Is that statement true? You know the one I mean-- the Thomas Wolfe title of his most successful novel....is it really true? For many years now I have been absent from Shafter and Bakersfield, absent from the lands, roads and people who helped to shape my life in so many ways. Maybe that question should be asked in other ways in my case when looking back on a life of great adventure. Anyway I have decided to ask the question for myself.
I grew up in Shafter. Arriving at Minter Homes after my third grade year, I first attended Lerdo elementary school for a year. In my first summer in the Valley, I contracted polio. My sister Kathleen and my cousin Gary contracted it as well. To this day some of the events of that summer remain so clear in my mind, beginning with the ride in the ambulance to the hospital in Bakersfield with the siren going full blast. Polio cases were already common enough that the hospital had an iron lung and my cousin was in it, having been diagnosed a day before my sister and I.
My sister and I recovered. Sadly my cousin Gary died within the week, although we were never told until months later. I remember those trays full of instruments to do the spinal tap. The tray carried on the arm of a nurse, covered in what I thought were kitchen towels made me think she was bringing some special treat to eat! The horror as the towels were removed to expose the instruments is a scene still fresh in my mind! My best memory of that hospital purgatory was reading Black Beauty. All other memories from that time are sad ones.
I was recovered enough to attend school that year, though not at the beginning. Among the things I loved most at school were the Scholastic magazines with information from around the United States and the world. I devoured the stories, and dreamt of those places. It was a passion of mine to look up the ones with the most exciting names or with events described that I might want to participate in. My dreams of the world began in the pages of those magazines I read at Lerdo.
Once again health problems struck, this time in the following spring, and in the form of what we then called San Joaquin Valley fever. Now I understand it is just called Valley fever. Again I was bedridden, and boredom settled upon me in a manner almost as serious as the disease. On top of this, my parents had to go to a major Rotary meeting that summer in San Francisco, leaving this bored kid and her sister and brother with a babysitter. The school sent a pile of Scholastic magazines to alleviate the boredom. Hooray!
In one of the issues there was an article about a competition for a children’s flag for the United Nations. Ah, this is how I would relieve the boredom! Make a flag for the competition! Of course the babysitter had to point out the deadline for submittal had passed. Still, I asked for my crayons and told her it did not matter! I explained how I would simply send the flag to President Truman, along with a note and he would fix it for me. And even if it was too late for the contest, he could keep it to fly in Washington, DC.
So I drew my flag and wrote to President Truman on a little folded note card. I swore the babysitter to secrecy as she mailed it prior to my parents return. Amazingly, she kept her word and did not tell them. I forgot about having sent the envelope to President Truman, as I continued with my summer reading, the only pastime I was allowed with the Valley fever. Staying quiet was the absolute requirement.
Weeks went by and it was my first day outdoors in months, no standing or walking around, just sitting on a blanket on the lawn next to the house. Suddenly my mother shoved open the window and called out “Mary Margaret, what have you done now?!!” I truly had no idea what she meant. She informed me that the Postmaster in Shafter had called my dad and said there was a letter from the White House for me. She was dumbfounded. Actually, so was I!
Yes, it was a real letter from the White House, a very kind note to say thank you with appreciation. The President’s personal secretary had sent the letter on behalf of the President. That letter changed my life because from that day forward I understood that anything was possible. And for a little girl in the’40’s, that was a major leap of faith. I realized that making the effort to “go big” could work, but you had to try your best.
I recovered from the San Joaquin Valley fever, and went back to school in Shafter. As I grew up I always wanted to be a competitive swimmer. It was not to be; although my father built a swimming pool for our family. He intended only for exercise, no competition was allowed. While a student at Garces I made a promise to myself that one day I would try a long distance swim. This determination happened when I heard about a young girl who swam part of Lake Tahoe.
In Los Angeles, in college I had a serious knee problem. In those days there was no such thing as arthroscopic surgery, so the “conservative” treatment was to put my right leg in a full leg cast for months. When the pain would not go away (and why would it under such circumstances), the decision to operate was made. Getting the cast off was for me at that point, more than half the battle to recovery. The surgery on my knee, on the meniscus, took away the pain. New pain came when my father made me try to bend that leg at the knee! The adhesions from three months in the full leg cast keeping my leg straight left me with a withered leg. I had no ability to bend it at all. My father feared a daughter with a permanent limp, something he refused to accept. He gave me three weeks to bend the leg to ninety degrees! I accepted the challenge.
