I’d never been in the spectator gallery of the Rockne Memorial swimming pool. But there I was, watching my kids take their first-ever swim lesson. From the balcony it appeared my two little sons and daughter were learning to put their faces in the water, hold their breath, maybe even blow bubbles. They eventually worked up to paddling around while holding on to a large green floating hippopotamus (whose name, I learned later, was Harry).
It had been some years since I’d been in the Rock, and this return sent me on a little excursion through rabbit holes and time warps.
The locker room looked and smelled like it did when I was a freshman 39 years ago. But on this July morning I was helping two 4-year-old boys pee before swim class, then herding them into showers, wetting them down, and leading them through the tiled passageway to the pool. The maze had not changed since I bashfully explored the labyrinth as a balky freshman unsure what was around each corner.
Today I handed the shiny boys off to their mother, sister and instructor before returning to the locker room where I clanged into metal lockers to get ready for work. Big fans were blowing, stirring up the stale air and the ghosts of memories past.
I always loved the Rock. It epitomized old-time, all-male Notre Dame.
I first came here as a high-schooler, an initiation into the school’s 1960s jock culture. My sister was at Saint Mary’s, and her boyfriend brought me here to play basketball. I loved the upstairs gym, the varnished floors and large, grated windows. I loved the smells, the sweat, the dark wood and stone and castle-like hallways — even the little sign on the stairwell that said, “No women beyond this point.”
I came back to play here as a student on crowded Friday and Saturday nights, never good enough to play on the first court, always a little self-conscious being relegated to the second. Mostly I shot around on the side, waiting for a game and watching the show and the bravado, the competitive intensity and the macho camaraderie. I played noontime ball my first winter back here at work, but the Rock’s stifling summer heat drove me to the ACC and I never really returned.
So most of my memories of the Rock go way back. Like Eddie, the towel guy. Generations of us knew him, and you can’t write about the Rock without mentioning him. But if you didn’t know Eddie, no place here to explain.
Even if you weren’t into sports or recreation, all freshmen had the Rock in common. Everyone had PE classes here, rotating through a series of athletic endeavors. Most of us were introduced to handball here — caged gladiators entering the courts via ladder from the darkened corridor above. After I graduated, working for a newspaper in Sheridan, Wyoming, I crossed paths on Main Street with a guy about my age. We stopped in our tracks, pointed to each other, looks of vague recognition blooming over our faces. It took a moment but we put it together. Paul Condon ’74 and I had been handball partners in phys ed class.
Tonight at dinner I asked the kids how the swim lessons had gone, and they talked excitedly, though each admitted a little trepidation being in the water. So I told them that some people don’t learn to swim till they’re much older, and it’s harder then. I told them about Stewie, a good friend from Chicago who learned to swim as a freshman at Notre Dame. I remembered the day in biology class when he confided he was nervous, even a little scared anticipating what awaited him later that morning. After bio class, he said, he had swim class at the Rock, and today they had to jump off the diving board. He wasn’t sure he could do it.
I saw him again at lunch and asked how it had gone, and Stewie — Jim Stuart ’74 — was nearly ecstatic. It was one of the coolest experiences ever. He was near poetic describing the fall through mid-air, the immersion in water, the elemental oneness of body, fluid and bubbles, the wondrous quality of plunging, suspension and buoyancy. I don’t think I’ve been in a pool since, when I don’t recall Stewie’s enthusiasm for the euphoric sensation of something so natural —each time appreciating anew the journey of body through water.
The kids listened politely when I told them about Stewie, but their mouths dropped open at what I said next. The naked swim. Introduction to PE.
All of us — I don’t know 30, 40, maybe 50 guys — all freshmen, all strangers, all gathering around the Rockne pool for the swimming test that would determine what level of swim instruction we would take. And all of us naked. Nude. No suits, not a stitch of clothing on. The instructors wore suits, but we freshmen — coming in all shapes and sizes, colors and flavors — went through the hour’s swim as free of adornment as the moment we were born.
The kids just stared at my smiling face. So I then added, “So the very pool where . . .” — but my wife quickly changed the subject.
I do not like getting older. I don’t like what’s happened to my body since the winter days senior year when I’d swim laps at the Rock and return to Lyons, my body loose and rubbery, with ice crystallizing in my beard. I wish I could move on a basketball court like I did then. And sometimes I miss being with a bunch of guys on a Friday night, playing ball, exerting ourselves, absorbed in the spirit of the games, then savoring the fraternal ease of the post-game locker room.
Life’s funny. Here I am back at the Rock after all these years. Swim lessons for 4-year-old kids. Go figure. And me, so different, so the same. I don’t like getting older, but one thing that’s pretty nice is having a head full of memories and being in places populated by the ghosts of those who have come in and out of my life through the years. So much, so many we carry around with us, and the longer you live, the more stories, the more company you have there.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine.