Because, in a way, we live in an age of arrested development. We tickle our adolescence much in the manner our wives employ when amusing the very young. We cannot let go of it—the game we played or the joy we took in playing it. The 80-yard run or that long, last hook shot that won the game for good old—you name the school. We sprint in our sleep, some of us, like dogs adreaming. But only rarely is the old jock fool enough to reenter the fields of play. Sure, there are the pickup games of touch in the park or of half-court at the Y, these paid for often enough in the coin of pain: a charley horse or a bent nose. The old baseball player wallops the horsehide at the company picnic, sucking down beer between innings, enjoying both the memory and the prospect of hangover.
Ah, but the man who was once a champion swimmer—where does he go to recapture the psychic garlands of his now-drained glory? Usually he ends up swimming laps in a motel pool, a dinky well of nostalgia fraught with kids and chlorine. He hopes his stroke will announce to the world, or at least that portion of it sizzling like pork chops at poolside, that he was once akin to Schollander and Spitz. But at the very moment of his grandest fantasy, he usually clips a little girl on the side of the head with his nifty, bent-armed recovery and hears her porcine papa bellow: "Hey, showboat, look out for my kid. Who do you think you are, Weissmuller?"
The swimmer returns to his laps, chastened, slower, thinking that, after all, the real thrill of swimming was not in the workouts. No, not in those endless, dead-armed hours of ennui punctuated by retching. The real thrill was in the race itself, and in the hours leading up to it. He relives the scenario. There was that fine, visceral balance that had to be struck between fear and fury as he shaved down for the meet. Then the dry-throated shimmer of horror when his event was called. Followed by a feeling of calm, yes, of readiness, rising like mercury in the competitive thermometer of his backbone as he mounted the block. A quick glance at the crowd—the grim-faced fathers, the hot-eyed girl friends. And then the climactic moment: the crack of the starter's pistol....
Four ancient swimmers from Wauwatosa, Wis. recently relived those dubious thrills. Hoping against hope, teetering against time, they swam a 200-yard freestyle relay—50 yards per Methuselah—against four of their inheritors, topflight members of Wauwatosa West High School's 1971 state championship swimming team. The senior citizens lost, as they knew they would, but not so badly as had been predicted. At the same time they won a victory of Proustian magnitude, a successful search for the past—√† la recherche du temps perdu—without the aid of tea cakes. These four men, whose combined ages totaled a century and a half and averaged 38¼ years, proved that Thomas Wolfe was a liar: you can go home again!
May 14, 1972
The instigator of this juvenile exercise was a man whom I shall call Splash, age 37 and possessed by some strange coincidence of the same fingerprints as this article's author. Splash now lives in the exurbs of the Northeast, but in his day as a high school swimmer he was the fastest 50-yard freestyler in the state of Wisconsin and the fourth fastest high school swimmer in that event in the U.S. Lean, swart and crew cut in those years, Splash affected a sullen mien that he thought would score points with the girls, but at heart he was a happy romantic. He believed in competition for its own sake, and knew that the lad with the best attitude would ultimately win—at anything, anywhere—provided he trained properly. Four years of college, three in the U.S. Navy, followed by many more in the corporate dueling salles of New York City had complicated that vision. But Splash was sure his unarticulated major premise was still right, although sportswise, at least, his spreading waistline, balding pate and pallid hide were slowly but surely eroding its credence. "If I could only get back in shape," he would frequently lament over his fifth martini. "If I only had the time...."
Clearly it would take a major psychosocial shock to jolt Splash back into competition. And in the sports world of the 1970s, none of the psychosocial shocks had any impact. He could not feel outraged pro or con over the plight of the black athlete: he had never particularly wanted to hear Duane Thomas talk, or to smoke pot with him either, for that matter. The premature death of Dick Tiger had moved him, but that was more a geopolitical and medical sorrow (Splash had kind of liked Biafra, but he hated cancer). The trades and fades of athletes in any sport, of any color, were interesting but hardly emotional matters. They all could have been stories on the business page for all Splash cared, and probably should have been. He shared the Western world's mild contempt for Avery Brundage and envied Karl Schranz his commercial cunning. Still, the Olympics was "teevee" to Splash. And Splash could take "teevee" or he could leave it alone.
