Archive » November 2014 » Columns

Tuesday, Nov. 18, this scribe traveled to the Country Café in Schoharie all alone (boo-hoo) since one of the riders was scheduled for surgery on his elbow. We tried to convince this OF that, because it was elective surgery, it was strictly against the OMOTM bylaws, (Page 6, Article 14, Section E), which specifically states, “Non-emergency surgeries cannot be scheduled on any Tuesday.” The exceptions would be surgeries due to an accident, to repair broken bones, etc.

Page 6, Article 14, Section F also covers funerals. If any OMOTM should pass away, his funeral is not to be scheduled on a Tuesday, with the exception being travel. Relatives that come from considerable distances, and have time restraints, will be taken into consideration and the funeral can take place on a Tuesday afternoon.

Any OF who deviates from these rules without previous permission from the governing board are subject to fines that will be assessed by the same board. Fines will not exceed two weeks’ payments of all OFs in attendance breakfasts’. The scribe was instructed by the sergeant-at-arms to re-emphasize this particular section of the OMOTM bylaws. 

 The other riders were legitimately excused by a rather lengthy section of the OMOTM bylaws that this scribe will not go into at this time.

The OFs looked up and down the table and considered how blessed many of the OFs are just to be able to attend the breakfast. The subject came up because some friends of the OFs are down with this problem or that.\

One OF’s friend just found out he has multiple sclerosis, and he is not that old. Another was developing ulcers on his feet because of not paying enough attention to his diabetes; he will now, the OFs hope.

Even with the OFs’ maladies, the OGs manage to attend the breakfast and do not give in to them. There isn’t an OG at the table who doesn’t hurt in one way or another. 

One OF came to the breakfast all tanned up; he may hurt but it sure didn’t show. This OF just returned from Aruba, just in time for the breakfast and a 20-degree morning greeting.

Old Uhai

The OFs briefly touched on Uhai Mountain in Berne. It was thought that at one time, when the ax factory was going full blast in Berne, that the mountain was denuded of trees. The wood was used for the forges to temper the axes.

According to one OF, the mountain after being clear-cut was farmed. Much of the land around the Bernes and Knox was farmed and planted with grains because of the grain mills in the vicinity of Berne and East Berne.

According to the OFs, the trees were replanted by the Boy Scouts, the OFs thought in the 1930s, and these trees have now all grown to the same basic height so the canopy of the trees appears to have been cut with a lawn mower.

Why not knit instead?

The OFs also briefly discussed the attacks on cigarette smoking and the apparent dangers of puffing on this supposedly ground-up leaf. This was brought up by one community considering banning all smoking.

The OFs do agree that this is a nasty and sometimes deadly habit.  If not putting some six feet under it puts many in the hospital for considerable stays, and is a drain on the family after that.

“However, there are the occasional few,” one OF said, “that puff until they are 100 years old with no consequences. It is a crapshoot.”

“Are you going to be one of the few that can handle it or not?” asked one OF.

The experience of the OFs indicates the odds are definitely against you to be one of the few.

 Now “they” are demonizing tobacco, and replacing it with something just as bad, if not worse: marijuana.

The OFs say we pay high enough medical insurance for taking care of those that smoke and all their lung and heart problems, and now we will have to take care of all those that wind up in mental hospitals, and on harder drugs, which will increase our taxes to pay for the extra police to control that problem.

The OFs feel that the need to do something with our hands is the problem. Hand to mouth with the cigarette, or hand to mouth with the marijuana.

Jingle-belled to death

Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming up. Duh, does anyone need to be reminded about this — especially about Christmas?

The OFs said they are already being jingle-belled to death. The merchants started even before Halloween.

Before you know it, the merchants will start touting their wares on Columbus Day, or even before that. One OG thought that, if merchants start pushing anything electronic that early, by the time Christmas comes around it will old hat, out-dated, and obsolete.

“If I get one,” the OF said of an electronic gadget, “I know I will be stuck with it because they make the new ones so the old one is not compatible.”

“Hey,” another OG said, “they go to school to learn how to do that.”

“Well,” still another OF said, “they can’t outfox me. I do my Christmas shopping on December 24th.”

“Yeah,” was the reply, “we always knew you were cheap; that way, all that is available is leftovers.”

“I don’t care,” the OG said, “because everything I give is always brought back to the store anyway.”

