The Patriarch of the Oak Park YMCA

There is a pleasant gentleman that has belonged to Lansing Area YMCAs for 53 years.  That’s longer than I have been alive.  I’d like to say much longer than I have been alive, but, alas, it is only just longer than I have been alive.  He is over six feet tall and is quite physically fit for a man in his late eighties.  He makes his living as a salesman and consequently he can talk a rock into buying sand.  Combined with the phenomenon of older people losing inhibitions because of the brain’s inevitable loss of certain circuitry, this crazy old dude talks to everybody about anything.

He spends his time at the YMCA in the pool, treading water in place.  He keeps foam dumbbells in hand to keep him afloat, and then kicks his legs as if he were running.  While he does this, he talks to the lifeguard who leaves her post on the raised chair to stand on the edge of the pool nearest his place in the water.  The crazy old dude interrupts his talk with the lifeguard only long enough to give a shout out to someone else.

I talk to him every time I see him, and he offers those cute, encouraging, little aphorisms like, “Enjoy this day, young man,” and, “Come back again because it only helps.”  He is convinced that his obsessive devotion to his physical regimen is what has kept him alive and active these last 50 years.  It’s hard to argue as I don’t know of any octogenarians with anything like his vitality.

Tonight we chatted about how, back in the good old days, men swam naked in the pool because, back in the good old days, the YMCA was strictly men only.  The one time I remember doing it was at the YMCA in downtown Cleveland.  It felt strange, at best, to walk naked from the locker room and flop in the pool.  I swam like a rock back then, so I was painfully aware of being in the water; perhaps that’s why I remember the moment so vividly.

What I really recall is seeing my brother’s junk as he floated in the pool.  I think I was so self-conscious about being naked that seeing him naked became a flashbulb memory.  I know there were others in the pool, and some of the older men wore bathing suits.  I think that’s what made it a semi-traumatic experience: to see others dressed normally for swimming while I was naked with my brother was surreal, even though I didn’t know what surreal meant back then.  Like dreaming of going to school in your pajamas, or going to church naked, the pool scene became a flashbulb moment for me.

In fact, each time I walk out of the locker room at the YMCA, headed for the pool, I have a momentary anxiety attack, thinking I’m naked in spite of the fact that I’m wearing a bathing suit.  I may never get over that little quirk.  Life is full of quirks.  When I’m eighty years old and holding court in the locker room of the YMCA, I hope I remember to say that, “Life is full of quirks.”

In spite of the preponderance of references to naked men, I’m fine with both my sexuality and nakedness.  I feel I have to say that, but feeling I have to say that probably reveals some other character flaw–or the fact that I’ve been drinking wine.  And, thanks to the crazy old dude at the YMCA, I’m also a little bit more okay with growing older.