Thus he was surprised when the major psychosocial shock actually hit. It came on the commuter train one morning when, in the tattletale-gray shirttails of The New York Times sports section, he discovered that a 19-year-old girl swimmer—a girl who had swum the 100-meter freestyle faster than Splash had at the age of 22—had retired. Retired because she could no longer "get it on" for swimming. The effect was one of instant outrage, followed by a flush of self-doubt.
"How could I have been that stupid to be a swimmer?" he wondered later. "It was like one of those dreams where you suddenly find yourself on Park Avenue in your pajamas. I tore the paragraph from the paper and stuffed it under the seat. I don't even remember the girl's name—Debbie Flyer or one of those cutesy monickers they give the little twerps these days—but I'd known there was a revolution going on in swimming, an earlier start in competition, a tougher training regimen, a total disregard for the-sanctity of records, which is as it should be. But this was too much. Over the hill at 19—my sweet Weissmuller! This one cruel development had undercut all my happy memories of swimming, had curdled the milk of my nostalgia and made me old before my time, as we say. For days I tried to submerge the fact, sublimate it so that my ego might heal, but the ache endured. It was then I realized that we had to swim The Relay."
To Splash, with his love of metaphor, The Relay suddenly seemed to symbolize meaningful transition in an age of instant rejection, a rapid but orderly transfer of confidence and tradition from one man to the next, if not between generations. "I reckoned that if I could get some guys together from our 'Glory Days' and swim them against our counterparts on the same high school's team of today," he said, "then even if we lost, which we surely would, we'd at least know the measure of our decline. And perhaps by swimming out our humiliation, we might drown it like a nagging, unwanted alley cat. And what the heck, it would be a lot of fun just to get together again."
On his next trip to Wauwatosa, where his parents still lived, Splash set about locating his relay team. It was not easy. Just finding three old friends still living in one's hometown after a 20-year absence is pure luck in this age of corporate diaspora. During Splash's youth, Wauwatosa had been a small bedroom suburb on the western outskirts of Milwaukee, a quiet, tidy enclave whose middle-class affluence was as sturdy as its stone houses, as neatly clipped as its putting-green lawns, a town where men often took the streetcar to work, or else walked whistling under the elms. Now Milwaukee's sprawl had locked the town in a crablike embrace and the elms were dying—as much, it seemed, of woe as of blight. Warehouses and ticky tacky covered the fields where Splash had shot prairie chickens; where woods had grown, freeways ran thick with black plastic cars full of pink plastic men in brown plastic suits. Some benevolent authority had placed a concrete bottom in a stretch of the Menomonee River where smallmouth bass had swum.
Yes, much of the past was gone, but not, fortunately, Splash's old high school swimming coach. Not that Robert B. White, 44, of Wauwatosa, is old in any sense of the word. Coach White had been only 23 when he had come north from Indiana University to run the Tosa swim team two decades earlier. He had not changed: energy and wit, an ability to drive kids through the walls of their babyhood, the cruel but kindly scorn of a good coach, even his hairline—none had receded with time's passage. Better yet, the seven-year difference between his age and Splash's, so vast in the old days, had undergone the miraculous shrinkage that is one of the few benefits of aging. Bob White not only remembered Splash, he had often wondered what had become of him. "You might find it hard to believe," he told his young swimmers when Splash arrived, "but this old codger was one of my best freestylers when I first came here during the Boer War." The kids stared at Splash with that steady sneer now known as "cool."
"For a moment there I was put off by the stare," Splash said. "It made me bridle. But then there was a shock of recognition: I had practiced that same look over and over again in the mirror when I was a kid. Instead of going high with dudgeon, I flipped them the bird. It broke them up. Look, this was a damned fine swimming team. They'd won the state championship last year. We old guys had been state champions three years running, and these guys reminded me of us. Their hair was longer, but they had that same cockiness, the same single-mindedness when it came to winning that we had back then. Absurd, that baseless confidence. It's a kind of premature maturity, I guess, but it's one of the best things about sports when you're a kid."