“Ya know, that is not such a bad idea,” an OG chimed in. “Give them some cheap thing you know they won’t like, they take it back and get something they need, or do like, and you are a hero.”

The OF added, “I am going to keep this little trick in mind.”

Show and tell

At this breakfast, we even had show and tell from an OF who brought in items for identification, and the OFs were not faked out this time — many knew what these items were.

This also showed what can be found at rummage sales, and in box lots at the end of auctions. Sometimes there is unknown quality hidden in some of those boxes like what the OF brought to the breakfast.

The OFs who made it to the County Café on Main Street in Schoharie on a January day in November were: Harold Guest, Dave Williams, Chuck Aleseio, Glenn Patterson, Roger Shafer, Steve Kelly, Otis Lawyer, Mark Traver, Frank Pauli, Robie Osterman, Jack Norray, Lou Schenck, Mace Porter, Bill Krause, Ted Willsey, Jim Rissacher, Mike Willsey, Harold Grippen, Elwood Vanderbilt, Gil Zabel, Gerry Chartier, and me. (And the fly on the wall was there again, and buzzed it would be the last time until there is a wall free around Christmas time.)


Caves are mysterious places even for those of us who have spent decades in exploring and trying to understand the agents of nature that formed them, and it should be noted that for a large percentage of the world’s population, caves are “terra incognita.” Someone once called the subterranean world “The Eighth Continent,” and it is probably far less familiar to most people than anything they might have learned about Antarctica.

Think of the number of stories, novels, films, and TV shows that are set wholly or partially in caves, often wildly — even hilariously — inaccurately portrayed to those who are knowledgeable about them, but undoubtedly appealing to some aspect of the human subconscious that has a fear of dark, unknown chambers that exist in what is melodramatically — but not inaccurately — described as the “bowels of the earth.”

It is therefore not surprising that visitors to caves often ask questions that, due to the questioners’ innocence, might seem pretty silly to those among us whose avocation — and sometimes vocation — involves the sport and science of caving.

When I first started teaching a high school earth science course to freshmen and a geology and astronomy survey course for seniors, I still harbored a remnant of a notion instilled in me in one of those education courses required of aspiring secondary-school teachers, sometimes taught by a professor who seemingly has never been within a mile of a classroom filled with adolescents (said Mike cynically): that notion being that the only dumb question is the one that is not asked.

But that got kicked out of me after a couple of years when I was finishing up a two-week unit on stars and stellar evolution with my seniors.

We had talked about the birth of the universe — old beyond imagining — and we had analyzed the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram; we had compared the sun with red dwarf stars and massive blue giants, discussed the formation of red giants, neutron stars, and black holes; and we had looked at dozens of slides of open clusters of blazing stars arrayed about a nucleus like swarming bees; spectacular nebulae spangled with gases and dust of every color of the spectrum; spiral galaxies, barred spirals, elliptical galaxies, irregular galaxies, all of them fantastically huge and beautiful beyond belief — and all of them sufficient to make one wonder in the silence of one’s bed at night if those folks who believe in intelligent design might just be on to something.

I was wrapping up our discussion in preparation for a test on the unit the next day when I remarked that, in spite of all the discoveries made by wondrous instruments such as the Hubble Telescope, there were still many things that we do not know about stars.

At that moment, a rather sleepy-looking student who shall remain nameless and who — as I recall — had not shown much more than tentative signs of life during his weeks in my classroom, raised his hand.  When I called on him, he asked, “When the astronauts go up in the space shuttle, can they go outside?”

Confused by the seeming irrelevance of the question I replied, “Yes, of course.  But what does that have to do with the test tomorrow?”

The look on his face suggested he had hit on something that had evaded all those amateur astronomers like Steven Hawking and Neil DeGrasse Tyson and he said smugly, “Well, next time they go up there, why don’t they just go outside and get a couple of stars, and bring them back down to Earth?”

Needless to say, the reaction of some of the more knowledgeable students in the class was — shall we say — less than charitable toward the student’s question and they showed it, while I tried not to crack a smile at this young man’s total cluelessness and gently explained what he should have known weeks before: Stars are a bit too large and hot to fit into the cargo bay of a space shuttle.

How much of a cave is underground?

Anyone who has ever guided a group of tourists through a commercial cave or taken a group of wet-behind-the-ears novices on their first “wild” cave trip has, of course, heard many, many preposterous inquiries — and it requires the patience of Job not to roll the eyes, sigh like a spouting whale, and say, “That is a seriously silly question.”

