Slowly Jim lifted one foot and then the other off bottom and started to make excited and frantic motions with his arms and legs.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, June 3, 1933.

“I’ve decided,” said Jim Frise, “not to go with you on your Quebec trip.”

“Aw,” said I.

“Those birch bark canoes you tell about,” went on Jim; “I don’t like the idea of fishing from a bark canoe.”

“They’re as steady as any other canoe,” I protested.

“Sure,” said Jim. “Since no canoe is steady.”

“Well, you can swim, can’t you?” I exclaimed. This was to have been a good trip.

“No, I can’t swim,” stated Jim coolly.

“Can’t swim!” I cried. “Can’t swim! Good heavens, man, every Canadian ought to know how to swim almost as soon as he knows how to walk. Don’t you know that one-half the area of Ontario is water?”

“Is it?” asked Jim.

“Take a look at any map,” I went on. “Especially in the newer parts of the province. The map is half blue. I tell you your life is not safe in Ontario unless you can swim.”

“I’ve got along all right so far,” said Jim. “I’ve never even been dumped out of a canoe. Let’s put it this way, every Canadian ought to know how to swim or else he ought to keep out of boats. I keep out of boats, especially birch bark canoes.”

“Swimming is as easy and natural,” I said, “as walking. How is it you never learned to swim?”

“I don’t know,” said Jim. “I guess I just never had the opportunity to learn.”

“Well, it’s never too late,” said I. “Swimming comes as natural to man as it does to a duck. If I could teach you to swim in the next few weeks would you come to Quebec with me?”

“I’m pretty sure I can never learn to swim,” put in Jim. “I just have that feeling.”

“I bet you felt that way about driving a car,” said I. “It is just the same. You think you will never, by any stretch of the imagination, be able to drive a car in traffic. And the next thing you know you are driving down Yonge St. It’s the same with swimming.”

“How would you teach me?” asked Jim.

“Well, the best way is simply to throw a man in, and he’ll swim. But the most humane way is to get a long pole, like a clothes-prop, and tie a six-foot length of clothes-line on it. Then you tie a belt around the pupil, tie the rope to the belt, have him get into the water, and then with the teacher on the bank or wharf the swimmer strokes along, with the pole holding him up, and as he goes through the motions of swimming the first thing you know he IS swimming, and the teacher quietly relaxes the support of the pole and rope. Presto! The pupil is swimming. That pole is just a moral support. It gives confidence and gets the pupil over that feeling of doubt that, by the motion of his arms and legs, he can keep himself on the surface.”

“It sounds simple,” said Jim. “Have you ever taught anybody before?”

“Scores and scores of people,” I said. “All my family. In fact up on the Georgian bay I am recognized as one of the most skillful teachers.”

“Well, well,” said Jim, gazing about uncertainly. “Well, maybe, some day I might try it. It would be good to know how to swim.”

“Listen as soon as the Humber gets warm,” I said, “let’s go out and get a quiet swimming hole and I’ll teach you, and then will you come to Quebec with me?”

“If I learn to swim,” said Jim, “so that I feel confident I could look after myself in a bark canoe I’ll go with you.”

“Sold!” I shouted.

The last warm spell I got a clothes-prop from my house and tied a stout piece of clothes-line to it and stood it ready in the garage. Jimmie had got to the place in his cartoon where he has to write the words in the balloons, as they call them in art circles, and I knew he always liked to run away from that. He hates spelling. So I walked over to him, staring at those empty spaces in Birdseye Center, and suggested that we take our first swimming lesson. At such a time Jim would accept almost any suggestion.

“Great!” he said. So we drove out and got our swimming suits and the long pole with rope.

“Where will we change into our swimming suits?” asked Jim.

“In the bushes,” said I. “Let’s be old fashioned.”

We drove out to the Humber and upstream a few miles looking for a good deep hole where Jim’s long legs wouldn’t touch bottom.

“I’m a little nervous,” confessed Jim. “I’ve started to learn to swim a dozen times in my life, but I always lost my nerve at the last minute. It’s funny how a thing like that gets into your very bones, isn’t it? I just feel I’ll never learn to swim.”

“Listen,” I assured him, “I’ll have you swimming inside of an hour.”

