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A swim I decided not to take

Robert Stanger

When we go on a morning canoe ride from our cabin on the Althom Eddy during the warmer months of the year, my wife often asks, “Are you going to swim today?”

The reason for her query is that if I respond in the affirmative, she will take a magazine along to read while I am taking my dip. (She is easily bored.)

As a person who has enjoyed swimming throughout most of my life, I do consider it a definite plus to have a seasonal home on a swimmable river. (There is little to foul the river from where clear water rushes out of the Kinzua Dam down 12 miles to the south to where our cabin is… and well beyond as well… so, I don’t doubt that bathing at the sites I choose is safe.)

Although I am in the definite minority among Allegheny River residents who live along the “scenic river” portion of the river south of the dam who often swims in the river, the other residents benefit from the river’s high quality in the form of good fishing and the proximity of wildlife to observe.

We often wake to find a blue heron standing in the river in front of the cabin. Bald eagles fly up and down the river and often roost in trees that overhang the river and will remain there as canoeists or kayakers pass below. Mallard ducks and Canada geese are abundant. An occasional bank beaver will swim past our cabin, and deer often come down to the shore to drink. There are otters in the river (as evidenced by the presence of small piles of shucked mussel shells in shallow water). Although I have yet to see an otter, I know of others who have. Soft-shelled turtles are a common sight as they laze along the shore on sunny days, and an occasional large snapping turtle will climb up onto a rock along the river as well.

Safe and reasonably comfortable bathing in the Allegheny is, of course, confined to warm days when the river isn’t running too high. I always wear googles for eye protection.

My favorite swimming site is off the tip of an island located at the northern end of the Althom Eddy where the river’s current has created a deep hole about 50 yards long. But one must be careful not to stray too far from the island, as the current can make it impossible to swim back.

This happened to me once, and I had to swim to the west shore of the river, and then walk back along the shore to where I was above the island where I had beached my kayak. I then had to wade or swim out to that same island.

When I was young, we had a cottage on the beach west of Erie, so I grew up swimming in the lake, even when rough.

After my father sold the cottage, there were frequent trips to Presque Isle State Park for summer evening swims. “Where would we be without the peninsula,” my father often said (using the Erie term for the park) even though he was a poor swimmer due to a workplace accident when he was young that left him with a partially disabled right arm.

His style was to slowly swim along the beach, whether at our cottage or at Presque Isle, raising his good left arm high like some sort of sea creature while keeping his bad arm submerged. He would walk back along the beach to his starting point.

He used to recall that his earliest recollections of swimming were in southern Sweden, where his mother would take him to a beach on the Oresund which was not too far from where they lived in Halsingborg. He came to the U.S. at age 9 with his mother and 3-year-old half-sister. His step-father had come over a year earlier.

Thanks to the Navy and other travels, I can recall swimming at locations thousands of miles from the Allegheny River or Presque Isle.

I often took these swims alone, but occasionally I was accompanied by companions from the Navy or elsewhere.

On Guam, I would swim along a reef that bordered Orote Point, which was where I lived on the Naval Station.

I recall visiting a reef on the east side of Guam that arced well out from the shore on which one could easily walk at low tide. There were “boilers” on the reef in which water propelled by wave action rose and fell.

The Mariana Trench, the deepest segment of the world’s oceans, is located just west of Guam.

In Japan, I would frequent beaches across the Miura Peninsula from Yokosuka, which was where I was stationed. The summer home of the Emperor of Japan was in this same area, and it was said that Hirohito was fond of collecting marine specimens along the shore there.

Japanese men in small boats used forked poles and peered through glass-bottomed buckets in order to spear aquatic life along this Sagami Bay coastline.

I also well recall swimming in the Philippines at the Lingayen Gulf on Luzon where the sea had carved islands in the shape of mushrooms and at numerous sites in Hawaii including, of course, Waikiki Beach on Oahu) and on the Kona Coast on the island of Hawaii itself. The swim I took there was out from the base of a statue of Captain James Cook. The famous English explorer had been killed there by natives.

I have even been swimming at Hong Kong and Okinawa.

But there was one swim which, although tempted, I decided not to take.

I happened to be living in San Francisco on May 7, 1959.

The afternoon was a very warm one for San Francisco, a city of course famous for the fog that rolls in off the sea in the summer.

Since it was so unusually warm, I considered going for a swim at Baker Beach, located inshore from the Golden Gate Bridge and was just a short drive from where I lived. But for some reason I didn’t act on this impulse.

But a young couple out for a drive in the Bay Area in a convertible decided that they would brave the Bay’s always very cool waters on that warm afternoon and stop off at Baker Beach for a swim.

The decision was fatal for the young man of the duo, Albert Kogler, 18, who was attacked by what was later determined to have been a great white shark as he and his companion, Shirley O’Neill, also 18, were treading water about 50 yards offshore. Both were college freshmen.

The girl dragged her injured companion to shore even as the shark continued its attack. No one on the shore came to her aid until she was in knee-deep water. (She was later awarded a medal for heroism by President Kennedy.)

The injuries suffered by Kogler were so severe that he died at the beach.

I was quite glad that I didn’t go to Baker Beach that afternoon.

As I recall, a San Francisco radio station had a field day following the attack by playing Bobby Darin’s hit “Mack the Knife,” which offers these lyrics (in part):

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear

And it shows them pearly white

Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe

And he keeps it, ah, out of sight

Ya know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe

Scarlet billows start to spread

The music for the song was by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht wrote the lyrics. It was included in “The Three Penny Opera,” which premiered in Berlin in 1928 and became immensely popular in Europe.

One of the most notorious shark attacks recorded occurred in June of 1959 just after the one in San Francisco.

The victim was a skin diver, Robert Pamperin, 33, and the attack occurred in the La Jolla Cove north of San Diego. The only trace of the diver that was found after the attack was one of his flippers, and it is believed the shark consumed his entire body.

A companion of the diver said he saw the shark at the bottom of the cove holding Pamperin’s body in its mouth, shaking it.

In a visit to La Jolla a few years ago that included a stroll past the cove, I remarked to a lifeguard there that he had been stationed at site of well-known shark attack.

The guard replied that he had never heard of it.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.

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