Years ago, when I had taken another group of students on a week-long trip to Mammoth Cave, we were on what was called the Historic Tour, and our guide — all decked out in his Park Service uniform and Smokey-the-Bear hat — told the crowd of about a hundred that the only dumb question was the one they didn’t ask.

After a couple of fairly intelligent questions that had to do, as I recall, with the age of the cave and the great size of the passageways, the ranger pointed to an anonymous hand waving above the crowd and said, “Sir?”  At which point came the question, “Is all of this cave underground?”

I have made it a point whenever I am taking a tour through a commercial cave to ask the guide — when I can catch him or her out of earshot of the rest of the tourists — what is the silliest question they have ever been asked.  As it happens, that question about whether all of the cave is underground is a fairly common one.

If the guide can resist the temptation for sarcasm, he or she might say simply, “All that we know of it is.”  A guide once told me he had replied, “All of it except for the gift shop and cafeteria” — and drew not a smile from the questioner who seemed to accept those areas as, indeed, being parts of the cave.

Compendium of questions

And, so what follows is a compendium of questions that either I have been asked or questions I have acquired from commercial cave guides.  

—  1. How long did it take the Indians to carve this cave out?

This is also a surprisingly common question asked of cave guides.  People who have no understanding of erosion and chemical weathering are bound to be mystified and awed by the great size of some cave passages — Mammoth Cave’s Main Passage has room for a modern jetliner to fly through it.

But caves form because surface water has picked up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or from decaying plants and becomes mild carbonic acid.  When this acid comes in contact with calcium carbonate — the main constituent of limestone and marble — it dissolves it to a solution of calcium bicarbonate, which then washes away.

Given the right conditions and enough time, the process can form out huge cave passages.  And as for that silly question: If Native American Indians had carved the cave — what on Earth did they do with all that rock they hauled out?

— 2. How thick are the walls of the cave?

The sedimentary rock from which most caves are dissolved forms in layers, which often cover thousands of square miles.  In the Helderberg area, most of our large caves (including commercialized Howe Caverns and Secret Caverns) have formed in one of three types of limestone:  the Manlius, the Coeymans, or the Onondaga.

The Manlius limestone is found as far west as Syracuse and as far south as Port Jervis;  the Coeymans stretches from New York to Virginia;  and the Onondaga stretches as far west as Detroit.  Each of these areas consists of thousands of square miles, so trying to figure how thick the walls are would be a monumental task, but a good answer would be, “Really, really thick

— 3. How much of the cave hasn’t been discovered yet?

One would think that the response to this question would be something flippant, such as, “We won’t know until we discover it.”  But, in fact, it is sometimes possible to come up with an intelligent answer.

If the known passages in a cave have formed in a geographic region throughout which the same geologic conditions exist, there is a good possibility that many more passages have formed under sections that have not been surveyed.  By measuring the length of passages in a set area, one might by inference conclude that a lot more of the cave has not yet been discovered and perhaps even extrapolate a rough estimate of how much.

At Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, for example, the same geologic conditions exist for hundreds of square miles, beneath some of which are over 400 miles of explored cave. But, by extrapolation, geologists have concluded that there could be in excess of one thousand miles of the cave when — or if — Mammoth is ever fully explored.

— 4. Is any of the light down here natural?

Since caves are roofed by solid rock that can be many hundreds of feet thick, with rock walls that can be hundreds of miles thick, and with bedrock floors that may literally stretch to the Mantle of the Earth, it is highly unlikely that any natural light could enter beyond what cavers romantically but accurately call the “Twilight Zone.”

This is the region near a natural entrance to a cave into which dim sunlight may reach, and that may have unusual ecologies, featuring both plants and animals that exist in a world of feeble light and perhaps wildly changing seasonal temperatures.

Sport cavers carry their own lights  (a minimum of three is the requirement) and commercial caves have complex and often expensive electrical systems for lighting.

— 5. How many undiscovered entrances to the cave haven’t been found yet?

When asked such a question, cave guides must be tempted to say, “We’ll know when they have been discovered.”

But again, what seems to be a no-brainer actually can have a rational, scientifically based answer.  Caves form in regions of limestone or marble bedrock known as “karst.”  Karst areas usually are characterized by mainly subterranean drainage of runoff into extensive cave passages, numerous springs, streams that tend to go underground shortly after they get started, and a surface pock-marked with the depressions known as “sinkholes,” which permit surface waters and sometimes human explorers to enter the caves below them.