I returned to school in Los Angeles with an additional mission: find a way to loosen and restore my leg to ‘normal’. I went straight to the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, believing as always that anything was possible. It was winter, and they had a heated pool. I explained my problem, they said ‘yes’ immediately. In today’s world this could never happen since insurance concerns would intrude. However their kindness allowed me as much time in the pool as I needed, sometimes five hours a day. Half way through the month long effort I realized that beyond rehabilitating my leg, I could make a long distance swim. And so a long distance swimming career was born.
I began with a swim first from Malibu to Santa Monica, along the shoreline, a distance of some 18 miles. At least some in Shafter and Bakersfield will recall, I tackled the Santa Catalina Channel. On my very first attempt I was lost at sea. This caused a major US Coast Guard search during the night, headlines in the Los Angeles papers, the start of lots of gray hairs for my parents, and a very tough return to land. I ended up saving myself at 5 in the morning by swimming back to the mainland from out to sea, climbing a huge cliff and going grease covered and barefoot through prickly tumbleweeds to the luxury home of a millionaire living on a bluff in Palos Verdes overlooking the channel. Ringing his door bell to ask him to call the authorities, I shocked the poor man by waking him to my starkly weird looks. No lives were lost in my first big adventure but for me lots of lessons were learned.
Subsequent swims such as the first person to swim the Straits of Mackinac in Upper Michigan and becoming the second American and second woman besides Florence Chadwick to swim the Straits of Gibraltar between Spain and Africa, guided by Gibraltar pirates, led me to huge adventures in Turkey. There I swam the double crossing of the Bosporus Straits near Istanbul, then the length of the Bosporus, and the double crossing of the Hellespont in the Dardanelles, at the approximate point where Alexander once crossed with rafts. I completed my Turkish swims with a twenty mile swim of the Sea of Marmora. All of these swims were significant in distance, but each fraught with its own difficult adventure. Even my swim of the Sea of Galilee, and the first woman to do so, came at a time when Syria owned the Golan Heights and had to be done at night.
Given that the swims in Turkey were in 1962, the idea of an American girl taking off on her own and swimming her way around the world was not totally a widely accepted notion here at home, or abroad, and definitely not in Turkey. Women did not show bare legs in those days, and the sight of an American girl in Bermuda shorts drew massive crowds of men. I entered into a major confrontation with one of my sponsors, a Turkish newspaper. They had never met an irate American girl who was unaccustomed to taking a subservient role, and at this point being told what she could or could not do! They had locked me up in a small rooming house on the top floor, allowing me out only under guard. As I completed more of the swims, I came to understand their rationale for the guards. Other newspapers actually made attempts to capture me, and in one case, in the lobby of a hotel. I had forced the Turkish newspaper to move me to a hotel in a suburb near the Sea of Marmora, where I could swim every day. Leaving for the Dardanelles swim there were shots fired in the hotel lobby in another effort to kidnap me.
My lessons in the Dardanelles were equally amazing. My understanding was that I had been promised a room with a private bath. Never mind that I had no real understanding that where I was going there were no such hotels at the time with private rooms with bath. This was 1962 and the massive tourism business had not progressed to the hinterlands. So there I was, walking down the street of a small Turkish town, Canakkale, wearing my Bermuda shorts and a blouse, followed by a huge group of men.
We came to a small building and I was invited to have a seat in the tiny front room. Then I was shown the room upstairs where I was to sleep alongside all three of the men who were my guards along with the one journalist. I immediately returned to the downstairs room which had grown dark as the doorway and window light was blocked by all the male faces peering in.
Explaining that we might as well return to Istanbul because I would not be swimming, I saw a look of concern on the face of the journalist assigned to me. I stood my ground surrounded by over 100 men, none of whom were able to understand my words but most of whom could clearly see this American girl in Bermuda shorts was very mad. I explained that if I could not have a room alone we might as well leave. That was my first line in the sand. And oh, yes, where was the bathroom I was promised? I was quickly shown the small closet off the tiny front room downstairs. There was the water spigot coming out of the wall and below it, the hole in the floor for both the shower water to empty and at the same time to be used as the toilet. It was the only one in the building.
