New Bern didn’t have a swim team. Kids water-skied or swam in the local rivers, and we weren’t far from the Outer Banks and the beach, but that was it. The local country club had a competition-sized pool, thank God, but it didn’t have a club team—or even lane lines. The pool itself went mostly unused. It existed as a decoration, to make the club members feel good about the club because it had a pool. A bigger-sized town might have had a team, but we weren’t close to any big towns. The best, closest available option turned out to be Camp Lejeune's age group team, the Devilfish5, located some forty-five minutes away by car.
Mom and I drove out to practice one night after school.
|The Devilfish Swim Team. Coach Pete is at the back left. My friend Brian is behind me.|
Camp Lejeune's pool turned out to be a long, low building made of red brick and concrete with a curved concrete roof. It sat on a low grassy hill set against a small wooded area away from the rest of the base. Though the site was only a couple of miles from the main Post Exchange, it was located off a lonely one-lane road, and I got the distinct impression that it didn’t get much use. Mom and I got out of her by now well-worn Isuzu Trooper II and headed inside, finding a long dim concrete cavern with an ancient long course, fifty-meter pool inside. A few kids were already in the water swimming freestyle, but the pool itself was far from crowded. A single coach stood beside a pace clock. He was black man with pale blue eyes, and he wore a red polo shirt with a standard Marine Corps crew cut.
He turned and smiled. “Hi, I’m Pete,” he said. He extended his hand, and I shook it enthusiastically. “You’re a swimmer?”
“I am,” I replied.
He pointed at the pool. “The kids are still warming up. Why don’t you give me a five hundred freestyle, and then we’ll talk.”
I recognized this as a challenge, but it was one that I could handle easily. I hit the water, and it felt like coming home. After warm-ups, we did some individual medley work, and I paced the other boys with just a little effort. I was delighted. Happier than I’d been in months. After practice, I introduced myself to the other kids, and for a change, they all seemed happy to meet me.
“I’m Brian,” one of the boys said, holding out his hand. He was a skinny kid of maybe fourteen, but I’d seen in the water that he was also a decent mid-distance freestyler.
“I’m Dan,” I replied.
“My dad’s in the Coast Guard,” Brian said. Then: “Welcome to the Devilfish.”
When I left that night, I was a Devilfish down to my marrow.
It remained an open question how often we would be able to make the forty-five minute commutes out to swim practice. This took a few weeks to sort itself out, but eventually we decided to drive to practice once or twice per week, with Coach Pete writing workouts for me to do at the New Bern Country Club on the other days of the week. This was far from perfect, but it gave me a new peer group and a place to focus my frustrations. I badly needed both.
My mother did not enjoy the twice-weekly treks out to the Devilfish Swim Team, but she was there for me in a major way. She not only made those trips with me, she also frequently made sure that we got away early enough to occasionally spend time at the comic book shop that sat midway between New Bern and Camp Lejeune. She even put her time on base to use, shopping for my clothes at the Post Exchange while I swam with my new teammates.
Mom made sure that I at least looked like a Cool Kid, even if I knew in my heart that I was not one. If that seemed at times like a vain and silly pursuit, well, it’s not like she had anything better to do. I was committed to swim practice for two hours twice per week, forty-five minutes’ drive away from our house. My poor mother was stuck on base the entire time.
Despite its reality as a tobacco town, the kids in New Bern were close enough to the Atlantic Coast that their look mixed a beachfront surf-shop fashion sense with a bit of Old South preppy conservatism. The combination valued collared shirts, long board shorts or jeans rolled at the ankles, and boat shoes worn without socks. The boys all parted their hair in a very particular way, in the middle with their bangs sticking out in front of their faces like a ledge. My mother helped me get this right using hairspray and inexhaustible patience.
She even ironed my jeans.
I looked and dressed like a Cool Kid, and thanks to a lifetime of moving and trying to fitting in, I could walk into a room with my head held high, feigning confidence with bulletproof aplomb. I knew deep down that I didn’t belong, but I was well-prepared to fake it. In time, this wore people down. Through my friendships with Christian and Chris, I was able to establish at least some relationships despite the hostility of The Clique, and if I was still not a Cool Kid, exactly, I eventually got to the point that I could at least eat at the right lunch tables. Thanks to the Devilfish, the encouragement of my parents, and the local Presbyterian youth group, I had outlets for my time outside of school. I began to get by. But that was about as much as I could say for myself, and getting by was not the same as being happy.
Swimming became more than just a sport to me. It became a refuge from the rest of my life.
5. The Marines earned the name “Devil Dogs” during World War 1.. They called their swim team the “Devilfish.”