But sinkholes can become occluded: wholly or partially blocked up by sediments and other natural debris that may effectively cut off everything but water from entering the cave systems.

Scientists known as hydrogeologists who study the effect of local geological conditions on water flow — above as well as below ground — have developed a technique known as “dye tracing” to permit following the flow of water to places humans cannot go.  This process involves placing harmless dyes in water that is sinking into the ground and then watching the suspected resurgence points to see if the dye-laced waters emerge, indicating there has been a connection.

My young research assistant Devin Delevan is pictured standing at the brink of a vertical sinkhole near the village of Clarksville, an area known to have extensive cave systems.  Though in the photograph the sinkhole is dry, in times of heavy precipitation dye could be added to water, pouring into it and a connection might be determined.

Karst areas often have hundreds of such sinkholes, many of which could be hooked into a cave system through this method, even if a human could not physically enter the cave.  Numerous previously “unknown” entrances could thus be identified.

— 6. What happens if there is a fire while we are in there?                                               

This question was actually asked of me some years ago when I was guiding a group of students from a downstate New York college through Clarksville Cave.

One young man took a look at the cave’s tight, intimidating entrance and a vision must have passed through his head of a dozen students madly fleeing from flames and battling each other to get out of the cave. His question elicited a burst of laughter from several of his fellow students who were clearly aware that there was nothing within the cave that would be capable of a conflagration.

I assured him of that fact and his face turned red and I expect his question went the rounds through the dorm that night, much to his embarrassment.

— 7. How much does it cost to air-condition (or heat) this cave?

Since limestone and marble and other kinds of dense rock are good insulators, beyond its Twilight Zone a cave will remain pretty much the same temperature all the year around. Caves generally will assume the average ambient temperature of the area in which it is located, making caves seem cool in summertime and warm in winter — everything being relative to temperatures outside the cave at a given time.

In the Helderberg/Schoharie area, yearly average temperatures are about 50 to 52 degrees Fahrenheit, and that tends to be the temperature of our caves.  No artificial cooling or heating is required.

Two truly preposterous queries

There are undoubtedly many more Seriously Silly questions that cave scientists and guides have to deal with, but then there are the ones that are truly preposterous or totally incoherent, and I will end with two of these.

Not long ago, I was touring a commercial cave with a group of students and popped my question to the guide, a young woman college student.  She did not hesitate for even a moment.  Last year, she told me, she and several other guides had been asked a question that was the talk of their crew for several weeks: People on tours were asking, in all seriousness, “Is this the cave that was moved from New Jersey?”

Understand: The visitors’ portion of this cave is over half a mile in length and in places 60-feet high.  How and from where the idea had circulated that it had been moved from another state no one seemed to know, but, not wanting to risk losing her job over a condescending reply, the guide had answered simply, “No, it’s been right here in Schoharie for thousands of years.”  The guide reported that no one in her group had even cracked a smile.

At the same cave the year before, I had posed my question to a young man who was majoring in geology at a local college.  He told me that some weeks before, while his group was standing on the banks of the cave’s gurgling underground stream, a visitor had asked “Is the water in this stream real?  Or is it natural?”

Aware that the man’s question was absolutely serious — but unable to decipher its meaning and unwilling to prolong the issue by asking the man to explain what he meant — the guide replied, “Actually, we have both in the cave.”

The man nodded and seemed satisfied.

And that stunner and the one my student asked me about packing up stars in the space shuttle and bringing them back to Earth have permanently put an end in my mind to the notion that the only dumb question is the one you don’t ask. Professors of education, take note.

As Community Caregivers celebrates its 20 years of helping folks remain independent, helping them stay in their homes and in their communities, it's important to say thanks to all the volunteers who make that happen.

In the last month and a half, I've had occasion to be at two Caregiver events: one was an informational session on nutrition with a nutritionist from ShopRite, and the other was the Community Day in September.

I remember thinking how generous these folks are to volunteer their time to help people in their community, their neighbors.

There are so many problems in the world.  I have often felt I don't have the power, the strength, the talent, the "whatever" to make any difference at all.

But I can make a difference in my community. I can volunteer. I can make a difference here. And so can you.