“It sure will make me feel good,” admitted Jim. “Whenever I’m fishing I always have that fear lurking in my mind.”

“Boy,” I cried, “to be able to sit in a canoe, even a birch bark canoe, without any sense of fear is one of the most lovely sensations in the world. Fearless! It’s a great way to be.”

We came to a nice broad place in the river, and except for a few cows in the pasture beside the stream the place was deserted.

We parked the car and got into some bushes and changed into our swim suits. Jim’s was one of those limp kind that dangled off him, while mine was just the least little bit shrunk to my form. I got the long pole, an old belt, and we strolled down to the water.

“I feel pretty funny,” said Jim, his arms wrapped around himself.

“Stage fright,” I said.

“The water looks cold,” said Jim, “and muddy.”

“I thought you were a country fellow?” I sneered.

“Suppose I just practise the motions today,” said Jim, “and then next day I’ll have the rope tied to me?”

“Suppose my neck,” I said. “The way to learn to swim is just to jump in. The perfect way is to be pushed in and have to swim. I’m going to all this trouble with pole and rope just to make it easy for you. For Pete’s sake!”

“All right,” said Jimmie, submitting to the belt being strapped around him. We were down on the bank of the pool and I fastened the rope into the belt.

“Make it good and tight,” said Jim. “Water makes knots slippery.”

“Listen, I’ve taught scores.”

I could feel Jim shivering, although the day was perfect and the water was almost lukewarm.

“Now,” said I, “wade in.”

“You go in first and give me a few lessons by demonstration,” said Jim.

“And then stand out here and shiver while holding you on the pole?” I cried. “Go ahead, I’ve got you. Wade In.”

Jim put one toe in the water and snatched it out.

“Gee,” he said, “I hate this.”

“What’s the matter?” I cried. “Haven’t I got you on a rope big enough to hold a steamboat?”

Jim stood with his arms around himself, staring at the water, and then, slowly, like a man in a trance, he stepped in and with a kind of pallid determination he waded to his waist. He looked back at me with imploring eyes.

“Don’t let go that pole,” he chattered.

“Duck,” I commanded.

Jim ducked.

“Now,” I began, lie forward in the water and take slow easy strokes with your arms and kick out behind with your legs.”

Jim squatted a couple of times and stood up.

“Are you holding me?” he quavered.

I hoisted the pole and Jim could feel the rope and bet tighten on him.

“All, right, go ahead,” I commanded.

Jim eased himself down into the water. I held up on the pole and he gave two or three rapid kicks and splashes, and stood up again, gasping and coughing.

“How’s that?” he exclaimed proudly.

“Wait till we get you over here into deeper water,” I said.

I walked along the bank and towed Jim along.

“Now swim,” I ordered.

Slowly Jim lifted one foot and then the other off bottom and started to make excited and frantic motions with his arms and legs. Puffing and sputtering and splashing.

I pulled along the bank, to get him into the deepest part of the hole.

Now, nobody is sorrier than I am for what happened. In theory, the idea is to get your pupil in deep so that he has to trust the pole. Then, when he is actually swimming, ease off on the pole and he sees he is swimming unaided.

In pulling Jim along I put too much strain on the knot which tied the rope to the pole. It simply slipped off the end of the pole, and there, to my horror, was Jim vanishing in the muddy pool.

“Jim!” I screamed.

I did a very foolish thing. I threw the pole in to him. His head popped up and he thrashed about and got hold of the pole. But it was too light to support him. He sank again, the pole slowly sticking upright out of the water as Jim clamped himself around it.

“Jimmie!” I screamed again.

As if in reply, his head rose out of the water again and spouting a mouthful of water he croaked at me:

“Come in and save me!”

“I can’t SWIM!” I confessed wildly.

Jim sank sadly out of sight again, the pole waving drunkenly out of the pool.

I was dancing along the bank, shouting, when I saw the pole go rigid, and I knew Jim had stuck the lower end of it into the mud bottom of the swimming hole. To my joy, I saw Jim slowly emerge again, clinging to the pole like a monkey on a stick. He hung tenderly to it, as it swayed, barely holding.

“Did you say you can’t swim?” croaked Jim, spouting more water.

