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Remember Joe Delaney

an unquestioned hero

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, June 25, 2014.

This Sunday, June 29, is the 31st anniversary of the drowning of Joe Delaney, who was at that time in the prime of life looking forward to a third year as starting running back for the Kansas City Chiefs. Delaney was black, gifted, and an actual hero. Seeing three kids in trouble in a water hole not safe for swimming, Delaney - despite the fact he feared water and could not swim - dove in and tried to save them. Two died, one got out on his own, and Delaney drowned.

I grew up in Massachusetts on the shore of Buzzards Bay in an arguably seafaring family. Everyone sailed and our social lives often revolved around the sea and our history with it. Not many of you, like me, played at harpooning the hedge as often as cowboys and Indians. Needless to say, we all swam, and were totally at home in the water. It was understood you'd learn to swim early and often. It was more important than riding a two wheeler or any of that. You learned to swim. Period.

I grew up assuming that everyone, more or less, was like that. It was like walking. So, it was genuinely surprising to me that people couldn't swim. And it was a genuine shock when I met people totally afraid of the water and who wouldn't go anywhere near the seashore or lake or swimming pool.

At college I met Fleet Peoples, the last man who used the term 'Bolshevik' correctly, possibly because he'd been one of our soldiers sent to fight them in Russia during their revolution. Fleet looked like an unentombed mummy from years in the sun and was a great chatterer. He'd lost a ring finger somehow, and he kept it in a glass jar on the dashboard of his ancient auto. It looked to have been pulled out by the root with tendons that looked to have gone well beyond the palm of his hand. This was a conversation starter and killer, all accomplished between the opening query "Fleet, what's this in the jar?" and the answer given over an offering of the withered digit to hold. I had to work off my phys. ed. requirement - yes, in college, quaint, what? - so I tried to put to use my Water Safety Instructor patch from the Red Cross and be a life guard. That wasn't needed, but Fleet needed help teaching swimming at my college, which I thought a strange need for adults, but he also had a side line of teaching really, really young kids, I think a year and a half and up, to float and swim. The kids, to a one, loved him and learned to swim, and they swam across the college lake with him, and so were set for life.

They were all white, because it was the 1960's and integration hadn't settled in yet, to say no more. But we had black students at this college and eventually I had one as a student in Fleet's class. He was very smart, incredibly muscular, and although the terms and concerns were different back then, in memory I had more fat in my ear lobes than this guy had in his entire body. He was terrified about swimming. I mean physically terrified, sweating, shaking, the whole deal and it embarrassed and angered him. That I'm white didn't help. He would never swim under my tutelage, just float, which says more about the times and me than him. I was ignorant.

I've learned since that water was not the friendly environment I'd grown up with to a lot of black kids. Partly, it came from slavery because one strong impediment to escape was fear of the unknown, and the fear of water was so inculcated in many families and passed down. Racists would play that up as a sign of stupidity. It wasn't. Turns out white sailors in the British and American navies were every bit as terrified of swimming and never learned. But they had the option, while blacks were banned from beaches and great swimming environments.

Every time I hear Joe Delaney's name, I recall the young man I tried to teach to swim and the terror he felt for water, so I highly regard Delaney's courage. And although I know a lot has changed, and reparations for slavery are raised and shot down and endlessly debated, I am ashamed I was an ignorant beneficiary of a white privilege never appreciated. Everyone at a year and a half needs Fleet Peoples. See to it.