I am trying my best to stay afloat in an exercise class in the pool at the Y, the only man splashing around with 18 senior women following the commands of our capable instructor, Ruth Sherman, a veteran Y teacher who has taught classes there for decades.
It is a learning experience, to say the least. I am learning the exercises, learning how to keep up with all these women my age or older, learning how to move quickly in 80-degree water, learning what it's like to be a minority of one and -- most importantly -- learning how to get in shape.
After all, my female poolmates have all been together for years and know each other well. They talk to one another throughout the exercises. Some smile at me as if to affirm that I am there -- and probably wondering why. I tell them I have a bad back. They smile, knowingly.
It's a bit lonely. Finally, after a few minutes a lovely lady makes her way over to where I am treading unsuccessfully trying to relearn how to tread water with a rubber tube around my waist, losing my balance and finding myself more below water than above.
The woman comes right up to me and introduces herself. I do the same. Then, being a good reporter -- and trying to be social -- I find out that she is a widower who lost her husband about 10 years ago, has a 60-year-old daughter living in Westport married to an 82-year-old man who also has a bad back and other physical problems but stays home most of the time.
Pity, I tell her, he could take physical therapy in and out of the water, I suggested, informing her that these steps have helped me tremendously. Her eyes light up. "Maybe you can talk to my son-in-law," she suggests. "He's a writer, like you, and perhaps you could persuade him to start writing again."
I politely inform her that I'm not much of a caregiver, especially to a stranger. Besides, I think to myself, who am I to invade the privacy of another writer and have the nerve to suggest that he resume his profession? He doesn't need me in his life. But I agreed to try once.
"Good," she says, all excited. "I'll tell him about you."
Sure enough, two days later at our next exercise class, she comes running up to me with a big smile on her face and her eyes all aglow.
"Woody," she says almost out of breath, "you'll never believe this. When I told my son-in-law that I had met you in the pool, he informed me that you two were friends in high school. I was astounded."
So this is where my friend wound up after all these years -- as a neighbor in Westport -- obviously in need of some company and, perhaps, some coaxing back into the writing game, according to his mother-in-law. He was a nationally known writer and editor for some of the top magazines in America.
Still, I am reluctant to call him. So I ask his mother-in-law to ask him to call me, if he feels like it. Turns out, he does -- about a week later. Our telephone conversation is brief but friendly. He asks me a few questions. I ask him a few. He asks me to visit him in his house. I do.
His wife greets me at the door -- they live in a home near Compo Beach -- and there he is, my good old friend, sitting in a chair with this legs resting on a stool, the same glint in his eyes that I remembered from years ago, same bushy eyebrows, trim build, smiling.
"Your hair turned gray," is the first thing he says. "So did yours," I reply. That broke the ice. For the next two hours we have one of the greatest "Do you remember?" sessions I have ever had in my life. It all came back -- the football games, the English classes, his writings in the high school yearbook, my writings in the high school paper, the people in our class -- who's alive, who's not. What he did after graduation; what I did after graduation.
We pretty well cover the 65 years in those two most pleasant hours. We remember those late summer days every year in the '40s, when we would join two other classmates -- we called ourselves "The Big Four" -- and journey up to an estate in Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard where we swam, drank, sailed, played touch football.
We called Martha's Vineyard "God's country" and remember all the places on the island that we visited, fished, enjoyed dinners at restaurants, and generally hung out. We were teenagers without cares in search of fun -- good, old-fashioned clean fun. We were squares.
We were also adventurous. We remember the summer of 1944 when the four of us -- less than 16 years old -- dressed in hiking boots equipped with pen knives, knapsacks on our backs filled with cans of Spam, hiked down the Appalachian Trail through the Smoky Mountains for six weeks without seeing a soul, keeping fires lit in the woods at night to scare away the bears.
We remember when we came out of the mountains in Paducah, Ky., and got on a city bus. Just to see what would happen, we sat in the back with the "Negroes." The driver stopped the bus and called the cops. We were roughly hauled into squad cars and taken down to the local police chief, a red-faced, tough-looking gent who had a scowl on his face.
"So what have we hea-ya?" he barked, looking down at us from his seat up high. "Four huska Neeew Yawk-hah scule boys trying to stir up trouble with the Nigras." We kept quiet and, for the first time during our trip, were scared. What in the world had we done to ourselves?
The chief asked us for identification, which we produced. Then he turned toward us and, in an angry voice, pointed his finger at us and bellowed: "I want you boys outta town by sunset. You all hea-ya me?"
We left in a hurry. That story and many others we recalled erased 65 years.
And, after some lobbying by me for him to write again, my friend said yes, he had an idea for a short story. He said he would think about it. I had an idea, too. This column.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" column appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at email@example.com.