Saturday, February 21, 2009

Naked Boys Swimming
I was recently talking with my friend Lyle about the subject of locker room gym behaviors. We discussed the comfort levels of men who are comfortable being naked in front of each other. Some are quick strippers, down to the buff and on comes the towel (I fall into that category) but for the most part I've gotten over my fear of being naked in the gym.
Some “if you got it flaunt it” guys. Mostly Koreans. Nudity means nothing and culturally is just natural. Some are prudish with putting a towel around themselves and slipping out of their clothes like they are doing a magic act.

I confessed that it took me a long time to get over my fears of the locker room; years of gym classes where even the slightest deviation from the status quo, from underwear to penis size, was cruelly mocked by the alpha males. When joining a gym in my 20's I remember the irrational fear of going in there and changing my clothes. As if some businessman was going to start to pick a fight with me or steal my underwear and throw it out of the room.

Lyle asked me if in High School I had to swim naked. "No one ever believes me when I say that all the boys swam naked in high school…" Talking about this brought back a flood of memories. I'm not sure if this is uniquely Chicago or if this happened in other parts of the country, but as a teenager I was forced to undress in front of all my other male classmates and swim naked for an hour a day. It was as strange and humiliating as it sounds.

I believe the rational behind this comes from a bygone era. The era that taught that it was good for boys to bond together naked; I remember my gym teacher telling us it was healthier for us to swim naked. The other rational was that the school didn't have to pay for swim trunks for boys. Could it also have been that it was expected that after high school the boys would naturally be going into the armed forces and this would be a way to toughen us up.. Whatever it was until I was 17 I skinny dipped at the public school pool.

I went to Kennedy High School, which was a fairly new school relative to the other ancient structures in the city. It was built around 1962. Connected at one end of the high school, attached by a bridge, was Kinzie Elementary. Since I was 4 until I was 18, those two buildings were where I grew up. Rumors about naked swim began to surface when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade. And we knew it was true… because we could see them; The swimming pool's slightly frosted windows looked out on our playground. Year after year during recess and lunches we would watch the parade of naked boys walking past the window, occasionally they would lean back against the glass and we could see their squished buttocks. It terrified me. Someday I would be on the other side of that glass.

The legends spread through the grade school playground about naked swim. “They just make you stand there naked in front of everyone and then they push you in the pool. If you try to get out they poke you with a stick. If you start to drown they have a big metal hook that sticks through you to pull you out.” And we all believed them… how could we not? These stories were passed down from older siblings who were there in the high school and reporting back to us. We were doomed.

I graduated to Kennedy High School in 1977. That summer was a nervous one as I fretted over the future of naked swim and showering in front of people in general. I would practice taking a quick shower and drying myself off with one towel and getting dressed as quickly as I can. Filled with as much fear as a teenager can hold, I started as a freshman.

High School Gym class seems to be the turning point for everyone's personal development. Stephen King depicted it well in “Carrie”; all of us who were shy or outsiders could feel her rage and would have easily used our psychic powers to destroy the gym and everyone in it. Janis Ian wrote in her song “At Seventeen” ' To those of us who knew the pain Of valentines that never came And those whose names were never called When choosing sides for basketball'. I look back on those gym classes with no nostalgia, but still a relief that they are over.

My gym teacher's name was Mr. Gaylord (no kidding). He was a tightly, muscled, short man with thinning hair. Thinking back, he was probably pretty sexy, but then he couldn't have been more horrifying with his just out of the army, drill sergeant style of yelling, butt smacking, and name calling. We were being trained to go into the service you know, we needed to be made strong, and they only way you can make a boy strong is to break him first and build him up. And the way to break a pack of young boys is to strip them and make them all fall in line.
(the pool today)

The pool at Kennedy was huge. Olympic size, built in the early prosperous Kennedy years when physical fitness was one of the president's high priorities. We were all lead into the locker room and told to strip down and put our clothes in the locker; I was terrified to forget my locker combination and repeated it over and over for a week before school started. Trying it again and again like the shower tests so I could open the locker as quickly as possible. We all stripped and stood in a line. The showers were going full blast and Mr. Gaylord stood at the front of the shower with a squeeze bottle of some pink slippery goo that he was shooting out over each boy as he went into the shower. Sometimes he would rub the soap down the back of the boys. We had to shower before getting into the pool; it was the rule. The soap or whatever it was had a chemical smell; did it have some sort of insecticide to kill lice?