“Not a stroke,” I said brokenly. “Jim, I’m so sorry! Wait there until I get help.”

“No,” said Jim, coughing. “I’m going to learn to swim right now. You stay there and watch me.”

His eyes glared with a mountainous effort of the will. He took a look at the bank, six feet away. He took a deep breath. And then he let go the pole, and with strong, wide strokes, he fairly lifted himself through the water and grabbed the bank. Along the bank he pulled himself, and I was there at the beach to hold out rescuing arms to him. I dragged him on to the beach, where he sagged exhausted. He clung to me desperately.

“Jimmie!” I exulted. “You can swim!” He coughed. And he still clung tight to me.

“You can swim!” I shouted again.

Jim rose to his feet, holding desperately to my arm.

“The best way to learn,” he said, looking at me out of bloodshot eyes which glittered, “is to just be thrown in.”

“That’s what the best teachers say,” I admitted a little nervously.

“To think of you,” said Jim, “my dear friend, risking your life in birch bark canoes in Quebec, away off there, and not being able to swim!”

“I’ll learn some day,” I said brightly, “sooner or later.”

“Sooner,” said Jim.

He whirled me around. He took me by both elbows from behind, he hoisted me six feet in the air and threw me, in cold blood, right out into the middle of that deep, terrible pool.

I don’t recall much. I came up once and saw Jim in the act of sitting down on the bank.

I came up twice, and saw Jim resting his chin on his elbows, watching me. I let out a yell, but water got in it.

I saw my past life passing before me. Not all my life, but mostly the last few minutes. I wished I had told Jimmie I was only a theorist. But I felt sad for myself, because, after all, most of us are theorists, anyway. We know a lot of things, but we don’t have to be able to do them ourselves in order to tell others, do we? Politics for example. Or the gold standard.

I was just thinking about the gold standard, when I felt myself seized from behind in a terrific vise-like grip. I was hauled to the surface, and I took a vast breath of air, when suddenly I felt a terrific blow on the chin. I went away, away.

The next thing I knew I was lying on the hard beach, and Jim was jouncing me up and down around the stomach.

“Ah, back again?” he asked, turning me face up.

“Ooooooh,” I said.

“Sorry to have to sock you on the jaw,” said Jim. “But the great danger in saving a drowning man is that he is likely to struggle and drown you too. So the best thing to do is sock him on the jaw, knock him out and then you can save him in peace.”

“I see.” I said, weakly.

“As soon as you feel well enough,” said Jim, “I’ll teach you to swim.”

“Not to-day!” I cried.

“No time like the present.”

“Jimmie, in my weakened condition, you wouldn’t throw me in again!”

“It’s the best way,” said Jim. “Get it over with. After this experience, you are likely to be so afraid you will never learn. I don’t want you sitting all cringed up with fright in that birch bark canoe in Quebec.”

“I feel faint,” said I.

“Water will revive you,” said Jim.

“If I wade in myself.” I said, “and swim once across that pool, will that be enough?”

Jim considered carefully.

“All right,” he said.

“Get that pole in case I get into difficulty,” I begged.

Jim took the pole and tied the rope back on it.

“The knot may hold,” he said.

He stood by while I waded into the pool.

I felt the muddy, stoney bottom under my feet.

“Swim,” commanded Jim. “Lay forward and swim.”

I lay forward and with great splashes and coughing. I swam across the pool. But what Jimmie does not know is that I had my feet on bottom all the way across. At the far side, I turned and swam back, then turned and swam grandly – but cautiously – out toward the middle of the pool where Jim had so nearly drowned, and I touched bottom all the way.

There wasn’t a foot of that pond over my head. If Jim had not had his knees bent up in horror, as he plunged and splashed, he would not have been over his armpits.

“Good boy!” cried Jim admiringly, as I stroked grandly around the pool.

When I got tired, I crawled ashore and Jim assisted me.

“Good for you!” he shouted. “Isn’t it great to know how to swim!”

So we dried and dressed, like old friends again, and we drove back to town.

And it is nice to know not only that I am a good teacher but, what is more to the point, that from now on, one of us can swim.

June 8, 1940

Editor’s Note: This story appeared in Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Outdoors (1979). It was also repeated on June 8, 1940, as “The Hard Way”.