White was keen for The Relay idea—"Oh boy, will we whip you!" he chortled—and, better yet, he knew where three of Splash's peers could be found, all of them former swimming team captains. "I'll bet they'll do it," White said. "They were all dead game."
When Splash telephoned the three men that evening, he found White was right. It was as if the 20 years since the last time the four had raced together had been no more than a break between events. The world had changed radically over those two decades, but it had not affected their bedrock enthusiasm for competition.
Ted Wahlen, for example, at 39 the oldest of the four, had lost a bit of hair but none of his whoop-it-up ebullience. "He had always been a big guy," Splash recalled. "Six feet and change, 200 pounds, wrists like the rest of us have ankles, and a mat of hair on his chest when he was in the eighth grade. He was one of those rare people you meet who never seem to get angry or rattled, never sulk or carry on as if the world is doing a number on them. By the same token, Teddy has not been the quickest of swimmers—his bones and muscles got in the way—but he had grit and wit. No, not wit exactly, more like bonhomie. We were lifeguards together for two summers in the county swimming pools. Best job in the world if you can live on $1.25 an hour. We walked around like God in red shorts, bellowing one-word orders to the 'pygmies'—the little kids—to make them slow down. 'Walk!' we would roar, and they'd put on the brakes. Every now and then some pygmy would start to drown, and you'd dive in, deadpan, slap a cross-chest carry on him, haul him ashore and take down his name and address so you could write a letter to his folks. 'Dear Sir and/or Madam, Your son and/or daughter nearly drowned in Hoyt Pool this morning and/or afternoon. We suggest swimming lessons, available at the pool...etc.' A rescue was called a 'jump,' and the best jumps were for teen-age girls, thanks to the cross-chest carry. You kept a record of jumps, and there was a kind of status that accrued to the guard with the most. More status for the girls. Teddy seemed to get the best jumps, because he was so good looking. Teddy and I shared a mutual enthusiasm for early Debra Paget movies, the ones where she was always getting killed by cowboys or volcanoes because she wasn't supposed to be white and couldn't marry the hero. Real romantics. Korea was on then, and Teddy went into the Marines."
Now Ted Wahlen was back in Wauwatosa, big and shaggy as ever (except on top), married and the father of four sons, one of whom was on Coach White's swimming team. "Yeah," said Ted, "my boy Kurt swims the back, the free and the IM"—the IM being what we used to call the injividdle medley. Wahlen himself worked as a timer for the home meets and often swam laps during the workouts of the age-group swim club White ran at the pool. "I'm in fairly decent shape," he said. "But I've got this strange business—I wash airplanes, buildings, school buses, dump trucks and big things like that. I'm called 'Mr. Porta,' and I've got my own truck. It takes a lot of time and I'm afraid it tightens up my muscles. But yeah, I'd love to swim another relay."
Robert Carl Montag, 39, of the U.S. Postal Service, was just as willing, maybe more so. Montag had been one of Splash's three closest friends during the swimming years; the others had disappeared, one to become an eye doctor on the West Coast, the other a lawyer somewhere south of Wauwatosa. In those days Montag was known as Moonbeam for his round face and ready grin. A long, jolly kid whose father was an immensely popular butcher on the old German North Side of Milwaukee, Montag possessed not only charm but three very valuable commodities: a .300 Savage lever-action deer rifle, a deck of pornographic playing cards and a 1934 Ford sedan. Up in Rhinelander, Wis., where Montag's parents had a lakeside cabin, the boys shot guns on the winter ice and pool in the local saloons. In Wauwatosa, rendered mobile by Moonbeam's machine, they were the original "lonely teen-age broncin' bucks."