Then from there into the large room where the pool was, again in lines of four or five. Some of the guys were really natural with their nakedness. Wrestling with each other, shoving and pushing. I don't know when I first knew that something was different about me sexually, but I'm sure it when I was seeing guys that I had just sat next to in history and now we were front to butt with each other going to jump in the pool. Dare I say at age 14 I had definite stirrings, although I didn't know what they were? I don't think at that time I could have given it a word.  But we were all comparing ourselves to each other.  Big dicks, small dicks.  There were two obese twins whose genitals were completely covered by rolls of fat.  I can't imagine what this experience did to them.   Other boys with big members proudly knew that they had something special and would strut around with semi-boners telling of how they screwed their girl friends last night.  

One good thing was I did learn to swim and I loved to swim. There is a freedom to swimming naked; years later I did it in Lake Michigan and it really does feel wonderful. If anything was making it strange it was Mr. Gaylord and his army-like tactics for the boys that couldn't swim. One of these kids was Nemick. Looking back now I think he had some mental issues. There were rumors that he had killed his neighbor's dog. Nemick was terrified of the water. We would have to line up and jump off of the diving board into the deep end and do laps as part of our test to pass the quarter. Nemick had never gone into the deep end and he would just stay in the shallow end slowly walking from one end to the other. Mr. Gaylord would yell at him “Look out Nemick, there's a shark coming…” Nemick's eyes would fill with panic and he would try as quickly as he could to get out of the pool. And the kids would laugh. Once he got an erection and he stood in the pool beating and beating his penis. Gaylord laughed with another gym teacher, “He's trying to beat it down…” Writing this now, I wonder does this shit still go on?

Being one of the weaker guys I was not exempt from bullying. Once my locker was completely kicked in and I stood naked freezing in the locker room unable to get my clothes until the janitor came with tools to take the door off. Another time my locker was pulled open (so much for the locks) and my glasses were stolen. I am practically blind without them. I had to wear my mother's old glasses for a month until my glasses were found at the bottom of the pool. I counted the days until swim was over.

OK on top of everything else, this was the weird thing about naked swim: The ROTC room was in the basement of the high school. A dank, spooky room where guys who were planning in advance to make a career of the military would go to do gun twirling or play RISK or whatever they did down there. In that room was a huge Weeki Watchee picture window that looked into the swimming pool. Are there 8mm films of years of naked teenage boys swimming somewhere? The other thing was there was stadium seating that looked over the swimming pool. This was never locked and years later we learned that it was common for the girls to sneak up there and watch the naked boys.

This went on until 1979 when in my Junior year the gym classes were made Co-Ed. No more naked swim. My prayers were answered. However in my senior year they had decided that they would do separate swim classes again, returning to the tradition. A couple friends of mine decided to take matters into their own hands and snuck in late at night, broke some glass bottles, and tossed them into the pool. The pool had to be shut down while they cleaned it. Once it was cleaned and ready for swim classes, they did this again! Hence avoiding having to swim naked.

We are all shaped by these experiences; and although I don't dwell on high school and how horrible it was… but I feel I did learn the truth at seventeen. And I never forgot it.

It also makes me wonder... for the last few years there hasn't been a gay film that hasn't had some swimming pool scene in it.

A note about Mr. Gaylord… that summer after my first freshman year. Mr. Gaylord was found dead in the pool. He was swimming and had hit his head against the side of the pool and drowned. I'm just saying…

A couple links to other experiences and views:

Swimming nude in Houston:  HERE
Male coach swimming nude with girls:  HERE 

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post John! I know you told me these stories, but it's good to see it in writing.

Airedale

Anonymous said...

Ack! This post brought back horrible memories - thanks, John! lol

We never swam nude here in Ohio, but I do have bad memories of swimming (like a rock amongst fish), nudity in the locker room, and the locker room itself and the shower after gym (I remember one higher clique boy peeing on another non-clique leg in the shower and laughing insanely. Same jerk who busted my glasses with an unneeded slam of the volleyball to my face. Same jerk who is now a town councilman).

Anonymous said...

Oh my God. I cannot put my thoughts into words...this is just sick. I am dumbfounded this was allowed. Good grief.

