This is the first I've heard of such a thing. Anyone?
June 19, 2008, 5:08PM
This skinny-dip was no fun
By DAVID KAPLAN
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
At Lovett Elementary in Meyerland, we remembered the Alamo and square danced. I lived a sheltered life: stayed with the same class all day and rarely looked beyond it.
My next stop, Johnston Junior High, was less stable, more threatening. Student life teemed with subcultures I had never seen. One macho group of boys wore "Hollywood" haircuts with wings on the sides and shiny candy-apple red shoes.
But my strangest memory of Johnston has nothing to do with any student's behavior. A school policy from those days has left me mystified.
Boys had to swim naked in gym class.
People are shocked when I tell them. They don't believe it.
It's true. The same HISD that gave me a conduct grade in sixth grade made me show up to class naked in seventh grade.
We boys rarely talked about it. I don't think the girls knew. They wore bathing suits. I never mentioned it to my parents.
The practice went on for decades, which means many thousands of Houston men went through this. Some may have blocked it out.
I feel like I'm part of a new recovery group: My name is David and I was made to swim naked in public school.
After all these years — I attended junior high between 1961 and 1964 — I wanted to get to the bottom of it: how HISD came up with the idea and when and why it stopped.
I contacted HISD spokesman Terry Abbott, but he knew of no documents or HISD administrators to interview. He acknowledged that he'd heard references to nude swimming "as something that happened a long time ago."
Let me take you to a time long ago. At Johnston in the early 1960s, swim class began when our gym teacher met us in the showers and ordered us to march in a single-file line naked to the indoor pool.
With other Johnston coaches, I'm told, there was swimming instruction, but my swim class was like free time.
Some boys jumped high off the diving board and did cannonballs. Others played water polo in the deep end, hurling volleyballs and shouting. The rest of us stood in the shallow end, waiting for the period to end.
There were two types of boys in our swim class: Those who didn't care that they were naked and unselfconsciously had fun.
And those like me who were thinking: Get me out of here.
A couple of hoods in the class, older than the rest of us, made things more menacing.
Swimming wasn't the only thing I hated about gym — it was all pretty nasty.
In the gym locker room, the wild boys were at home.
Once, hoods grabbed a kid and stuffed him in a towel hamper so deep that you couldn't see him.
Now and then the subject came up with male classmates: Why do they make us swim naked?
The common answer — "Threads from swimsuits clogged the pool drain" — didn't make sense, because girls wore bathing suits. Plus, you didn't hear about other pools around town having this problem.
To find out how long the practice had gone on, I contacted Houston natives. After talking to my younger cousins, brothers Lee, David and Jay, I determined that nude swimming was abolished at Johnston in the mid-'60s, although the years could have varied from coach to coach.
Men who went to Cullen and Burbank junior high schools told me they swam naked, too.
Ted, a 90-year-old man I know, swam naked at Johnston and San Jacinto High School. He entered Johnston in 1930. So, HISD boys swam naked around four decades at least, probably longer.
I tracked down a former Johnston coach, James Ashmore, who was a Disney version of a gym teacher. Young, upbeat and fit, he actually seemed to believe in the value of physical education.
Ashmore worked his way up to HISD athletic director before retiring.
Unlike my coaches who left us on our own on swim days, Ashmore gave swimming instruction.
"As far as I know, it was part of the HISD curriculum," he said of the nudity. "I don't remember parents complaining. It was just the procedure of the day, and no one had a problem with it."
After talking to a man from Chicago I got a surprise: He swam naked in junior high, too.
Just how widespread was this practice?
At the risk of ending my chances of becoming a district attorney, I went online and Googled the search words: "boys," "nude," "gym" and "class."
Lo and behold, there was an online forum on the topic:
It turned out that men from across the U.S. swam naked in school — in Blue States and Red States — and they were sharing memories.
To my astonishment, the "fibers clogging the drain" theory had made its way around the nation.
A woman joined their discussion. "Is this the best kept secret in the world?" she asked.
The forum turned into an angry debate. On one side were those who were OK with the policy. It's perfectly natural, like skinny-dipping, they wrote. Besides, men and boys swam naked at the YMCA.
On the other side were men who found it degrading. Swimming nude in school wasn't like swimming in the raw with your buddies at the lake. They didn't choose to do it. They were forced.
It's a moot argument. Nude swimming would not take place in a middle school today. "All hell would break loose," said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. "No parent would put up with it."
So I'm back to asking, "Why?"
I turned to the YMCA, since nude swimming there had been mentioned on the online forum.
I didn't find out much after calling the Y's national office, but the Encyclopedia of Washington State History Web site states that males swam naked at YMCAs across the U.S. beginning in the 1890s.
Hygiene was a reason cited. The Web site noted that it "may have evolved from problems created by the long wool suits ... in fashion, which apparently shed so much they gummed up the pool filters."
So, it was the bathing suit fibers!
Maybe there is a connection between nudity at the YMCA and in junior high, and public school officials were copying the Y. After all, the YMCA's swimming program has always been highly regarded.
As I talked to more people, a new mystery emerged: Why does the idea of swimming naked in public school seem awful to guys my age and younger while older men tend to see it as no big deal?
For example, when I asked 90-year-old Ted what it was like to swim naked at Johnston, he said, "Never thought anything about it really," whereas many guys from my generation hated it.
I turned to Hank, a brilliant, big-picture guy I know. Hank, who is 81, noted that in past decades, men had compulsory military service. In the Navy during World War II, he recalled, "we went through swimming and lifesaving in a group, and all of that was naked ... with everybody from every walk of life, and you had not one shred of privacy."
He recalled how in a small Texas town near his childhood home there were free public baths, one for males and one for females — the only source of hot water for many area residents.
As a country, we're not aware of how much privacy we've gained, he said. "The world then and now is so different it's unimaginable."
Hank noted that the strong economy America has enjoyed since World War II has made the country more affluent, and with wealth comes privacy and privileges.
His contemporaries had much to do with that prosperity. After saving the Free World in WWII, they went to college on the GI Bill and raised their families' standard of living.
From Hank's perspective, I could see a seismic shift in how our culture views men and how men see themselves.
After talking to a guy about my age, I could see how class differences also shape us. He had a naked-in-a-group experience I never knew.
In 1967 at age 19, my friend David climbed on a bus with other Texas City boys from blue-collar families. They were bound for an Army induction center in Houston.
It was at a time when I was entering university life, unlike David. Before the draft lottery came along, college protected me from the military service and Vietnam.
The bus ride from Texas City to Houston was full of bravado, David remembered, but once they walked in the U.S. Army building and officers told them to get naked, "It got quiet as church.
"These were Army officers, and you were naked," he recalled. "You could literally smell the anxiety."
Some of the boys went straight from the induction center into the Army that day, and then, Vietnam.
While other young men risked their lives as soldiers, I took anthropology classes and skinny-dipped at Lake Travis in Austin.
I sought to find out why we swam naked in junior high and why it stopped, and here is my answer: America changed.
By the time it got to my generation, the practice had become a strange relic. My swim class at Johnston was a window to another time.