Montag remembers: "Gee, in a lot of ways high school was the best time of my life. That old '34 Ford—the way we used to do spins on purpose when the roads were icy or go down to the South Side and look for fights with those Polish kids! I could never grow a D.A. because my hair was too curly. I don't know what it was—we were daring then. Now I'm a letter carrier. I walk 15 miles a day. I've got Mace for the dogs, but you'd have to be Billy the Kid to use it, the way they come up on you. You have to hit 'em in the face. In weather like this—it was 22° below last week—the Mace turns into a Popsicle. A dog bit me a couple of years ago. The lady who owns him was walking her other dog and her big one came around the corner of the house and blindsided me. 'Does it hurt?' she asked me. 'Lady,' I said, 'get the dog offa me.' She came up a bit closer, smiling kind of nice. 'I hope he isn't hurting you,' she said. I said, 'Lady, would you please get him offa me?' The leg puffed up like a loaf of bread. I'm afraid of every dog now, and they know it. Even cats chase me sometimes."
Bob Kelbe was the final member of The Relay, and far and away the best "natural athlete" of the lot. At the age of 38 he weighed less (166 pounds) than he had when he was swimming in high school (170). Although he now wore glasses, Kelbe's hairline had not receded half an inch and the spring in his long, wiry shanks, which had given him the best start Splash had ever seen, was coiled as taut as ever. Kelbe was now the vice-president of a family-owned heavy-equipment business. In the lot outside the raw, concrete-block headquarters of Kelbe Bros. Equipment Co., Butler, Wis. stood a 140-foot crane. "You can have it for just $124,516.25," Bob told Splash. "That includes tax."
Kelbe's twin brother Ray, who had been known as Whitey, was now living in California. The twins had probably been the most dynamic sporting duo Wauwatosa ever produced: hockey, football, track, golf, skiing and swimming, they had excelled at each. What's more, they were musical. Whitey played the trumpet, Bob the sousaphone. Both had married their high school sweethearts and produced handsome children. "You couldn't help but envy them their skills," said Splash. "I remember watching them play a pickup game of hockey on the Menomonee River. It was one of those windswept Wisconsin days when even the crows weren't flying. Those guys had all the dekes I had ever seen, and when they checked a guy he ended up in the catbriars on the river bank. I used to chase them downhill on skis at Currie Park. They wove through the trees like those proverbial wraiths you read about on the spoils pages. I ended up with one ski on either side of a pine trunk. When I started breaking Bob's freshman swimming records—he was a year ahead of me at Tosa—I couldn't quite believe it. Maybe he'd spread himself too thin, while I was concentrating my energy on swimming. I always knew he was a better jock than I was."
Kelbe recalls it differently. Watching Bob White's team working out one day before The Relay, he marveled at the endurance of the kids. "When I first tried out for the swimming team I wanted to be a diver," he said. "Coach said I was too skinny—I couldn't compress the board hard enough. He gave me a time trial for 25 yards, and I couldn't even sprint the whole distance. These kids go flat out for 200 yards at the age of 10. But you know, swimming taught me something. Remember how it was when you'd see some other guy's arms, just a blur, a brown blur, flashing ahead of you during a race? Sometimes it was an optical illusion, a psychological quirk, but you'd pull all the harder—keep trying, don't let that son of a gun beat you. It taught me to keep at it. Teachers and grownups always told you to 'keep at it,' but you couldn't believe them until you felt it, and I first began to feel it in swimming. I swam at the University of Wisconsin, but it wasn't the same, the pool was a bathtub. I studied 'light construction' in the business school—we didn't have to take history or English or psychology or any of that stuff. I had one course in forest products where as a test we had to sniff and taste 30 pieces of wood and identify them. I'm now an expert on 'Toothpicks of North America.' "
Then it was time for the workout. The kids would cover 5,000 yards that afternoon, nearly three miles, with variously paced combinations of pulling, kicking and full stroke, no single segment amounting to less than 200 yards. "My God," said Montag with awe, "if we swam 5,000 yards a week we were going some." White chuckled with the friendly sadism of a good coach. "That's one of the main reasons why the sport has changed so much since your time," he said. "Doc Counsilman is the man to blame. He showed that swimming was a softy sport up until the mid-1950s, and he really made his kids work. Swim through the pain barrier, swim until you've puked out all of your self-pity and your natural tendency to coddle yourself." White looked at his boys larruping through their laps, checking their splits on the big pace clocks at the starling end of the 25-yard pool. "I can tell them to swim four 200s at four seconds above their best time, and they can do it, some of them without even looking at the clock. As the season wears along and we get closer to the state meet, I'll reduce the workouts to 2,000 yards, shave 'em down and peak 'em up. This is the fast lane, here. Why don't you guys drop in at the tail end of the line and see how fast they go?"