I have never heard of naked swim in my life. I have heard of jerk teachers like Mr. Gaylord--karma bit him in the butt.

~~
To this day I won't do locker rooms. In my high school, girls got out of showering if they had their period. I'm really surprised my high school gym teacher was so stupid she didn't realize I had my period every day my entire sophomore year.

~~
My son went to camp this past summer. He was scared to death he'd have to shower in front of other boys. Now modesty is in, and all boys were allowed to shower in their trunks.

Frankie

Anonymous said...

I am also a Kennedy HS Grad, remember this all too well. The Horror. Trying to understand your sexuality and being tossed into this... It was awful. I remember one time the water so so murky you couldn't see the bottom. Nobody wanted to go in first, so we went alphabetically.. guess who went first.

The only thing I remember at Graduation as I walked accross the stage at McCormick Place to get my dipolma was "You never have to take gym ever again, and swim naked". SERIOUSLY.. this is what went through my mind.

Great Post.

Linda said...

I had never heard of naked swimming. Being from a very small rural area, the whole idea of it never entered my mind. In my high school of about 150 students, people would have had mass strokes at the mere hint of such a thing. However, I am an incessant Googler (that sounds like a new psychiatric disorder) and came across many websites on the practice. The most interesting one is from Iowa State University complete with pictures! http://www.iastate.edu/Inside/2008/0201/swim.shtml
Apparently naked swimming is a proud tradition in many schools.

At my dear old high school, gym class was still a horror. Our gym uniforms itched and we were required to shower after every class. Our entire grade was based on whether or not we showered. Of course, we were so rural that many of the girls didn't have running water at home, so maybe the opportunity to shower was appreciated. Anyway, all but the popular girls hated gym and, like you Johnny, on graduation day I smiled as I celebrated the day and no more gym class!

Aaron said...

Sometimes, our Gaylord karma comes back to bite us in the naked ass.

I'M just sayin'...

Anonymous said...

Johnny, Brings back memories too. Went to Schurz High early 70's and naked swim was the thing. Had a prety cool teacher Mr. Pierce, tried to make everyone feel at ease and tolerated no smart ass comments or mocking else he had ya stand on the diving board all sim class. Was petrified ist day of swim but realized my good friend was in class with me and we swam at the Y together in grade school. We were all created the same so 4 years went by fast. Don.

Johnny C said...

It's funny tonight this post came up with friends; they were still shocked I swam naked.

The weirdest follow-up to this is a friend on Facebook who said at Lane Tech they swam naked and if anyone had an erection they were forced to stand on the diving board with a towel on it until it fell off.

The tortures of youth.

Anonymous said...

I can vouch for the fact that
it happened in Chicago in the 1976-1979 era. The ymca pools were all co-ed by that time, but boys swam nude
in any school with a pool, public or parochial.
Girls had to wear navy blue one-piece racing suits.
Any boy who wanted to wear a brief racing strap could have, but very few did.
Some of us insisted on being nude in the pool even after tank suits were put in.
I hated it at first, but over time it was good to lose any carnal self-consciousness (term from Sydney Harris?) I did not think of it as a sexual thing, although
I did think that some of my classmates had nice bodies.

Anonymous said...

I thought nude swimming was relaxing and fun, especially if
the water was a decent temperature.
It was somehow liberating to be sans swimsuit. I gave no real heed to the fact that my classmates and I were naked, since if there were no pool there would still be group
showering after football practice or PE. To me it was overwhelmingly positive, and not at all prurient.

Anonymous said...

There were alot of "tough" things about childhood in those days. Boys
were expected to submit to all kinds of indignities that 21st century parents would flip out over and sue everyone but God.
Most of these troubles were simply withstood and never discussed with parents or other adults. Compared with life itself, nudity in p.e. swim class was not a big deal at all. If some kids were upset by it, they did not let anyone know. On the other hand, a few kids every semester wore suits because their mother or dad insisted on it, and they were never razzed or harassed by other students or by the coach. The coaches who supervised nude swimming were nice guys with no Napoleonic or Vince Lombardi complexes.

kharlowe said...

