Minnesota Memories: Down the MississippiOne day in summer 1949, Mike Enrico, athletic coach at the Duluth YMCA, placed a poster in the Y’s front window: “Down the Mississippi — Tryouts.”
By: Paul Slayback, for the News Tribune
One day in summer 1949, Mike Enrico, athletic coach at the Duluth YMCA, placed a poster in the Y’s front window: “Down the Mississippi — Tryouts.”
The 10-mile swimming race had never been held before and was open only to qualifying boys from YMCAs in Minnesota.
Looking down at me, Coach Mike said, “Clarence, I’d like you to sign up for this — there’ll be some nice prizes for the winners.”
“Ten miles. That’s a long way — I don’t know if I could do it,” I responded. I was 11.
“Sure, you can; you’re the best swimmer I’ve got,” he said.
Mike Enrico was a poster boy for coaches: 35 years old, trim, muscular, with short dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses. He was enthusiastic, energetic and an all-around nice guy. Patient. Supportive. Goal-oriented. “Can’t” wasn’t in his vocabulary. One of his familiar lines was “Do your best ... that’s all I want.”
More than 30 of us signed up for the tryouts. To qualify, we had to swim one mile in the Y pool: 70 laps, nonstop.
Preparing for my qualifying distance and assigned specific practice days and times in the Y’s six pool lanes, I started swimming laps, lots of laps, extending my distance after each session.
Swimming laps took its toll. Boys started dropping out. At the end of the first week we were down to 15 boys. The second week, only nine. Of the survivors, most were members of the Duluth Central High School swimming team. I was the Y’s youngest and only entry in the 11- to 13-year-old age group.
The high school boys gave me encouragement. “That’s the way to go, Clarence ... keep in there,” yelled Roger, a freestyle racer for Central. I liked the high school boys. They laughed. They told funny stories. I felt like their mascot. After 14 exhausting days of training, I advised Coach Mike I was ready for the swim. Each swimmer was assigned a boy who, using a megaphone, yelled out the laps as we swam. We were allowed to swim freestyle, backstroke, sidestroke, elementary breast-stroke or any stroke we wanted. It was painful and grueling. I finally completed my 70 laps.
I was exhausted — my arms left like steamship anchors. My eyes were sore and red. My hair was dry, my skin was white and prickly. I felt like I had been washed, bleached and hung out to dry on my sister’s clothes line. The cheering from other boys and congratulations from Coach Mike eased my weariness and bolstered my confidence. Maybe I could swim 10 miles.
On the way in a rented bus on race day, we stopped for breakfast at Grand Rapids. The race started near Lake Itasca, the upper source of the Mississippi, near Bemidji.
Turning left off the main road at a red and black arrow reading “YMCA,” then down a narrow, single-lane dirt trail, the bus stopped at a birch tree clearing near the water’s edge where several other buses were parked and groups of boys mingled dressed in bathing suits with towels wrapped around them. No buildings — just portable tables, chairs, banners, several canoes and men with stopwatches attached to long strings bouncing around their necks as they moved through the crowd.
Looking out over the river, I noticed the Mississippi was only 300 yards wide. Downstream it can reach two miles across.
I was assigned to two older boys, lifeguards. One paddled the canoe and the other acted as a timer-observer.
Sam, my observer, whose duty was to keep me from drowning, was an athletic-looking 18-year-old with penetrating dark eyes and a positive “take-command” attitude.
“Clarence —I’ll be looking out for you in this race. I know you can make it, but there are some guidelines I’d like to go over,” said Sam.
He cautioned me to avoid getting tangled in overhanging bushes as the river made turns around bends. He said, “If you feel exhausted, sick or simply want to quit, simply raise your arm straight up and hold it there for 5 seconds and I’ll pull you aboard.”
I could stop near the shore and rest after the race started but was not allowed to touch the canoe.
We started in spaced intervals — each timed by his crew from start to finish with the results compared at the end. None of us wore fins, goggles, nose plugs or caps.
“Here, rub this Vaseline over your legs and body,” said Sam.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“To help keep you warm,” he said.
“Get ready, set, go.”