I turned and walked towards the front door, unable to move further due to the crush of Turkish men surrounding the building. Quick words in Turkish were shouted by my guard at the owner of the small hotel. He begged me to sit down and promised that all would be well. I was then left alone with a small cup of lemon tea. A half hour passed when finally the hotel owner said to me that nearly all was in place. I had noticed feverish activity in the kitchen area involving the pouring of lots of water into huge metal pots on the stove. Suddenly the large group of men at the front door parted like waves of the Red Sea, all at once and with a snap. The clearing between the lines allowed a sight I could not believe! Four men, walking as steadily as possible given their load, appeared carrying a huge claw foot giant bath tub! They marched into the front room of the hotel and were directed to a back room near the kitchen.
I was invited by the owner to come with him as he followed the men into that room, a room with five beds....a huge dormitory. The bathtub was placed in the center of the room, amidst all the beds. Right behind me was the staff with the big metal pots. They began pouring what clearly was very hot water into the tub. And so I was left in my single room to take a bath. First I had to pull a curtain over the hotel’s back window where all the men out front had rushed to peer into the back window!
On finishing my bath, I offered the owner to help empty the water from the tub. It had to be done by hand since there was certainly no drain in the room. He informed me it would be left there until after the swim the next day when I would again need it to get the grease off. My afternoon consisted of being left to wonder how all this went down when Alexander crossed to this Anatolian side of the continent when he was on his way to conquer so much of the then known world. I was there in his ancient neighborhood, and while I wanted to go and wander around, in those days it was not allowed. I was in the hands of three men who informed me it would not be safe for me to go exploring!
In April of 1963 once again all alone, I went off to Italy, to Sicily, intending to become the first woman and first American to swim the Straits of Messina between Italy and Sicily. These Straits are the legendary waters with massive whirlpools through which Ulysses passed, barely escaping Scylla and Charybdis, according to Homer’s Odyssey. Scylla and Charybdis were mythological, the whirlpools are not.
Landing in Rome, I took the train to Reggio Calabria and made my way by ferry boat to Messina in Sicily. This trip for some reason was as frightening to me as my time in Spain and Turkey. Once again I was on my own; wandering to a place I did not know and had no contacts. Unaware as to how to get boats, officials, help, I only knew what I wanted to do.
The one preparation I had done was I had written to a new hotel in Messina, Sicily that was getting a lot of publicity, called the Lido, asking the management to agree to host me and be the swim headquarters. They agreed--another amazing thing since they knew me only by the European press reports. I knew nothing of them. Yet when I arrived they had a list of names of the officials who would certify the swim. The man at the desk also informed me that there was a US Navy ship in the Messina harbor at the time. He suggested I might ask them for help with charts and tides. This was only my second morning in the hotel-- I was doing well. Off I went, dressed in a proper dress, matching coat, and white gloves. White gloves were required in those days for proper young ladies, especially as I was a Garces girl. Sister Laurentia, my principal would have expected it!
Presenting myself to the Marine standing guard at the gangplank of the Navy warship in the Sicilian harbor was an event in itself. The surprise on his face as this American girl popped out of the local taxi to ask to see the captain in order to get help for a swim of the Straits was already worth the visit regardless of its outcome. His astonishment did not cause any hesitation to send for assistance for me. I have serious doubts this would be possible to achieve today in our world occupied by terrorists!
Unknown to me was the fact that this was not just a US Navy ship.....it was THE flag ship of the Admiral of the 6th Fleet, and he was aboard. This was not any captain, this turned out to be the man himself who could, and would, make all the decisions on the spot. In this one meeting he could, and did, make the difference for the success or failure of my swim. He truly made it a huge success!
He immediately called all his officers into his office, set out the charts on the conference table and while we all had tea, we planned the swim! Not only did he organize the details such as dates and tides and times, he ordered his US Navy Seals from further down the island at the Navy base at Catania, the first official Seal team, to accompany me with their rubber Zodiac boat. He wanted at least two divers in the water with me at all times.
