My father, Robert C. Amerson, was an American Foreign Service officer with the United States Information Agency during the Cold War. Building relationships was an essential part of his diplomatic responsibilities, “winning hearts and minds” for America.
Growing up as the perpetual new kid in school gave me the ability to quickly make new friends. That may be one of the reasons that I so enjoyed teaching exercise, and when I moved to South Florida and the venue became outdoor pools, I was a very happy camper. Trust and guided support allowed my adult students to relax and discover the joy of moving in a pool. Buoyancy and resistance are a marvelous combination.
There is nothing better that witnessing 60+ year-old women overcome their fear of the water and float for the first time in their lives, smiling ear-to-ear like happy kids. And when adults progresses from being unable to put their heads under water to swimming the freestyle across the pool, there’s no stopping that kind of confidence.
You may also know how important the water has been to my survival and recovery from a near-fatal illness last year.
Today, I want to share another person’s story. It combines my father’s chosen career and swimming. I came upon this delightful anecdote in Bonnie Tsui’s new book, Why We Swim. I am a complete fan.
Why We Swim is a gorgeous hybrid of a book. Bonnie Tsui combines fascinating reporting about some of the world’s most remarkable swimmers with delightful meditations about what it means for us naked apes to leap in the water for no apparent reason. You won’t regret diving in.Carl Zimmer, New York Times science columnist and author of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity
Bonnie Tsui writes about Joseph “Jay” Taylor, an American diplomat in Baghdad who received an award from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 for teaching his fellow Green Zone colleagues to swim. The Green Zone was where the international community lived, and where the American Embassy was housed in Saddam Hussein’s royal palace, which included a luxurious pool.
… adorned with eight-foot fountains and lighted with standing chandeliers for nighttime swimming. Jay couldn’t believe that he got to swim in it, even if on more than one occasion he had to jump out of the deep end at the scream of an air-raid siren and, still dripping, clamber hastily into a concrete bunker as the boom boom of exploding mortars vibrated around him.Bonnie Tsui, Why We Swim
The swim lessons began when Jay offered to teach a colleague from Madagascar who thrashing about the pool without much success. Soon, he was teaching two classes a week.
Cooks, drivers, translators, peacekeeping troops, helicopter pilots: People from all over the world, from all kinds of places and backgrounds, wanted Jay to be their swim coach … Honduras … India … Ukraine … Lebanon … Mexico. It was a miniature United Nations, a global diaspora of people who had never learned to swim.Bonnie Tsui, Why We Swim
They called themselves the Baghdad Swim Team. They formed a community, forging bonds and finding solace in a common pursuit. I get that. Some of my most intimate friendships have begun in a pool. More importantly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recognized Jay Taylor’s efforts with an award for teaching those wartime swimming lessons. For building community.
My Dad could have been one of Jay’s students. He almost drowned as a kid in rural South Dakota and was never comfortable in water, making this memory so much sweeter. It was the only road trip I ever had with just my father. We drove from the East Coast to Iowa for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. It was hot summer, and the small outdoor pool at the Illinois motel where we stopped for the night was perfect temperature for after-dinner relaxation. We bobbed in that pool for about a half-hour. It was probably the longest Dad was ever in a pool, and I got to be there.
Dad built community with music, a habit learned on the South Dakota prairie. From hootenannies with expats in Rome, to música folklórica in Bogotá, to flamenco guitar sessions in Madrid, Dad loved nothing more than an informal gathering of music-makers. He celebrated his 80th birthday with his siblings the way they grew up — harmonizing!