They went plenty fast enough. Splash found himself a slot in the round-robin line behind a backstroker, a lanky, easygoing kid who seemed to be dawdling. "I thought I'd outfox them," he said. "A freestyler swimming behind a backstroker—I could take it easy in the wake of his toes. But those big feet kept pulling away from me after the first 50 yards. I put on a bit more power, but it wasn't there. It was like hitting the gas pedal when the tank is empty. It turned out later that the backstroker was a 16-year-old named Mark Unak who was the fastest 100-yard backstroker in the state, with a time of 56.2. Finally I just let myself fall behind slowly, enjoying the memories. The smell of chlorine and warm water and the hollow sound of kicking and pulling: they had been natural parts of my life from the age of 11 to 22, but I had not been aware of them then, no more than I am now of the stench and clangor of the commuter train. These were the better sensations. After a few laps your mind goes into a kind of free-association trance. Great gobs of unconscious material drift into sight, as if your hands were digging up the sediment of memory with every stroke. I found myself thinking of the summer outdoor meets—the sun on the hard blue water with schlock music over the loudspeaker and the girl swimmers, whom we saw only at those kinds of meets, with their strong tanned necks and their nipples showing under their nylon tank suits. The memory eased the sting of that little girl going so fast, that damned Diana Dryad."
Leaving the workout that evening, the oldsters had another memory stirred. It was cold and black in the high school parking lot, with that sharp frigidity of the northern winter that makes nostrils tick at each breath. Their muscles were loose from swimming and steam rose from their coat sleeves and collars. "Hey," yelled Montag suddenly. "Look at the halos! I'd forgotten the halos." Sure enough, every light in Wauwatosa wore a subtle nimbus, the gift of the chlorine in the warm water reacting on their now-bloodshot eyeballs. It is the single most distinguishing—and indeed formative—psychophysical attribute of the competitive swimmer. After every workout the world seems to have achieved instant sanctity through his dreary, weary eyes, thanks, no doubt, to his own hard work and the commensurate grace with which he was rewarded. Kelbe, at least, could no longer be deceived by the halos. "When I get home," he said wryly, "my wife and kids will take one look at my eyeballs and figure I've been out drinking, that's all."
Three afternoons under Coach White's tutelage did little to return the old swimmers to their former speed. Except, that is, for Kelbe, who had never lost it. The others managed to recover a few lost skills, like flipping their turns and snapping their towels. "These guys aren't that tough," Montag confided after one workout. "Why don't we make it a double event—the relay and a towel-snapping contest? So what if they beat us swimming, we can take our revenge afterward!" He cracked his towel with the long, deft wrist snap that had made him the terror of Wisconsin swimming two decades earlier and neatly removed an inch-deep gouge from a bar of soap in the shower room. "Touché, you athletic little creep!" He had pecked out the "i" in Lifebuoy.
So it was all back together, finally—the smells and the colors, the work and the play, four friends who had remained teammates through 20 years. All that remained to be done was the swimming of The Relay itself, and the psychological game that would have to precede it if the recapture of the past was to be complete.
"I really doubted that I could 'get up' for it after all those years away," Splash confessed later. "I mean, we knew we couldn't beat them, and without at least the illusion of possible victory, how could we pretend to ourselves that defeat would hurt? Still, by God—and this is one of the greatest things I've ever gotten out of anything in my experience—it was there, it didn't fail me. I looked at my watch when I felt it start. Just 23 minutes after noon on the day of The Relay. Regular as clockwork, as they say, just like it was in the old days. At first it was only a flicker, a brief preoccupation, a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. I helped it along with some of the old rituals. A few curses, as obscene as I could make them, directed not only against my opponents and my coach but against myself for letting me get into so grave a confrontation. The butterfly grew stronger with every obscenity. I fed it further with a mug of hot, strung tea—Earl Grey, as I recall—so thickly laced with honey that you could feel it in your wrist when you stirred. I hadn't shaved or brushed my teeth that day, another of the old rituals. Makes you meaner and tougher, we used to believe. The butterfly began to flap its wings down at the base of my spinal cord, and pretty soon there were a dozen more ticking and flapping at the top of my gut.
