Learning to Swim
By Todd Crickmer
Back in my day … though it is now hard to believe, racial segregation was not just a social norm, it was literally the law of the land. I was reminded of this shameful fact of American history while traveling a Kansas interstate, late one night while traveling from one business meeting, to another early the next morning. I was struggling to keep my mind active and facing an unpleasant appointment awaiting me the next day in Wichita, I needed to get my mind off my career and yet stay alert. Music clearly was not going to do it for me. I pushed the scan button in the airport rental car, searching for anything more stimulating. The radio stopped on an NPR station that was doing a story on the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. The Board of Education, ruling that racial segregation was inherently unconstitutional.
I had heard of the case, and I knew that the Court had ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, but I never realized that the decision had been unanimous. Nine to nothing, how often does that happen? It must have been pretty obvious, and I guess public opinion probably was in agreement. Or was it? Thinking back to 1954, where was I, and what did I remember of the event?
In 1954, I would have been three years old, and to be honest, I don’t remember a thing. I was safely tucked into my own little childhood bubble, oblivious to anything outside my immediate surroundings. However, in 1957, my family moved to Lancaster, Texas, and suddenly my world expanded from a few hundred yards to an entire small town.
Lancaster is now a suburb of Dallas, your basic bedroom community. It is now a place where all city limits touch, and the realization that you have traveled from one municipality to another has all but vanished. However, back in 1957, Lancaster was an island of rural separation from its much larger cosmopolitan cousin. Back then, the two cities did not touch, and a cultural chasm might as well have separated them.
Even as a six-year-old, I was allowed to walk and ride my bike throughout the entire town. The streets were safe, traffic was light, and everyone seemed to know everyone. Local phone numbers only had four digits. Every adult white male was a member of the volunteer fire department, farm tractors were a common sight on the city streets, and the price of cotton drove the local economy.
There were black families in town, probably twenty percent of the overall population, but I seldom saw them. The home of Negro families (as we called them) were predominantly east of Dallas Avenue, as were their churches. But where they shopped, got haircuts, bought clothes, and mostly, where their kids went to school, I had no idea. I don’t remember ever seeing a black person in the town square or the local grocery store. And as we did not have a supermarket in town, I have no idea where they shopped for groceries. And though the only movie theater in the city allowed “coloreds” to sit in the balcony, I don’t remember ever seeing one up there either.
My dad had a machine shop located just east of the MKT railroad tracks. It was only four blocks from our house, but it was fair to say that it was on the other side of the tracks. And more black families did live east of the tracks than on the west side, less than fifty yards away.
A small creek ran north-south behind my dad’s shop, parallel to the train tracks. Looking at a current-day map, I realize the stream is called Keller Branch. But, as a kid, I did not know that. I just called it “dead dog creek” because once standing on the Second Street bridge, looking down into the creek, I saw a dead dog. I have no idea why the dog was dead or how it died, but it was brown and had a red collar, and it was just one of those childhood memories burned permanently into my preschool brain.
Chris, my older brother, was far more outgoing than I was and made friends easily. And as we were originally from California, many Southern social norms were not as fundamentally ingrained into us as they were for kids born and raised in the south. Chris made friends with some of the black kids that lived near my dad’s shop. One of those kids, a black boy probably a year or two older than Chris, was named Bodie.
In the days before anyone had air conditioning, Bodie and his other black friends would often swim in the creek during the heat of the Texas summers. And as my brother and I frequently hung around my dad’s shop, the boys would call us to join them in the cool waters of the creek. Now, for those unfamiliar with Texas geography, Lancaster lies on the Black Land Prairie. This name has nothing to do with the people that live there, but is derived from the thick black, gumbo-like soil that stretches in a band about fifty miles wide from the Red River north of Dallas to just northeast of San Antonio and is perfect for raising cotton.
But strangely, the creek bottoms were not of this black gumbo soil. The topsoil was only about three to four feet deep, and underneath was a bed of limestone that was easily carved by centuries of water cascading over it on its way to the Trinity River and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. And as this limestone was relatively soft, deep pools had been formed over time, creating the perfect swimming holes for kids to play and swim.
As an adult, I have no idea how big the natural pools actually were, but to a six-year-old, they seemed huge. And as Chris and I would watch them swimming and splashing around, once invited, the temptation to join them was too much for Chris to ignore. Over the course of several months, Chris actually learned to swim, a skill he would keep for the rest of his life, while I sat alone on the bank, too afraid to join them.