That evening the most famous swimmer of the Straits at that time, Nino Marusciamarra, came with all the Sicilian sports officials to visit and discuss further preparations. When they left, all the requirements had been fulfilled, particularly the need to get the permit to cross in the water. It was to be a double crossing, from Sicily to the boot of Italy and back, and Nino would also go with me. What a party! US Navy divers and one of the greatest Italian swimmers would go with me.
Two weeks later, that is what happened. The American Navy Seals arrived at the hotel in the morning, ready to go. A yacht was available for all the officials, Sicilian and American. The Seals put their Zodiac in the water and put a mysterious black duffel bag into the boat. In spite of all the excitement, I wondered what was in that black bag, as it seemed not to have any particular relationship to anyone. All the Seals were in their wet suits. Nino would also be in the water on and off with me. After all, the first woman to do this had to have sufficient protection! And there were two local fishermen’s boats as well as the yacht and the Zodiac.
So this American girl and her little armada set off across the water for Italy. Getting to the middle, and trying to swim in the whirlpools was like being in a washing machine while not being able to get yourself going in the right direction. However I did not find it either dangerous or terribly uncomfortable, only a unique force on my body.
The contents of the little black bag became clearly evident even before we reached the whirlpools. As we set off, there was a small American flag, fresh and starched and waving in the wind attached to the stern of the Zodiac. As I swam on, the flag became damp and limp, so one of the Navy Seals in the boat would replace the wet flag with a dry one from the black bag that was full of American flags. Thus a starched and stiff flag waved in the breezes. Every time I turned my face to take a breath my country’s flag was waving for me to see. It is, to this day, the most memorable of the many outstanding memories of that swim.
I reached the shore of Italy without too much difficulty until I had to stand up. It is always tough to stand after swimming a long distance in a prone position. But the shoreline was very stony. The rules for a double crossing require that you exit above the tide line and then return to the water again. I stopped on shore for a small drink on the turn around, but in fact I don’t recall that I had that much sustenance during the swim.
On the return the whirlpools seemed more difficult and harder to get through. I was getting tired. For some reason I was not feeling all that well. The last mile was a tough haul. Still, the sight of the hundreds and hundreds of people who had come to welcome me back to Sicily was heartening. Our big fear was that some one in the name of gallantry would rush into the water to help me out. All our crew had been instructed to watch for this. And they needed to intervene.
In fact the Navy lieutenant who was acting as the American judge and was on the yacht, was so worried, and/or excited, he jumped overboard in his white shoes and white uniform to wade in beside me to prevent several of the Sicilian women, many of whom were weeping and waving, from coming to help me. Again the arrival beach was not sandy, and I was stumbling. The Navy divers and Nino made a kind of path, holding back the crowd. This became the famous picture that was sent around Italy and the rest of Europe, making the front page of most papers.
I made the swim in April, when the waters were quite cold. Most swims are done now in the summer months. I was immediately wrapped in blankets and handed up through the crowd to a waiting car to return to the hotel It was a great victory, the first woman and first American to accomplish the swim. That was forty-five years ago this past April.
This year a very dear lady friend of my parents died in the first week of March in Bakersfield. I left a condolence note on the internet obituary page of the Bakersfield Californian. I had to leave my email address. Less than three weeks later I received an email from Sicily, asking “Is it really you?”
The email was from a brilliant young swimmer in Sicily (he just turned 47, but I call him young). He also has a few records in the Straits of Messina, and around Italy. He had been looking for me and found the email on the Bakersfield Californian! It turned out he has had a huge web site up for four years, all about swimming the Straits and all the great swimmers there, with pages dedicated to the most famous. Unknown to me, he had a site dedicated to me for four years. I was stunned. He asked me to write about my memories of the swim, which I did. He also asked for an update of some of the other things I have done since, and I sent him those notes and photos. We began a regular correspondence by email. He always asked significant questions. One of those questions was, “Are you still fit?” The answer had to be a resounding “No!” The fact that I was having health difficulties as a result of so much time sitting at the computer, a total changeover from my active athletic life of so many years, made me think seriously about his questions.
All my life I have been a goal oriented person. And I have always set my goals high. So by the end of April I made my decision, and announced it to the swimmers in Sicily, and now you know too. I am returning to Sicily to do the swim all over again. This will also give me the record for the oldest woman to do a long distance swim. I thought I might try the swim in a couple of years, but Nino Marusciamarra who was with me on my first swim is still living. He is now 87 and not in the best of health. The present generation of swimmers would like him to be there for my swim. In any case, I have agreed that I will make the swim this coming summer of 2009, some 46 years after my first swim of the Straits of Messina.
I am back in hard training and I use that term because it is hard. When I originally swam the Straits of Messina I had miles and miles of swimming training in my muscles. I had not been sitting at a computer for three straight years with no exercise. I had great health at that point.
My first goal has been to loose the accumulated weight from so much lack of exercise. Apart from anything else, the kind of racing swim suit one wears for this kind of swimming is not wearable for anyone overweight! Further, getting my lungs back is a primary goal! My first time back in the water this summer in nearly 24 years was a major shock. A kick that used to be strong and visible on the surface was weak and a foot and a half underwater. Trying to get the extra weight through the water, lifting the arms out of the water and breathing left me gasping! The last swim I did was a 6 hour swim in Lake Mead after running from Los Angeles to Lake Mead via Las Vegas at the age of 47. The year after that at 48, I went to Japan and ran the 2000 mile length of Japan in 62 days. Two years later I ran the 3000 mile length of the Himalayas at altitude at the age of 50. At the age of 71 now I am a long way from those fitness levels. But I am getting there again!
These are significant challenges for this new effort. I have lost so much upper body strength, and getting that back involves weight work, a lot of it. I now have some asthma problems due to living with three big dogs. If it means giving up my dogs the asthma will need to find some other way of leaving! However, after only three months of training I am already off the inhaler. Breathing is very much easier now, giving me the idea that at least some of the asthma was weight induced. Losing weight has been the greatest benefit of this project. Training continues!
I will be 72 next year when I next make the double crossing swim of the Straits of Messina. The first swim 45 years ago took me 5 hours and 22 minutes for the 13 miles. Times for the one way swim these days are just over a fifth of that time. The present course is different and much shorter; it is also considered “easier”. Still, I hope to better my time by a considerable amount on this new endeavor.
So why ask myself that question about “going home again”? My story is not like that of George Webber, Thomas Wolfe’s character. I have not written things about my life and classmates and neighbors from my growing up times. If anything, I have traveled so long and so far away from Shafter and Bakersfield and all my years in the Valley that lately I began to ask myself about those roots. Unlike the Wolfe character, I never felt an outcast from Shafter or Bakersfield, far from it. Yet I never felt deeply a part of the Valley either. I did not undertake all my adventures in search of an identity. I have always known who I am and what I wanted. Time after time, even today, my one life point has been to not only say, but show, that anything is possible for women. I am from the generation where that was questioned. Now, not so much, yet there is still work to do. From the day the letter came from the White House, a letter that today is in the Truman Library, the letter addressed to a little girl now at 71, my attitude has always been that if you put your heart and soul into trying, anything is possible, even in later years. And that includes coming home again.
One description of the Wolfe character is that George Webber returns to America and “rediscovers it with love, sorrow and hope”. I read the Bakersfield Californian daily these years, perhaps a sign of thinking about my roots. While there are many things in the Bakersfield news that strike me with sadness and concern, one of the most troublesome is the high rate of Valley fever. I have decided to do something about it, especially since it sparked events that so structured my life! To that end I have agreed with The Valley Fever Vaccine Project of the Americas to use my swim next summer in the Straits of Messina to raise funds to help fight this disease and protect future generations. This is my hope for the community that set me on my adventurous way: that while we may not be able to rid the earth and air of the horrible fungus that causes this dread disease, we can do something to protect the community through a vaccine. Rotary, that great organization whose meetings my father attended with such dedication, has spearheaded the effort to rid this scourge from the Western States. For me, it is truly full circle to make this swim an effort to raise funds for the community in which I grew up. The swim will be streamed live on the internet, there will be a donation chart on the boat and visible to me in the water. I will be asking everyone in the community and in the West to consider either pledging prior to the swim or donating during the swim. All the details will be published nearer to the swim, next summer. And even if I am far away in the waters between Italy and Sicily, I will be back in Bakersfield in my thoughts, home again.
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