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Joyce Maynard: The fisherman who couldn’t swim

  • Joyce Maynard (photo by Catherine Sebastian)

  • Joyce Maynard talks with John, the fisherman who never learned to swim, on the morning of Aug. 3. Photo by Lisa Teague



For the Monitor
Thursday, August 03, 2017

My day began – as they do so often this summer – with a sunrise swim in the lake followed by more disturbing news from our nation’s capital.

I wake up – dog on feet, dog on head, dog on face – around 5:30. There’s a house here, but Jolene and I choose to sleep in the little boat house on the water, where I can hear the frogs and loons all night long, and see the moon on the lake.

Hop out of bed, into my bathing suit, down the ladder, dive in the water. (Sometimes there’s mist rising, and it looks a little chilly. If so I recite my mantra: I never regret a swim. Because as difficult as it may be on occasion, to make that first plunge, it’s always true. I never regret that I did. )

I’m not completely by myself here. Every morning I see the same one fisherman, rod in the water, in search of his trout. I call out my hello. He answers with his.

Now here is a surprising fact about my fisherman friend. (His name is John, as I learned, early on in my summer of swimming.) He’s black.

This might not surprise you if you don’t know that much about very small towns in New Hampshire. But when I grew up here, in the fifties and sixties, months might go by in which you did not encounter a person of color. Later on in my growing up years, a single African American family attended my school of probably 400 kids. One Asian girl. One from India. That was the extent of our diversity, and though this has changed considerably now in my home state, in the larger cities or even medium sized towns, it is still a surprising thing, when swimming in a small lake in a town whose population is under a thousand, to run into a fisherman who’s also a person of color.

Over the summer, we’ve gotten to talking a little during these early morning encounters. The trout are excellent in this lake. So is the swimming. It turns out John and his wife retired here from Missouri. No particular ties to the state of New Hampshire except that they both attended the university here many years ago. As it happens, my father taught English there during those years, but John was more the engineering type and never took a class with him.

This morning John mentioned a surprising fact. Despite a lifetime of fishing, he cannot swim.

“I guess you didn’t grow up around water,” I said – thinking of my own home town, which didn’t have a lake like this, but did offer a wonderful pool, where I took swimming lessons every summer. All year long I looked forward to times at that pool, and on the last day before they closed, I could hardly bring myself to get out of the water.

“There was a pool in our town,” John told me. (He in his little metal boat. I in the lake.) “Blacks weren’t allowed to go in. They thought we might contaminate the water.”

I should have known, I guess. I am old enough to remember images from television, of black churches burned, Governor George Wallace standing at the door of a school, barring entrance to a child just my age, but a different color.

But John’s words caught me up short. So much so, I felt something like guilt, to be there in that lake at that moment. While he sat in his boat, a man a few years older than I, wearing his life jacket. I was familiar with the not entirely accurate stereotype that African Americans were unlikely to swim. But I had never considered this part of the story. Why?

All could say was “I’m so sorry.”

A few minutes after, I swam back to my house. Had my shower, made my coffee. Turned on my laptop to find out what new abomination our current administration has cooked up overnight.

Today, I learned, the Civil Rights Division of our Justice Department – an office whose creation came out of the intent to rectify decades of injustice in our country toward persons of color and preserve educational opportunities of the sort that allowed my friend John to come to my home town from Missouri to study engineering – has been directed to focus its energies on a new goal: The mission of this division will now be “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.”

Today, I learned, the Civil Rights Division of our Justice Department – an office whose creation came out of the intent to rectify decades of injustice in our country toward persons of color and preserve educational opportunities of the sort that allowed my friend John to come to my hometown from Missouri to study engineering – has been directed to focus its energies on a new goal: The mission of this division will now be “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.”

In plain language, they have been directed to seek out evidence of discrimination to that put-upon and downtrodden group of which I am a member: white people.

I didn’t grow up rich. But when I entered the water of my town swimming pool every summer morning I never gave a thought to the idea that some children might not be allowed to do this. For a few years there, I watched so many of the smartest boys in my school head off to an elite Ivy League prep school one town over that did not allow girls. But in my senior year, I got to attend that school. Same as, a year later, I got to attend another fine university that had once admitted only men.

When I did, my classmates included many persons of color like John, who came from places where the schools were probably not the best. The schools they were allowed to attend, anyway. (This will be happening again, by the way, in a country that has made Betsy De Vos its secretary of education.) It was affirmative action that made it possible for those students to gain access to that level of education. They were not the only ones whose lives were enriched by this. So was mine. So were we all.

When you read the small-minded, entitled, hate-filled invective of those who would deny affirmative action, consider (along with a few million others) the trout fisherman in his boat this morning, who does not swim. (Until his retirement, by the way, John worked as an engineer.) He is a man of no small accomplishment. He just didn’t get to go in the pool.

I asked him, before swimming back to shore, about his children.

He has four. All grown now. Grandchildren too. They’re all swimmers. That’s what happens when you let a person get in the water. He brings the next generation along.

(Joyce Maynard’s syndicated column “Domestic Affairs” ran for many years in the “Monitor,” and she is the author of 16 books, including the “New York Times” best-selling novel “Labor Day.” Her new memoir, “The Best of Us,” about the loss of her husband, will be published in September. She’ll be appearing at Gibson’s in Concord on Oct. 12.)