Stan Simmons and I, the day he threw me into the lake
Life goes by like a lightening bolt heading for ground. I have a new perspective as I look back over my aging shoulder and reminisce about friends, places, good times and bad. I have a lot of wonderful memories about colorful characters. I was thinking about one of them recently that I met before I could swim. I was six or seven years old. My parents had a boat—a small cabin cruiser we could sleep on. My dad worked at the phone company with a man who lived on a small lake near our home. His name was Stan Simmons and he let us moor the boat in front of his house. We spent every weekend on the boat and barbecuing with Stan and his family.
Stan knew I couldn’t swim. One day he said to me, "Everyone can swim, it comes natural." He said, "Even my cat can swim." At that moment he picked up his cat and threw it off the end of the dock. That cat came out of the water like an Indy car with no brakes. I never did see it stop running. It wasn’t the kind of swimming lessons I had in mind.
One piece of lawn furniture in the yard was a metal sofa designed to swing. The adults were often gathered there talking. That afternoon I happened to be behind the swing making cat noises. It seemed to annoy Stan so I continued my "meowing." I was getting tremendous enjoyment from the fact that my cat imitation was irritating Stan. Finally he said, "If you meow one more time I’m going to throw you off the end of the dock just like I did the cat.
I didn’t believe him for a minute. Besides, my mother was sitting right there. She would never let him do that to me. "Meow" no more than crossed my lips and I was sucking water. I can still see the underwater scene to this day. I didn’t close my eyes. And just like that cat I learned to swim in seconds. It happened so fast I think my mother was still in shock by the time I passed her moving as fast and in the same direction as that cat.
I ended up in our 1950 Buick Road Master. Because it was all black the sun had turned it into an oven. I sat in the front seat crying and drying. I think it was my first lesson in calling someone’s bluff. I would be careful with that tactic in the future. I completely forgot about my traumatic event when I discovered a fifty-cent piece lodged down behind the seat. It must have fallen from my dad’s pocket. Instantly I was rich. My fortunes had changed from sorrow to elation in the blink of an eye.
Simple actions impact children in ways you may never understand. I can remember Stan and everyone laughing at me when I finally gathered enough courage to climb out of the car and confront him. First I showed everyone my Lady Liberty half dollar. Then I told Stan, "I’ll get you for that." My mother laughed and warned him that I was Irish so he had better listen to what I was saying.
We were good friends for over 40 years. Stan was a jovial fellow who could make everyone laugh just being around him. Near the end of his life he had a stroke and ended up in a hospital near my home in northern Michigan. I went to visit him and found him down the hallway from his room eating his dinner looking out the big picture window. Although the right side of his body was slumped from the stoke he still had his sense of humor. We talked and laughed for an hour. When we were getting ready to leave he asked me if I could help him back to his room. He wasn’t used to his walker and needed someone to take him by the arm and steady his balance. I was honored to help him.
The stroke rendered his right leg almost useless and Stan would take a step with his left leg then drag the right around in front of him. Just as we neared his room, his right foot caught the back of his left heel and he tumbled to the floor. Stan was a big guy and I couldn’t stop his fall. I let him down as easy as I could and ended up almost on top of him, my face right at his left ear. I said the first thing that came to my mind. "That’s what you get for throwing me in the lake you old goat."
We were both laughing so hard it took three nurses to get us off the floor. That comment brought him so much joy he told anyone that would listen to him the whole story.
I’ll never forget Stan. He’s part of my history. His teaching methods came from the old school—get your feet wet—sink or swim. Some would call it crude but I can recall many occasions in later years when I made decisions based on the lesson I learned the afternoon Stan taught me to swim like a cat.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird