Take me on? I'm half his age! I hardly swim, but I knew I could whip an 86-year-old geezer. So I said, O.K., strap on your Speedo, Pops.
He kept postponing. Once it was something about a double hernia. Another time he had to get the battery in his pacemaker replaced. Hah! Finally, I flew out there, ready to call his bluff. By now, he was 87. (Cough, cough.)
When I drove up to his North San Diego County ranch, he met me in the driveway. I hated him immediately. He had this huge shock of thick, white hair. He looked like Lloyd Bridges at 50. Or Dorian Gray. I demanded to see a birth certificate.
He let me look at the stuff on his walls while he changed. Here he was, in 1937, swimming against 1932 Olympic gold medalist Buster Crabbe. (The paper said he was 22. Checks out.) Here he was, the same year, standing next to movie swim star Esther Williams, accepting first-place trophies from the Mile Hile Championships. Here was an article about him volunteering for a "special regiment" in 1942, even after being warned that the chances of surviving the assignment were 10%. Those men formed one of the first units that would become known as the Navy SEALs.
Turns out this guy performed feats of preposterous courage. Swimming under Japanese warcraft with nothing more than a knife in his teeth. Scouting enemy-held beaches. Aquatic guerrilla tactics. And to think I feel patriotic for taking my hat off for the national anthem.
After the war he got married and then dived right into the real estate business. He and his partner were among the first to cut into and build homes in the Hollywood Hills.
He didn't waste any time getting back into the pool either. This is a man who has won his age group at the La Jolla Rough-water Swim in 55 of the last 56 years. The last time, they asked him to say a few words. "Never smoke, drink or mess with women," he warned the men, "until I've checked them out first."
Suddenly he was back in the room, in his swim trunks. "Well," he said. "You ready?"
His chest was massive and the skin over it was so tight, you could see where the silver-dollar-sized pacemaker rests above his heart. Hell, you could almost read the serial number. His waist was 30 inches tops, his legs rippled, his arms toned. "Uh, I think I'm feeling a double hernia coming on," I said.
He led us out of the gorgeous ranch house he'd built himself, past the painting of a 60-foot boat he'd built himself, to the three-lane heated lap pool he'd built himself. Somebody has got to tell Tom Brokaw about this guy.