing, thrashing splashing cursing and everyone traveling in different directions, we managed to replicate a degree of panic that might have actually accompanied the sinking of the Titanic, when masses of desperate humanity were suddenly tossed into the sea. I imagined an illustration by Gustave Doré depicting souls in torment writhing in a sea of sweat, somewhere in the lowest levels of Dante’s Inferno. The ordeal went on for what seemed like an Eternity. Five minutes worth of Hell on Earth, not only, proved exhausting, but felt like it would never end.
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 otherwise.
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 just 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 increased.
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 better days.
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 indoor beach.
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 them there.
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!