In our community, there is no shortage of volunteer opportunities. Among the food pantries and the libraries and the fire departments and the hospitals and a host of other agencies, you can find a place that uses your talents and makes you feel like you can contribute.

So, give Community Caregivers some thought. It so happens there are two orientation sessions in December:  on Dec. 9 at 8:30 a.m. and Dec. 18 at 1 p.m. at the office at 2021 Western Ave. in Guilderland. 

Volunteer opportunities include: visits, transportation, respite for caregivers, shopping assistance, prescription pick-up, telephone assurance calls, help with paperwork, and help with chores.

What would you feel comfortable doing? Importantly, the CC staff provides good directions for you. 

Lastly, put Dec. 8 on your calendar. From 2 to 3:30 p.m. at the Guilderland Public Library, there will be a program called "Staying Safe! Protecting Yourself from Common Scams and Fraud.”  It's presented by the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York. It's free and co-sponsored by Caregivers and the Guilderland Public Library.

You've read and heard about scams recently.  Come and find out about how to spot them, and tips for avoiding them.  Call the office at 456-2898 or email:, or contact the Guilderland Public Library at 456-2400 to register.

Happy Thanksgiving.  Caregivers is grateful for our volunteers. Consider being part of this care community.

Editor’s note: Judy Rothstein in on the Community Caregivers Board of Directors.

The last time I took the Red Cross Adult Learn to Swim program was 17 years ago when I was 38. When I completed it, I still couldn't swim, but I did get a card saying I no longer had to have my parents present when I went into a pool, ha-ha.

My fondest memory of that class was watching some really obese ladies just lie right down on the water and float like it was the easiest thing in the world. Excess weight has its downside certainly, but these ladies were having a grand old time by effortlessly lying on the water in total peace. Good for them.

When I heard the Guilderland YMCA was doing a Community Adult Learn to Swim program I decided to sign up. If you don't know how to swim, like me, then you know there's a real fear of drowning involved anytime you're around water.

They say the only way to get over your fears is to face them, so here was my chance (again). I don't have enough body fat to float so easily like the large ladies did so I knew it was going to be hard work, but, what the hey, I'm game for anything.

Growing up in Brooklyn, we went to the beach a lot, but no one ever taught my brothers and me to swim. No one on my mother's side of the family swims; as for my father, I can remember watching him way, way out in the ocean at Rockaway Beach, with only his head visible bobbing up and down with the waves.

I guess he was too tired out from working all day, six days a week, and then the driving to the beach and carrying the umbrella, cooler, and everything else to bother teaching my brothers and me how to swim. A full day at the beach with three young boys is a lot of work for any family.

I had only two experiences in water growing up, and both were pretty bad.

Once, at a teenage pool party, I got thrown into the deep end. I remember thinking at first, "This is bad because the phone numbers for all the girls I know are in my wallet," and then thinking, "Hey, forget about the wallet, I can't swim!"

To get out of the pool, I had to flail around randomly until I locked onto a girl who thought I was trying to drown her.

Then, another time, at Rockaway Beach, I found myself standing in the ocean up to my neck and feeling a sinking feeling, pun intended, as the soft sand beneath my feet began to give way. At that point, while I'm surrounded by hundreds of people at the beach and looking OK, I'm feeling like I'm about to get pulled in and lost forever.

Somehow, by moving my arms, I was able to pull myself back to shore without having to scream for help like a pathetic loser. Very scary. 

Can you see why the Red Cross has a tough time teaching me to swim? I have very little experience in the water, and, what experience I do have, is terrible. Still, I was determined to try really hard this time. I mean, it's now or never. So here's how it went:

First lesson

As I'm standing by the pool at the Y in my swimming trunks, I'm trying to convince myself not to just turn around and leave. This is how it is when you're really nervous about something.

When the class started, I could barely hear what was going on — I had ear plugs in and there was music playing. Then I'm thinking, why am I the only one in the whole place with chest hair, to say nothing of back hair? Where is Burt Reynolds when you need him?

Soon, just like that, I was in the water. It's cold at first but, once you're in all the way, it's fine. Way back when I took the class the first time, I'd learned how to put my face in the water and blow bubbles. I found that just knowing how to do that made me a lot less anxious.

Then the teachers and volunteers tried to help me do the front and back floats. I'm not all muscle and bones, I do have some body fat, but my problem is I get so nervous I get stiff and sink easily.