"The afternoon wore along with perfect symmetry. I was alone in my father's house, watching the Wisconsin winter through the big picture windows—goldfinches and cardinals at the bird feeder, flights of mallards rising and circling and landing on the Menomonee across the road, icicles dripping from the eaves and then freezing again as the sun went down—but I wasn't seeing a bit of it. I was seeing instead the hard blue water of the near future, with Montag coming out of the turn at the far end of the pool and lurching hack toward me with his last, awkward stroke, me waiting on the block to take my own start. Sometimes in my reverie Montag would stop cold in the middle of the lap and drown: dead of an exploded memory, the victim of my nostalgic madness. Other times he would put on a surge reminiscent of Don Hill or Dick Cleveland back in my college swimming days, and give me a body length's lead when it was my turn to start. Mostly I just scowled and sat and felt the butterflies trying to get out."
By the time Splash joined his grizzled buddies at the pool that evening, all of them were up and ready. They were outfitted in the same cardinal-red tank suits they had worn on the old team, while the young swimmers wore a newer, flipper green and gold. (During workouts, White allowed the whole team to wear whatever color or patterns they preferred, a concession to the New Generation many less successful coaches have been loath to make.) It was obvious that the old guys were feeling competitive. "We used to drink our tea and honey to get charged up," said Kelbe, watching the youngsters. "They probably do this...." And, laughing, he shot an imaginary hypodermic needle into his forearm.
White had spared his old swimmers nothing. Kelbe, lead-off man for the ancients on the strength of his start, would face Mark Unak, the deceptively quick backstroker who, it turned out, was also a considerable freestyler. Wahlen would go against Mark Irgens, also 16, a sub-24-second freestyler over 50 yards. Montag was pitting his mailman's stride (not to mention his beer drinker's gut) against a mere sophomore, 15-year-old Bob Sells, who had swum the 50 in 22.4 just a week earlier (as against Montag's best-ever 24.8). In the anchor slot, Splash would be up against Coach White's very own son, Tim, age 16, who has done 1:52.9 over 200 yards freestyle. God and the coach only knew what young White could do for 50. "Don't worry," Tim whispered to Splash as they lined up for the race. "I was out sick for the past few weeks and I probably won't even finish." Then he rippled his muscles and laughed uproariously. "It was a nightmare." Splash said later.
But nothing proved more nightmarish than when Splash overheard the team manager—a tall, pale kid—wagering that the youngsters would beat the ancients by two lengths of the pool. The kid was carrying a calendar—"the better to time you with." In Splash's day the team managers had been fat, sycophantic types. This one was as sly as Teddy Brenner. "Do you mean that your anchor man will finish before our anchor man takes off?" Splash asked. "Yeah," said the kid. "How much you bet?" asked Splash. "Well, let's say two bits." Splash hesitated a moment, the horror of that quarter looming beyond loss in his mind. "O.K., you're on," he sighed. The tall, pale kid smirked and clicked his stopwatch. Or was it his bubble gum?
The crowd that had gathered for The Relay—word of which had filtered through the school's 1,150 students and among the old swimmers' kinfolk—included enough longhairs and graybeards to belie the generation gap. It was difficult to judge who was the prettier, the wives of the old swimmers or the girl friends of the young, particularly since Kelbe's high-school-age daughters were sitting near their mother. "By this time my mind was doing time trips," Splash said later. "I could see Kelbe's wife—I'd known her as Kathleen Berger in high school—up in the stands and these other girls just beneath her. Kathleen would suddenly look to be about 16, and then she'd look severe, matured, and then she'd look 16 again. I'd look at Warden's boys laughing in the grandstand, and I'd see Teddy laughing it up on the lifeguard stand at Hoyt Pool, but then Teddy was standing next to me, grave and balding with his happy eyes, saying, 'Let's go get 'em.' I didn't know if I was 15 or 50. Unak was just finishing his warmup, and he snapped me back into focus. He climbed out of the pool and rubbed his eyes, which were red with chlorine, and said in a very loud, smart-aleck voice, like I had when I was his age: 'They used this chlorine on the Germans in World War I and news they're using it on us!' It was right then that I knew what time it was."
