The Irish did not teach their children to swim. That was something I found out in my teens once I began to voraciously read. They thought that it was cruel to be adrift at sea and have to watch their shipmates drown in some nautical disaster. So, naturally by being born in Los Angeles and with both sets of grandparents living in Seal Beach and Redondo Beach I was enthralled with the ocean at a very early age.
My maternal grandfather was born in 1897 in Ireland. Because he was raised in Ardmore, a vacation spot along the ocean, he was one of the rare Irishman that swam. In his twenties he left home on a ship and headed to the shores of New York via Ellis Island from there he continued west. On his travels across the United States he met up with my grandmother and eventually they settled by the shore in California.
Some of my earliest memories are of walking along the beaches of California with my grandfather. The briny smell of the ocean mixed with the heavy scent of driftwood burning in the distance while walking along the beach with my grandfather make up a piece of my childhood's memory landscape. We would visit and he would take us kids down to the pier in Seal Beach on his daily walks and talk to the men dropping their lines off the jetty. As a card carrying Irishman he had the tales to tell. He would chat the fishermen out of their catch. Smoking his cigar and gesturing he slowly he began, "Hey, boy, you think your wife wants to cook that little bit of fish?" It was a common first question he asked the various young men. From there anything could be discussed. Some of the guys were long time nodding acquaintances while others were new faces. It was enjoyable and kept us out of the house for hours.
Later we would return home with some smoked mackerel or other bits of the ocean given to us by someone down on the pier. He would tell us kids the stories of the Irish Waterdogs, pixies and other fairy-tales that were like the Grimm Brothers books in their endings. They were usually nicely morbid and there always was a lesson to be learned.
My family moved down the coast of California when I was just ten and we ended up living in Del Mar. For those old enough to remember Bing Crosby, he had a song touting the great line, "Where the surf meets the turf in old Del Mar". Bing Crosby had a country estate just outside Del Mar and helped support the nearby racetrack, so somehow I think he had an ulterior motive with his lyrics.
My father took up where my grandfather had left off in taking us kids to the beach. Our neighborhood was a few miles from the ocean and we would pile in the car and drive down to walk and check out the surf. We learned to fish from the shore since there was no pier in Del Mar. We also got to meet the various homeowners along the beach. Del Mar then was home to Jimmy Durante, Burt Bacharach, Desi Arnez and a host of other recognizable figures. Walking along the shoreline we were lucky to hear Mr. Bacharach play his piano, have Jimmy Durante call out and greet us kids and learned that the tide rose much faster on that beach than the long sandy shores of Seal Beach. My mom decided we children needed to be water safe before any more experiencing of the ocean.
In the early nineteen seventies our neighborhood had backyard swim programs. During the summer we kids would walk down in our flip-flops to a neighbor's pool and attempt to not drown. Back then nobody heated their pools. The programs started early in the summer and it was bracing to dip in the pools to 'learn' how to swim. Summer time in southern California is not always hot like other parts of the country. The fog and marine layer lingers and keeps the backyard pools a bit chilly.
My mom doesn't know how to swim. She would take no whining from us kids about cold water and not wanting to get our hair wet. Since she grew up with two older brothers the same beaches that we grandkids enjoyed with her father so much were the sites of some minor, near-drowning water related traumas. My uncles pretty much did everything horrible to keep their kid sister out of their ocean. She never learned to swim and was determined we would be water safe if nothing else. Mom kept after us kids to continue to go even when we came out blue and shivering. My siblings and I all are water hounds to this day.
There is something about the ocean that calls me. I have always found myself living near water. During my high school years I spent most of the summers and weekends down on the beach. I learned to play on the shore and in the water. My brothers were more likely to be found on top of the water. They boated, surfed and did whatever activity they could at the beach.
My brothers both still surf and are active in the various clean water programs. My sister relocated to the Midwest and is dealing with winter not swimming but she has had pools with her various homes. My fascination with the ocean never ended. A few weekends ago I had a chance to go down and see the harbor in San Diego. I have not been down to the harbor in years.
I think I had become jaded about the beauty San Diego had to offer. I have played tour guide to many family and friends visiting and pretty much take the scenery a bit for granted. My parents were going to drive downtown to book cruise for the spring. They offered to let me tag along with them. I grabbed my camera and hit the road. January in San Diego can have varied weather and this January has been no exception. Torrential rain, mudslides, bridges washed out and trains delayed summed up some of the winter events for my slice of southern California. So naturally the day we went down to the harbor it was about seventy. My jacket was left in the car and sunglasses firmly on my face I took a walk along the harbor.
The Star of India is docked next to the ship used in the movie "Master and Commander". You can pay eight dollars to walk around the ships and ask annoying questions of guys dressed in period outfits. As a child in San Diego there is at least two or three classes were you get a field trip to the ships and given the tour. Having gone on a few of them I saw no reason to revisit that memory.
Don't get me wrong the ships are amazing. The Star of India is considered one of the oldest active ships in the world. It was built over a hundred and forty years ago and still sails annually. The replica of an 18th century Navy frigate, H.M.S Surprise, which berths next to the Star of India, was used in that movie I have yet to watch even though I have it. The San Diego harbor has gone through a revamping with the addition of cruise ships and the Maritime Museum.
The sun was out and so were many people the day I walked along the docks. Two of the ships had a mock battle in the bay complete with cannon fire and fully opened sails. There is something about watching one of those ancient ships riding the waves while amidst the hustle and bustle of the 'modern' world that makes me stop. Here is a century plus of wood and rigging afloat that had been worked with decades of sweat and blood into the pieces of our history they are today. Along the ships there were vendors hawking t-shirts and a homeless man holding a sign asking for money to buy a beer.
Seeing that somehow made me think of my grandfather who would have seen the irony in all of that like I did. Snapping pictures I savored the day and enjoyed watching the waves lap against the sides of the still active ships.
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