I pushed off and started stroking into the center of the river and a day of adventure. Had I known how hard it was going to be, I probably would have faked sick and stayed home.
It was a warm day in August but the water was cold, colder than I expected —about 59 degrees with a slight smell of freshly cut grass. I soon learned it was not so much of a race as it was an exercise in survival. That is, learning to sense and feel when the river was moving slowly (start swimming) and when the river’s currents increased (rest and ride the current) and then ... break off from the ride when the current swept me into an overhanging bunch of bushes.
At first, I was looking for the other boys, but Sam told me, “Don’t pay attention to anyone else, just develop a rhythm —you’re doing great.” So, that’s what I did. But developing a rhythm takes time and practice and I had little of either. I started swimming freestyle, then backstroke, and then, getting tired, reverted to the side stroke or just plain floated downstream on my back.
Sam yelled at me, “Keep your eyes peeled for stuff in the water.” I righted myself, looked around and begin doing a slow dog paddle.
The Mississippi is different than other rivers. The Mississippi felt alive. It had a current that changed speed and direction and meanders along at 1½ to 2 mph.
Three miles into the race, I observed a large turtle with green and yellow stripes on my right — he was slowly and effortlessly paddling along paying little attention to me —like I was just another river creature sharing his realm. A trout jumped out of the water. I saw a large carp about a foot long, moving slowly through some reeds near the shore. I had company.
Posters were tacked to trees along the race route, advising us, every few miles, of the distance to the finish line. I looked forward to each marker.
As I continued down the river, I realized that, unlike swimming in a pool, here there was not time to think —no time to plan. The Mississippi contains a stew of swirling eddies and sudden encounters with submerged, swiftly moving objects. Swimming downriver, I started to encounter endless bogs and partially submerged logs, dead birds and other debris that constantly reminded me that this is a dangerous place.
Past Mile 4 I noticed three boys on the shore to my left. They looked like they just stepped out of a Mark Twain novel. With their bamboo fishing poles and straw hats, they reminded me of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Two of them waved at me and when I waved back, one held his arm up showing me a string of fish they had caught.
“Mile 6,” read the banner tacked to a tree near a curve in the river.
“CrumbalI,” I said to myself, I thought this was near the end. ... I momentarily thought of quitting. Mile 8 — I was having difficulty raising my head out of the water and used a “dog paddle” stroke for resting. Every mile or two, I felt a cold spring leak into the river, chilling the lower part of my body, and recalled Sam’s admonition that the temperature, currents and size of the river are constantly changing.
I recall riding a smooth current around a bend toward the shore — getting caught up in some willow branches — then wallowing in a bed of soft, warm muck that felt wonderful in the chilly, steady-moving water. At every turn, a chorus of frogs croaked. Then — there it was — that wonderful, welcoming sign that read “Mile 9.” Only one more to go.
I started stroking faster, reminded that this was a race. My arms felt like they were made of concrete and my burst of energy soon faded. I reverted to a slower pace, just stroking, kicking and moving forward. After moving right around a bend in the river, then straight for about half a mile, I spotted the finish line marked by a large arrow on one side of the river. On my left a group of about 200 people were yelling, clapping and shouting as each boy crossed the finish line. Lifting my head, I saw that we were strung out across the river.
Finishing the race, I noticed seven or eight swimmers already on the bank and was disappointed, thinking I had done poorly, but still very relieved that the race was over. Sam yelled to me, “Clarence, your time is 5 hours and 12 minutes — great job.”
Yeah, but not good enough to win anything, I thought.
I remained at the finish line for over an hour. Drained, weak, wobbly, yet enjoying the sweet pain. Shivering, even though the sun was warm and radiant, the boys kept coming in. Surprise. I had finished ahead of many older boys.
After the last boy crossed the finish line, times were calculated. I was first in my division (11-13). My closest competitor was 13 — no other 11- or 12-year-old had entered the race. I was awarded a $50 coupon for groceries, a medal, a certificate of the swim and a small, bronze trophy that read, “Down The Mississippi” — one of my most cherished possessions.
SATURDAY: Working on George’s Truck Farm