I was 90 miles away, in Rockford, and 10 years earlier, but I experienced the same shit. Same drill instructor teachers, and I was just as confused/disoriented/embarrassed and humiliated. I had no idea why I was subjected to this, and it wouldn't have done any good to ask. Say what you will about the alleged "wimpy" younger group, I envy them the world they have, one in which this kind of humiliation won't be countenanced.
Even then, I wondered what in the name of hell was going through the minds of the school boards that allowed this shit. You don't take teenagers, who are the point in their lives when they are the most sensitive they will ever be about their bodies, and force nudity upon them. Where the bloody mind fuck did these people study psychology, the Herman Goering Institute?
Curiously, some guys have a benevolent view of this, reminiscing about it as "male privilege." I've never thought of humiliation as privlege, but I'm just not in to s/m either. However, if you look at this thread, you'll see what I mean:
http://www.topix.com/forum/education/TID0DQ0GJR34GB55G/p250#lastPost

consa said...

Johnny C, I like the way you write. While you were at Kennedy, I attended the University of Chicago. The Ida Noyes pool there had substantial single sex hours, where swimming nude was encouraged. But I never saw that.

I was a teenager in gritty Pennsylvania factory towns. No high school I attended had a pool. Nor did I hear of swimming naked. I spent a substantial amount of time in the local YMCA, working on my Junior and Senior lifesaving certificates. Never saw or heard of naked swim there either.

When I have swum naked as an adult, I've been either alone or just with my wife. I don't mind being seen naked in a pool. At most they will see my backside, which I don't care about. While in water, I am incapable of having an erection. In fact, water makes me childishly small, which I don't mind at all.

The locker room bullying you experienced was far worse than anything I experienced. While I was disliked, was clumsy, and wore thick glasses, I was also a bit larger than average, very fast on my feet, and far from the weakest boy in my group.

For years I dreaded having to do PE because of the group showers. I feared that having to shower in the presence of others would betray my deepest secret: I am uncircumcised. For the first 2-3 weeks I had PE, I tried to use a rubber band to hold my foreskin back. If the rubber was tight enough to do the job, I was uncomfortable. If the rubber band was comfortable, it was also worthless.

Knowing I had to do something, I discovered that if I quickly slipped my hand into my underwear and slid the foreskin back right before taking my underwear off, it would stay back for 15-30 seconds. I also quickly discovered that I could periodically readjust my foreskin without being noticed.

At the end of the school year,there was an assembly where the 10 highest GPAs in every class were called to the stage. I was #2 among the sophomores. When my name was called out, more than 100 senior boys booed and catcalled me. The girls of my class came to my defense by cheering more loudly than the seniors. Had the senior boys known that I was uncircumcised, high school would have amounted to Time in Hell. In any event, I finished high school with my secret safe.

Throughout my entire time in PE, I saw only one uncut dick other than my own. The fellow in question did nothing to hide it, and I did see a macho basketball player once make fun of him.

I do not know what to make of the reported growing reluctance of boys to shower in locker rooms. I always thought of being naked around other men as manly, and had absolutely no issues with it other than for having a weird dick to American eyes.

I can confirm that chubby boys had tiny dicks. But I never saw or heard a boy being made fun of for that.

Perscrutations said...

I guess most of these posters are relatively young, like less than middle age. When I grew up in the 1950s it was common to have group showers after P.E. This started in the seventh grade and continued through high school. I'm sure some guys had fears of this, but most soon got over it. There were always a couple of guys who enjoyed swatting naked butts with wet towels, but coaches always put a stop to it. Being naked in front of other guys was a natural right of passage. And, I believe a healthy one.

gasguys said...

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QvkJafnhtYM

gasguys said...

Here is a website for Christian Men who wish to enjoy nude swimming just like the good-old-days.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QvkJafnhtYM

GrumbleGrouch said...

I grew up in New York City in the 1930s and '40s. It was never a problem for men and boys to see each other naked, but being seen by females was not supposed to happen at all.

We boys swam naked in the pool, just us, no girls, no women. Nobody was bothered by it. At that time men's and boys' swim suits were scratchy wool briefs and we were told the lint would clog the filters. Girls had their own swimming time and they wore one-piece suits.

Summers when I was a boy we went swimming in a lake near the city. Everybody swam together with suits on. There was one changing room for males and another for females. Boys and men stood around naked in a big room using towels for drying, not for wearing. I don't know about the other room.

These days I see men wrapping themselves in towels in the men's locker room. I don't get it. Before women come in to clean the room it's closed, so it's only men there. I don't see why they cover up. It's ridiculous.