Swimming Solo

Sundown. I’m on vacation, sitting on the beach. I’m wearing a red Hawaiian shirt, swim trunks, a Resistol summerwear cattleman’s hat, and I’m reading Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

I’m carefully keeping my electrolytes and B vitamins balanced with a healthful tonic that comes in longneck bottles.

In the middle distance, I’m watching a mother teach her son to swim.

“Don’t let me go, Mom!” the kid shouts, and his voice ricochets off the smooth water. He’s maybe 6 years old.

“I won’t let you go,” his mother says.

“Please! Don’t let go.”

“I won’t.”


“Keep kicking your legs, honey, I’ve got you.”

The colors of the sun paint a Monet on the Gulf’s glasslike surface. The kid’s father is also watching the ordeal. The dad is half in the water, knee-deep, videoing the whole thing on his phone.

“Wave to the camera!” shouts Dad.

And in this moment I am eternally grateful that I was born before the Age of Phone Video. I wouldn’t have wanted my chubby childhood on film.

I don’t need visual documentation of my fledgling moments. Such as the second-grade Christmas pageant when I dropped a frankincense box off the gymnasium stage and nearly gave Mrs. Simms a subdural hematoma.

Besides, I don’t look good on camera. If someone would have videoed my first swim lesson, I’ll tell you what they would have witnessed: incoordination.

The guy who first attempted to teach me to swim was named Rodney. Rodney was a lifeguard at our public pool. He had army tattoos and a deep affection for unfiltered Camels.

The main thing I remember about Rodney was that he drove a 1970 Dodge Charger (B-body) with a 440 Six Pack Hemi hood cutout and a pistol-grip shifter. Not that this matters.

When it came to swimming, Rodney’s philosophy was pretty laid back. He would throw us kids in the shallow end like bowling balls and shout, “Good hustle!”

You could be lying on the shore, dead from aspiration, and Rodney would still shout, “Good hustle!”

So his lessons didn’t take. And eventually Rodney gave up on me because I was a lost cause. But you know who didn’t give up on me? My father.

It was on a hot July afternoon that my father taught me the art of buoyancy not far from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, at the feet of the Ozark Mountains. I was 5.

My ironworking old man leapt into the tea-colored water of Tenkiller Ferry Lake. He was shirtless, wearing cutoff jeans, and a Resistol Flagstaff model hat.

And I shouted the mantra of all non-aquatic kids worldwide: “Don’t let me go!”

“I won’t.”

He supported my belly and said, “Kick your legs. Don’t forget to kick.”

“Please, don’t let go!”

His voice was laced with the patience of Saint Norman—patron saint of bowling balls.

“I won’t let go.”

And it happened. It was a miracle. I did it. I learned to tread water. I found myself suspended in the drink, under my own recognizance.

Daddy let his voice boom. “You’re doing it, kiddo!”

Next, my father taught me to do a redneck version of the breaststroke, wherein you do the breaststroke while keeping your beverage-hand above water.

And I am evermore thankful that nobody caught that particular day on video because it’s considerably more holy in my memory. I don’t know whether I have ever felt more loved than I did in that lake.

After my lessons finished, I sat near a campfire with my father for the remainder of the evening. I was nine feet tall and made of Kevlar, and sunburned something fierce.

My father and I were both redheads—put us in the sunlight for 13 seconds and we became oven-roasted chiles.

Still, I was feeling no pain that night because all I could sense was my father’s deep pride. And there is no pride more sacred than that of parenthood. My father was so pleased that he placed his own hat upon my tiny head and called me “Hoppy” for the rest of the night.

“Look, Mom!” the boy in the Gulf water shouts, jerking me back into the present moment. “Look! I’m doing it!”

The kid splashes wildly. And he is swimming. Kinda.

I say God bless him. Because it takes a lot of courage to leave the safety of loving arms and launch into the dark water. It’s scary out there, and this kid is braving the unforgiving world just like the rest of us.

I find myself removing my old hat just to inspect the cracked hat band where my late father’s handwritten name is still scrawled on the leather.

“Don’t let me go,” I’m whispering to the sweaty bottle in my hands.

“I won’t,” replies the faded memory of a ghostly ironworker’s voice. “I won’t let you go, kiddo.”

Well. I hope he never does.


  1. Lander - May 7, 2021 6:31 am

    Just finished your book, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a couple of days ago. I like your style of making the loop in the story of your life and in your dad’s. You’ve given us a sweet and good memory here of a loving contribution he made to your life. Glad that’s something you could hold on to out there on the beach, hearing someone else receiving a gift from the loving arms of a parent.

    • ROBERT STORCK - May 8, 2021 12:02 am

      I had a similar experience with my dad. That was many many years ago. Thanks to this I remember it as if it was only yesterday. Thank you

  2. throughmyeyesusa - May 7, 2021 7:25 am

    And you know he never will.

  3. Kendra Jarvis - May 7, 2021 11:22 am

    This was truly beautiful and touching. Its the small moments that make a life big.

  4. Jan - May 7, 2021 11:39 am

    And hold us, they do … long after they are just a memory … their loving arms hold us tight if we just stop and remember. Thank you for the trip back in time!

  5. Gay - May 7, 2021 11:49 am

    Sean, both of our fathers were ironworkers( my grandfather also)

  6. Annie Sommers - May 7, 2021 12:15 pm

    Oh my Sean. We all love you so much.

  7. Deb Filkins - May 7, 2021 12:16 pm

    As I numbly scroll. I stop. I read this story.and I feel the tears and I release.