These pools were well upstream from where I saw the dead dog, which wasn’t the issue. And the water was clear enough to see the bottom. But it was a live stream. There might have been snakes, though I never saw one. However, there were bugs. Water Striders, Jesus Bugs as we called them, that effortlessly glided across the water on their spindly legs. And one other issue was that the boys all swam naked, and the black boys were not circumcised, which was much more alien to me than their dark skin.
Over time, Chris and Bodie became pretty good friends, and as kids of that age usually do, they wanted to spend as much time together as possible. Eventually, Chris asked my parents if Bodie could spend the night. Now I don’t actually remember this, but as the family legend goes, my parents discussed the issue at length before finally coming to a decision. Personally, they had no objection. Bodie was a good kid and very respectful to all adults. But social norms were what they were, and we still had to live in a town and in a society where such practices were just not done.
Ultimately, they agreed that Chris and Bodie could sleep on the front porch. Camp out if you will, and that was what they did.
We only lived in Lancaster for a couple of more years before finally moving to Houston, where I spent the rest of my childhood. Fast forward a dozen years, Chris was drafted and sent to Vietnam. Unlike many of his contemporaries, my dad was strongly opposed to the war in Southeast Asia. He had served in a medical unit in Germany during World War Two, and I think he had had all of the combat he ever wanted to see. In Vietnam, Chris was assigned to a medical unit as a crew member aboard a Medivac helicopter, so I guess my dad took some solace in that. Nevertheless, he was still very anxious about my brother’s service.
Safely returning from the war, Chris could not wait the tell the family of his experiences overseas. A family dinner was organized, and as we all gathered around the table, Chris proudly showed the medals he had been awarded. The crowning jewel was the Bronze Star with Valor. As I understand it, the Bronze Star is honor enough, but the Bronze Star with Valor is incredibly prestigious, and even our dad showed signs of fatherly pride.
Chris eagerly began the tale. Their unit was called to the scene of an intense firefight with the Viet Cong. The battle had subsided, but the enemy, though wounded, was still active in the area. The helicopter Chris was assigned to, swung in low and hovered inches above a rice paddy as Chris and the other crew members jumped into the flooded field to help load wounded American soldiers aboard. They quickly loaded two badly injured soldiers, and just before taking off, three more Americans jumped on board, including a young black lieutenant.
With the extra weight, the helicopter struggled to gain altitude but managed to clear the nearby jungle treetops and turned to head back to base. Less than one “klick” (a kilometer) from where they had loaded the soldiers, their Huey was hit by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade). As smoke poured from the damaged engine, the crippled helicopter spun out of control and crashed into a small nearby river.
The family all gasped. Chris, now at ease telling the story, leaned back in his chair, and with a drink in his hand, said, “I think we were all knocked a little senseless as we hit the water, but after shaking off the initial shock of being hit, my first instinct was to see if the pilots were okay, and they both seemed to be. Then, checking on my crewmate and our passengers’ condition, I instantly realized the lieutenant was missing. I frantically scanned the river, quickly realizing that he had been thrown clear of the chopper when we were hit and had landed about fifty meters upstream.”
Chris put his drink down and now lean forward on the table to continue his story. “There was no time to think. I unsnapped my safety harness, slipped out of my flak vest, and dove in the muddy water. I was still in my fatigues, and I still had my boots on, but with more strength than I thought was possible, I swam to rescue him. He was unconscious, face down in the water, and would have drowned if I didn’t get to him immediately.”
With his voice now choking with emotion, Chris went on. “Flipping him over, I grabbed him by his flak jacket and pulled him to shore. He wasn’t breathing – I pounded on his chest several times – and then quickly began mouth-to-mouth. The thought that he was a black man never entered my mind. He was another soldier, and I know he would have done the same for me. Within a minute or two, he was breathing on his own, and I pulled him up to the top of the bank. It had already been reported that we had crashed, and several other choppers quickly landed to extract us.”
Chris now sat up straight, and beaming with excitement, said, “Safely back at Cam Ron Bay, the next day I was called to the hospital. The lieutenant that I had saved wanted to thank me. I didn’t need or expect any special recognition, but I followed orders and appeared at the officer’s door.” Chris’s voice again began to choke with emotion as he said. “Walking to the foot of his bed, we immediately recognized each other. It was Bodie.”