The time, real time, started a minute later, when White brought the swimmers to their marks and fired his gun. If there were a writer's equivalent of slo-mo, it would be nice to freeze those few instants between words and the gun. Kelbe took his mark with the control of a yogi, bending at the waist until his fingertips were aligned with his toes, his fingers spread slightly and flexed, his eyes bent uncompetitively, almost obsequiously, downward. But in the instant of the gunshot, his eyes flicked up and out, toward the far end of the pool, as his arms came backward and around and his legs uncoiled in the start. "Hawk's eyes make for hawk's flight," Splash said later. "Kelbe whipped that kid off the block by half a body length. The old guys suddenly bought the whole box of hope—maybe we could win! Kelbe stayed with Unak into the turn, but when we were swimming you had to touch the wall with your hand, which Kelbe did. Now they can flip their turn a yard from the wall, letting only their feet hit the wall for the pushoff. Unak Hipped very nicely...."
And that was it for hope—but not for competition. Wahlen, starling half a body length in arrears, whaled the water to a froth, his heavy muscles pulling against his will to win heart against buoyancy, as Splash saw it. Montag took off with half the pool to make up and no hope of collecting it. He moved with the rolling stroke of a modern swimmer, his arms snapping into the water with the bite of his towel snaps; he hit his turn with precision and came streaking out of it like the Montag of old. Splash got up on the block, waiting for his chance to swim. Montag was 15 yards away when Timmy White took off beside Splash.
"I knew there wasn't any way they could double-lap us now," Splash recalled. "I knew I'd collect my quarter from that manager. And when Montag came up to the finish of his 50, I was hell-bent on catching Timmy even though he was almost into his turn before I'd even started. I think I fouled my start, but that didn't really matter—I'm a cheat at heart. When I hit the water, there was this splat of fat and energy. Then it was all just blue and anger. The first 25 yards went in a blaze. I screwed up my turn something awful, trying to flip it a yard outside like the kids were doing. I didn't have the momentum to get me into the wall deep enough for a good pushoff. But I swam the last gasp, I mean the last lap, as hard as I ever had. The psych I'd given myself—that the other guys had given me—was so strong, so absurd, that I actually thought I was swimming fast, that I was catching up to the kid. I put on a conscious surge at the end, over the last 10 yards, and slapped my hand into the wall as hard as I'd ever done during the Cold War. Gee, it was fun."
The young guys had beaten the old guys by enough of a margin to break—unofficially-the existing state record for the 200-yard freestyle relay. Their time: 1:34.2, two-tenths of a second below the mark set only a week earlier in the statewide Cardinal Relays. And this after a full day's workout of 5,000 yards, followed by dinner, homework and chlorine jokes. The old guys had swum their 200 yards in 1:52.2, only 10 seconds slower than then best collective time two decades earlier, followed by war, marriage and nostalgia.
"After The Relay we went down to Karl Ratzsch's restaurant to celebrate our defeat," said Splash. "It was a fitting conclusion, as they say. After all, most of our training over the past 20 years had been in saloons like this one, many of them less elegant. I had my five martinis and a few Asbach Uralt brandies to boot, and of course I felt an immense affection for these guys, not just Wahlen, Montag and Kelbe, but Coach White, too. I still don't know how much of that affection was booze and how much was simple exhaustion, but it felt mighty nice.
"The nicest thing, though, was right after The Relay, when the kid I'd bet with came up to me to pay off his quarter. I could see it gleaming in his hand, a sandwich of copper-on-nickel, the coinage of the present, baser perhaps than the coinage of the past. But it had a halo around it, by God! Anyway, I told the kid to keep it. I told him to buy himself a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich next time he ate lunch in the high school cafeteria. I told him it might arrest his development."