They worked with me on this for a while, and then we did a drill with life jackets. For me, this drill was worth the price of the course in and of itself. I will never get on a boat again without a life jacket on.

The final drill was a tight group survival hug in the water as a body heat saving exercise; all I know is, since I was the only guy in the group, I enjoyed this exercise very much.

Second lesson

During the first lesson, there had been a lady who was a beginner too. At the start of the second lesson, I saw her by the pool in her bathing suit. Next thing you know, she was gone.

Again, if you're a swimmer, you probably don't understand the fear involved in just getting in the water when you don't know how to swim. So this lesson, I had two lady volunteer teachers all to myself.

They tried to help me with my floating, but I was still very nervous so I was basically just sinking, which was very frustrating. Then they had me try some rudimentary moving my arms and kicking, but I'm just really uncoordinated when it comes to swimming, since I've never done it before.

How frustrating it is to watch normal people doing something so apparently rudimentary as swimming when you don't have the first clue how to do it.

It's like when I teach someone how to ride a motorcycle — they get overwhelmed at first when trying to remember how to operate the throttle, clutch, and brakes using their hands and feet while trying to balance, steer, and stay in control.

You have to work at these kinds of things until you're no longer thinking about them, you're just doing them. At least there's no chance of drowning on a motorcycle! I was so frustrated with my lack of progress, I left after only 45 minutes of the scheduled hour.

Third lesson

This time, the other beginning student was back. It was great to see her conquer her fear by showing up again.

So now I had only one volunteer working with me almost the whole hour. I definitely got more comfortable in the water, but still had trouble doing the front and back floats. Even adding a little leg-kicking and arm-moving didn't help. I was still too nervous to just let it come naturally.

When I tried the front crawl again, I found I wasn't getting any forward motion from my legs. I've been working at a desk my whole life and, due to that, I have very poor ankle flexibility, so I have a hard time generating propulsion.

The good thing is, I was starting to feel less nervous, like there was a chance I may be starting to get it. The thing that makes it hard is watching how easily the volunteers and instructors swim. I mean, these ladies are all trim and fit, not a lot of extra body fat, yet they can just lie flat on their backs in the water and float all day long. Amazing.    

Fourth lesson

This time, I had the main instructor work with me almost the whole hour. She even had me put fins on my feet so I u feel what it's like to get a good push going. We worked on my stroke, but it's still a case of me thinking about it and not just doing it.

At least, after this lesson, I had the idea that, with more practice, I might someday be able to learn how to swim. Believe me, for someone like me who has never been comfortable in the water, that is quite something.

When the lesson was over, I was just about to head into the locker room when one of the lifeguards called me over to tell me how well I was doing. Can you believe that? She really made my day, let me tell you!

About this time, I started asking all my friends if they could swim. Those who can (which is most of them) honestly can't believe I'm managed to go this long without learning to swim.

The ones who could generally have been swimmers all their lives. They all told me to just relax and I'd get it in no time. The problem is, the only time I hear the word “relax” is once a year right before the doctor does something horrible to me.

I guess the more people who tell me they can swim, the better for me, because then I start to think, "If they can do it, I can do it." At least I hope so.

When I ask the swimmers for tips, most of them say they just do it. For example, if I show them the motion of the front crawl, or show them how I'm being taught to breath, they say they don't do it that way — each person seems to just do what works for them.

One guy told me to take a deep breath and hold it and then I'd be able to float, but the ladies who just lie on the water are breathing — they're not holding it in — and they float just fine.

For someone like me who works with precision machines like computers all day, all this swimming stuff just seems so nebulous. When you can't ride a bike, they give you training wheels, but the Red Cross doesn't recommend wearing any kind of floatation device lest you get overconfident. Makes sense but until — if ever — I start to make some progress it's just an uphill battle that never ends.

Fifth lesson

I went into this lesson very confident, but, for some reason, just like the other beginner did in week two, I felt like leaving even before starting. I mean, it was all I could do to force myself to go through with it.

The only reason I stayed was because I knew my wife would be extremely disappointed with me if I left, so I decided to stick it out, which of course was the right thing to do. I started out slowly but, by the end of the hour, I thought I had made good progress on floating.

They even told me during the lesson that I could consider myself Level II now, so I must have been doing something right.

