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.
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…