Living Treasures at the Y

| January 13, 2011 | Comments (0)

The Japanese have a term for older people with rare artistic talent – master potters, kabuki performers, noh players. They call them ” living treasures.”

I call my friends at the Vanderbilt  YMCA swimming pool MY  ” living treasures.”  They are mostly in their 80s and 90s. We’ve been swimming together for 20 years now.  Not swimming together in the sense of synchronized swimming a la Esther Williams, but arriving around midday to do our  aquatic thing. Each person a bit different. I do laps while Mitzi does her water ballet and Herb treads water sometimes, does a bit of free-style, but mostly just stands and talks.

It’s  a very New York thing, this pool camaraderie. We are intimate in sort of an impersonal way. I know most of my Treasures’  life stories, but not their last names and we never meet outside of  the pool. Well, maybe in the steam room and in the shower with the gents, but never at their houses or in a restaurant. Very New York.

My favorites are Herb, Ralph and Mitzi. Herb is 92. He is handsome and still has an athlete’s build and a mind as sharp as a razor. For nearly 50 years he was a high school teacher and taught English grammar, something that’s not even on school curricula anymore !

 About a year ago he and his twin brother, Bud, started arriving at the pool using walkers. Before that, they had canes. Then last week they came in wheelchairs. We do most of our talking at the end of the lane when Herb stops to take a break between laps.

Herb likes to regale me with stories of his life on a Navy destroyer in the Pacific during the Second World War. As a 24 year-old from Brooklyn, he describes the feelings of fear and excitement he had as his ship headed to those deadly islands where lives were being lost.

Recalling the extreme heat of summer and the  high temperatures generated by the ship’s boilers, Herb describes escaping to the deck where he would spend the night gazing at a sky full of stars. Early one Sunday morning, he remembers being wakened by a low hum coming from deep down in the hold of the vessel. The sound seemed to crescendo into hundreds of voices singing, the words indistinct, mixed with the buzz of engines.

As he splashes  in the overly chlorinated pool water, Herb recalls how he followed the sound of those voices  to the back of the deck and, looking down deep into the cargo hold,  seeing hundreds of black sailors singing hyms.  He speaks slowly describing how their voices rose to him in full-bodied spirituals  praising the Lord. To Herb’s Jewish ears, it was a wonderous noise.

Herb told me until that moment he never realized there were “Negroes” on his ship. And they had been at sea two weeks. The black sailors just stayed down below,  separate from the rest of the crew, working to keep the ship moving. This was 1942.

Herb said that brief experience  changed his life. He couldn’t describe exactly how he had been changed, but he had been changed.  Somehow the world just seemed bigger… and better.

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