The really big news is, I seem to have mastered the survival float. This is where you float prone (on your tummy), with your head just under the water, and come up for air occasionally. The fact that I can basically do this now means that I might actually be able to save myself from drowning if I have to.

This, as Fucillo would say, is huge. Being able to do the survival float — to know that you may actually be able to save yourself from dying in the water — is just fantastic.

Sixth lesson

This was the first lesson where I actually had some fun in the water. I had two volunteers work with me the whole time.

They threw three rings to the bottom of the pool and had me go down and get them. What blew me away was this — it's hard to go down to the bottom of the pool because the water pushes you back up.

This was the absolute first time in my life I've actually felt buoyant in water. Now I know why mobsters have to always put you in "cement shoes" when they bump you off and toss you in the ocean.

I still had trouble doing the back float. I simply cannot relax enough to just lie on the water like the ladies can. There is a male instructor there who, I'm told, only learned how to swim when he retired at 65 and now teaches. Even he can lie on his back in the water and just float, and he doesn't have any more body fat than I do.

I know objectively I should be able to do it, but I'm just not there yet. They did let me try treading water, though not in the deep end, and I seemed to be able to do that, which was great.

Anything that gets me feeling like I might be able to save myself from drowning is what I'm looking for, really. I still had trouble coordinating my arms and legs in any kind of proper swimming motion, but at least I'm to the point where I'm trying in a meaningful way.

Later that week, I looked at some swimming videos online. If you watch our Olympic swimmers like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte and study them swimming, you can't help but notice the economy of motion they have. They are not flapping their arms and legs wildly like I tend to do; rather, they use powerful, efficient, dolphin-like motions that just power them through the water.

Now these guys, when they're training, practice like six hours a day, point being there is swimming and then there is truly great swimming. I'll never swim like these guys but just watching them is helpful in a way.

Seventh lesson

Had to skip this one. All my life, I've had ear infections and the first thing the doctors ask is, "Do you swim?" Of course I always say no.

Well, I came down with an ear infection — my ears felt like I had expanding balloons in them, my sinuses were all clogged up, and my head was in a fog. No way I could enjoy a swimming lesson like that.

I wore earplugs for all the lessons, so I don't think the water caused this infection; it's just something I'm predisposed to, unfortunately. I hated to skip it just when I was finally starting to have some fun in the water.

Eighth and final lesson

Would you believe I pulled a back muscle in the shower before the last swimming class? Welcome to being 55 years old.

Nonetheless, I had my best swim lesson by far, as I was able to do the back float a couple of times by myself and even made some semi-coordinated attempts at actual swimming. What a great way to end the class.

Afterwards, the instructors and many of the students went out to a well-deserved buffet lunch, with a fun time had by all. The YMCA really does the swimming program right.

I have to thank the YMCA for putting on this program for adults. For folks like me who somehow slipped through the cracks and never learned to swim it's truly a godsend — the water-safety information alone is worth the price of the course.

I especially need to thank the two volunteers who worked so closely with me throughout the course. Rita Vamos walks kind of slowly due to her age, but in the water she's like a swan, as elegant and graceful a swimmer as you will ever see.

Georgia Sullivan is one of the sweetest, most patient ladies I've ever met, and a fine swimmer as well. Both of these lovely ladies went out of their way to rid me of my fear of water. They got me to the point where I was actually having fun in the pool! Big thanks to all the volunteers and especially Rita and Georgia.

This brings up another great thing about the YMCA swimming program. Many of the volunteer instructors are retired folks. How great is it to see retirees being so actively involved in the community, sharing their expertise, and staying vibrant and active?

We need more of this in our community. Retirees should not be teaching only swimming but other things they've learned over the years, things like cooking and balancing checkbooks. What a great way to have our seniors stay involved by doing actual useful things for their friends and neighbors. I love it.

Swimming is a fun activity and an excellent exercise that I've never been able to take advantage of, but, thanks to the YMCA program and it's excellent volunteers, I'm well on my way to making swimming a vital part of my life. It's about time.


The YMCA Community Adult Learn to Swim Program will again be offered at the Guilderland Y on March 13, 2015. It will be eight weeks on Fridays between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. The cost is $70 and is limited to the first 30 registrants. The Guilderland YMCA also has swimming lessons all year long for all levels, and you don't need to be a member (non-members pay a little more). Contact the YMCA for more information at 456-3634. I'm also told the YMCA team will be putting on a community access TV program about swimming; be sure to look for that as well.