First Person: Swim at Your Own Risk

Most men dare not to tread into White Rock Lake. Besides the alligators, there’s the trash to contend with. I am not most men.

THE REASONS NOT TO SWIM ACROSS White Rock Lake certainly outnumbered the reasons to do it. For one, the roughly half-mile journey would be fraught with perils, including potentially ravenous alligators. Also, swimming in the lake is illegal. But great men are bound by higher laws than those drafted by the City of Dallas. And so, on a recent spring afternoon, I waded into the water to meet my destiny.
My wife, standing on the shore with my 4-year-old son, called out, “It’s not too late to change your mind. You don’t have to do this!”

I turned and saluted her.

“Wait, Daddy,” the boy said. “You forgot your hug.”

It was a touching sendoff, like a scene from a Frank Capra movie. Picture me: pallid hide, red latex swimming cap, goggles, long trunks, black rubber bootees to protect against the broken beer bottles and used syringes, and a kickboard. As a handful of onlookers tried to decide if they were witnessing performance art, I sloshed back to the boy and hugged him. Then it was into the frigid, murky surf.

Oh, right, the kickboard. Did I wait too long to mention the kickboard? Well, I used a kickboard. It’s true. But part of what makes a great man great, besides being driven to swim across perilous bodies of water, is knowing when to heed his wife, and mine made me use a kickboard. To those who think this somehow makes me less heroic, I point out that a Styrofoam kickboard provides precious little defense against a bloodthirsty gator. And to those who think White Rock doesn’t have any gators in it today because the last one on record, a 4-footer, was pulled out of the lake way back in the 1940s, I say, Prove it.

Anyway, even if the lake was gator-free, it was really cold. I had brought along a thermometer and had taken a reading before I disrobed. The lake measured about 60 degrees on its surface. Based on a chart I had printed from some web site that seemed official, I figured I had an hour in the water. Any longer and hypothermia would become a risk. Long-distance swimmers are known to have recurring nightmares about going hypothermal. In mine, I get really cold, and I shiver. Then comes the part with the train-conducting, cigar-smoking snakes.

At the halfway point of my swim, my breathing had become labored, and I’d swallowed a significant amount of lake water.

A sailboat approached with three people aboard. They apparently thought I was out of earshot, as I overheard one crewman ask, “What the hell is he doing?” Actually, at that moment, I was warming my part of the lake.

Now is a good time to mention why swimming in White Rock first became illegal. Back in the 1930s, bathers by the thousands would wile away hot summer days in the lake, then repair to the Bath House to tidy up for the evening dance, with live music provided by Babe Lowry’s Rhythm Sweethearts, an all-female orchestra. But a drought in 1953 forced the city to draw drinking water from White Rock, and swimming was prohibited. It remained so when the drought ended because white segregationists preferred to build homogenous neighborhood pools rather than share the lake with blacks.

Not to overstate the issue, then, but, when you think about it, my swim across the lake was a swim for civil rights. Or it was a kickboarding for civil rights. It was a display of kickboard-aided natatorial prowess to fight the power and give peace a chance and bridge the gap between black and white, east and west, past results and future performance. Hallelujah.

I touched bottom several paces from the lake’s eastern shore, near the Bath House, whose art deco façade was cast in the setting sun’s orange light. I climbed the bank triumphantly, not dead, my flesh now blue, my legs weary from my manful effort. Picnickers just stared as my wife, who had driven around, handed me a towel. My mother was there, too. She had brought along her second ex-husband. He handed me a half-empty Bud Light in a Koozie. It was a special moment.

Let it be known: the official record for kickboarding across White Rock now stands at 18 minutes, 35 seconds. And that was with a restroom break.


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