    Two hours and 13 minutes ago my dad died….

    Thank you

    • Mimi - May 7, 2021 1:48 pm

      I’m sorry for your loss 🙏

    • CSS - May 7, 2021 2:38 pm

      Oh Deb, I’m so sorry for your loss. Just said a prayer for you and your family.

    • Stacy - May 7, 2021 4:41 pm

      Oh Deb. I don’t even know you, but my heart broke when I read your post. I know where you are right now. Everything seems to be a blur. But know a stranger sends love and prayers for you and your family. May you find comfort in the beautiful memories you share and feel the warmth of that love. It will be with you always. Blessings…

  8. Catherine - May 7, 2021 12:30 pm

    Such a beautiful post, Sean. I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes~so simple yet so profound: Nothing loved is ever lost.

  9. Betty Martinez Lowery - May 7, 2021 12:38 pm


  10. Heidi - May 7, 2021 1:14 pm

    My dad passed many years ago. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t still feel him with me, taking care of me.

  11. Karen Holderman - May 7, 2021 1:24 pm

    Sean, I treasure your writings. My dad has been gone for many years, He is always with me in little moments when a sight or smell or something else triggers my dad’s love. I was in the country and the sweet smell of being outside reminded me of all of the gardens he grew to provide us with home grown food.

  12. Barbara Zuleski - May 7, 2021 1:54 pm

    Bless you

  13. Kathy Bauch - May 7, 2021 2:13 pm

    I understand your relief at not having photos or videos of your least favorite episodes. I really do. The only photo I have willingly taken in years is on my drivers license, and somehow my long dead grandmother jumped in front of me and it’s her photo on the license. But, oh, what I would give to see my dad, now 30 years gone, on a video and hear his voice again. Or to see my mother, who has been gone since I was a baby, and hear her voice for the first time. I have exactly 4 photos of her with me. We are all lucky to have memories of people in our lives. But all these cell phone videos can introduce us to family we’ll never know, And maybe be a comfort to those we know when love when we are gone. So my great nephew and great niece may not be thrilled with videos of them falling asleep eating an avocado, but they sure do a lot for me.

  14. Helen De Prima - May 7, 2021 2:24 pm

    My kids never had swimming lessons. They taught themselves because they wanted to swim from the little beach at the local swimming hole to the big log on the far side. I told them okay and they did. I, on the other hand, took lessons at the public pool and almost broke my neck diving into the shallow end.

  15. Josie Retan - May 7, 2021 2:24 pm

    My parents sent me to a day camp one summer when I was about 8? Part of it was to learn to swim. The instructor threw us all in the water, the deep end, and I immediately sank straight to the bottom. I remember lying there and wondering if I was going to die, when suddenly, I felt the instructor pulling me up and onto the concrete. I can swim now, but not well, but I’m still petrified if my feet can’t touch the bottom and my head still be above water.

  16. Lisa Marie - May 7, 2021 3:22 pm

    Love this, so much!

  17. Christina - May 7, 2021 5:53 pm

    “Because it takes a lot of courage to leave the safety of loving arms and launch into the dark water. It’s scary out there, and this kid is braving the unforgiving world just like the rest of us.” These words ring so true. May the memories of being held keep us braving on, even if just for the next kick in the water.

  18. Linda Moon - May 7, 2021 7:45 pm

    Longneck bottles….. two words, and that’s all I have to say about that. Did I mention recently that my stepfather was a Ford man who smoked unfiltered Camels? My biological father smoked to the nubs of his fingers. My father never let me go, Sean. My face was one of the last ones he saw before he passed. And I see him in the grandson he never met. Me, “Schnickelfritz” and you, “Kiddo” will always be a part of them that can’t be separated. And so will a grandson, “Tig”.

    • Ann Syfert - May 7, 2021 10:56 pm

      Linda Moon, I had forgotten that word “Schnickelfritz” My Dad used to call me that, too!! Along with Annie Rooney,, What a tear-producing memory!! Thank you!!! And Sean, don’t know what I’d do without my morning message from you!! You are loved!!

  19. Bob - May 7, 2021 7:57 pm

    My parents are always there…in spirit if not in flesh…to help me thru the rough spots. Thanks for the the reminder on Mother’s Day weekend

  20. Robert Chiles - May 7, 2021 8:23 pm

    Deb, May your dad rest in peace and rise in Glory. Sean, a wonderful (and wonderfully crafted) story. I couldn’t swim as a child or young adult but had to learn to swim to be able to graduate from college. So, off to the gym. The lady said, “Jump in and we’ll see where you stand.” I did and sank to the bottom like a bowling ball. After about twenty seconds, the teacher figured out I wasn’t kidding and dove in to drag me out by my hair. I can still only just barely swim.

  21. Shirley Northington - May 7, 2021 8:27 pm

    Once again, thank you. Now, let me find a tissue…my eyes are leaking.

  22. Bob Brenner - May 7, 2021 8:49 pm

    He won’t ever let go, trust me ❤️

  23. Terry Holloway - May 7, 2021 9:47 pm

    Nothing like a Father Son memory or a Daughter Fater memory. Thank you hold onto the long neck.

    • Terry Holloway - May 7, 2021 9:49 pm

      Obviously I can’t spell Father.

  24. BOBBY BIRMINGHAM - May 7, 2021 11:30 pm

    Every one of your stories leaves me misty-eyed and mystified… Thank you, Sean for so wonderfully capturing and playing back life’s beautiful moments and the human experience…

    God bless,


Leave a Comment