Magazine July 6, 2020, Issue

Against the Current

A public swimming pool in Vienna, Austria, May 29, 2020. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

If you want to swim without once turning around, there are two ways to do it. One is to clamber down the White Cliffs of Dover, dive in, and head for France. The other is to swim in a swimming pool with a current. Currents are generated in two ways — by drop-in devices inserted in ordinary pools, or by mechanisms built into the pool itself. (Pools of the latter kind can be quite short: Why do you need all that length, if you’re swimming in place?) Either way the effect is that of an aquatic treadmill. 

I got one of the built-ins for my wife for a big birthday. During the long weekend that has gone three months and counting, she used it every day — until one day when it simply stopped.

The company that makes the pools has a representative who services all of them in the region, when he is not scuba-diving in places where the fish are more colorful than those that live here. We ran up the distress flag, and he appeared to diagnose and repair. 

Such a stoppage can have several causes. Power failure? No. A jammed impeller (the spinning rotor that makes the current flow)? A bit of filter had broken off and stuck in the blades, but once that was removed, still nothing worked. That suggested a problem with the motor.

The motor lives in a box to one side of the pool, behind and beneath foam panels so its racket will not be deafening. It was necessary, the rep said, to remove it, take it to a roomy place, and open it up to see what was wrong.

This was no easy trick. Neither of us is a young man. The cylindrical motor is quite heavy, and it sits atop a crankcase that is a lightweight metal box. The combined apparatus is grossly unstable, like a ballerina lifting a giant sea turtle. Did I happen to own a dolly, the rep asked? Why, no; never having played bumper cars with my appliances, I don’t. So after hoisting our tipsy monster, we would have to walk it along ourselves. “Don’t let it tip!” he cautioned. Roger that. 

With straining back and shoulder muscles and the short steps of cripples, we trotted motor and crankcase to the operating theater. Down. The rep unscrewed the bolts that held the motor to the crankcase. Up and over. The cylinder rose an inch, slid two feet, then came to rest on its head. Prep accomplished, all without crushing anyone’s toes.

While the rep looked for what might be wrong, I inspected the crankcase. There was a rubber gasket that fit on the square rim, to prevent metal from resting on metal; also, to prevent any oil that might spray inside from spritzing out. Years of passive labor had caused the gasket’s inner flap to pucker, the rubber swelling in bulges like would-be bayous on the Mississippi. If the rubber rose off the metal, as released from weight-bearing it longed to do, it was impossible to slip it back into place. 

The rep finished his work — he unscrewed and replaced a pipe that was so befouled it looked like a drain in the Augean stables — then joined me at the gasket. After vain rubber massage, he came up with two solutions, neither from the owner’s manual: snipping slices out of the gasket here and there and stretching the severed pieces to meet, then attaching them to the crankcase wall with epoxy. Epoxy takes so many minutes to dry. I had never crouched in the sun pinching rubber to metal for the sake of epoxy before. Now I have.

The last act would consist of refastening the motor to the crankcase, and carrying the happy couple back to its home. But here, at the outset, was a difficulty even greater than moving the thing back and forth. How could two men in the AARP lift and settle a mass of machinery so precisely that the finicky gasket would not spring out of position, and the screw holes would line up? “At the factory, they have a hydraulic lift,” the rep said. But I had one of those no more than I had a dolly.

Then, my only contribution besides muscle: Why not bring Mohammed to the mountain? Pick up the crankcase, which weighed basically nothing, and set it upside down on the upside-down motor? A major in English, it seems, is good for something. Houp-la — and we were done.

There was more that needed fixing, it turned out — nothing is ever easy — but I will not bore you, or myself, with that. Once was enough. I never use the pool, but why does my wife swim in it every day she can? Why is the need so great now?

Swimming is a late arrival in our culture. Euroman has sailed the bounding main since the Odyssey and the Argonauts, but sailors often did not know how to swim. In the Aubrey–Maturin novels, they debate whether it is better to struggle or die quickly. Leander swam, but he finally drowned. Lord Byron swam, partly in imitation. So did Franklin, though swimming was one of his oddball feats, like designing magic squares. Exotics popularized it — Duke Kahanamoku, Johnny Weissmuller — then everybody caught on.

There is still something magical, though, about making a home of another element. My wife’s swim coach for many years, Terry Laughlin, now deceased, had a gnomic saying, “Feel the healing power of the water.” The strokes he taught were designed to make one feel in contact with the water at every moment. At your most attuned, you flow along with it, even as it bears you up. (One of Franklin’s tricks to prove how hard it is to sink was to drop an egg in shallow water and ask people to dive down and fetch it. Not easy!)

That’s for my wife. My pool is the blue screen, with headlines and out-of-copyright novels.  

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Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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