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A la Recherche du Tanks Perdu
Robert F. Jones
May 15, 1972
A middle-aged dreamer, freely styling himself Splash, seeks the past in the chlorinated waters of yesteryear
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May 15, 1972

A La Recherche Du Tanks Perdu

A middle-aged dreamer, freely styling himself Splash, seeks the past in the chlorinated waters of yesteryear

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Yes, much of the past was gone, but not, fortunately, Splash's old high school swimming coach. Not that Robert B. White, 44, of Wauwatosa, is old in any sense of the word. Coach White had been only 23 when he had come north from Indiana University to run the Tosa swim team two decades earlier. He had not changed: energy and wit, an ability to drive kids through the walls of their babyhood, the cruel but kindly scorn of a good coach, even his hairline—none had receded with time's passage. Better yet, the seven-year difference between his age and Splash's, so vast in the old days, had undergone the miraculous shrinkage that is one of the few benefits of aging. Bob White not only remembered Splash, he had often wondered what had become of him. "You might find it hard to believe," he told his young swimmers when Splash arrived, "but this old codger was one of my best freestylers when I first came here during the Boer War." The kids stared at Splash with that steady sneer now known as "cool."

"For a moment there I was put off by the stare," Splash said. "It made me bridle. But then there was a shock of recognition: I had practiced that same look over and over again in the mirror when I was a kid. Instead of going high with dudgeon, I flipped them the bird. It broke them up. Look, this was a damned fine swimming team. They'd won the state championship last year. We old guys had been state champions three years running, and these guys reminded me of us. Their hair was longer, but they had that same cockiness, the same single-mindedness when it came to winning that we had back then. Absurd, that baseless confidence. It's a kind of premature maturity, I guess, but it's one of the best things about sports when you're a kid."

White was keen for The Relay idea—"Oh boy, will we whip you!" he chortled—and, better yet, he knew where three of Splash's peers could be found, all of them former swimming team captains. "I'll bet they'll do it," White said. "They were all dead game."

When Splash telephoned the three men that evening, he found White was right. It was as if the 20 years since the last time the four had raced together had been no more than a break between events. The world had changed radically over those two decades, but it had not affected their bedrock enthusiasm for competition.

Ted Wahlen, for example, at 39 the oldest of the four, had lost a bit of hair but none of his whoop-it-up ebullience. "He had always been a big guy," Splash recalled. "Six feet and change, 200 pounds, wrists like the rest of us have ankles, and a mat of hair on his chest when he was in the eighth grade. He was one of those rare people you meet who never seem to get angry or rattled, never sulk or carry on as if the world is doing a number on them. By the same token, Teddy has not been the quickest of swimmers—his bones and muscles got in the way—but he had grit and wit. No, not wit exactly, more like bonhomie. We were lifeguards together for two summers in the county swimming pools. Best job in the world if you can live on $1.25 an hour. We walked around like God in red shorts, bellowing one-word orders to the 'pygmies'—the little kids—to make them slow down. 'Walk!' we would roar, and they'd put on the brakes. Every now and then some pygmy would start to drown, and you'd dive in, deadpan, slap a cross-chest carry on him, haul him ashore and take down his name and address so you could write a letter to his folks. 'Dear Sir and/or Madam, Your son and/or daughter nearly drowned in Hoyt Pool this morning and/or afternoon. We suggest swimming lessons, available at the pool...etc.' A rescue was called a 'jump,' and the best jumps were for teen-age girls, thanks to the cross-chest carry. You kept a record of jumps, and there was a kind of status that accrued to the guard with the most. More status for the girls. Teddy seemed to get the best jumps, because he was so good looking. Teddy and I shared a mutual enthusiasm for early Debra Paget movies, the ones where she was always getting killed by cowboys or volcanoes because she wasn't supposed to be white and couldn't marry the hero. Real romantics. Korea was on then, and Teddy went into the Marines."

Now Ted Wahlen was back in Wauwatosa, big and shaggy as ever (except on top), married and the father of four sons, one of whom was on Coach White's swimming team. "Yeah," said Ted, "my boy Kurt swims the back, the free and the IM"—the IM being what we used to call the injividdle medley. Wahlen himself worked as a timer for the home meets and often swam laps during the workouts of the age-group swim club White ran at the pool. "I'm in fairly decent shape," he said. "But I've got this strange business—I wash airplanes, buildings, school buses, dump trucks and big things like that. I'm called 'Mr. Porta,' and I've got my own truck. It takes a lot of time and I'm afraid it tightens up my muscles. But yeah, I'd love to swim another relay."

Robert Carl Montag, 39, of the U.S. Postal Service, was just as willing, maybe more so. Montag had been one of Splash's three closest friends during the swimming years; the others had disappeared, one to become an eye doctor on the West Coast, the other a lawyer somewhere south of Wauwatosa. In those days Montag was known as Moonbeam for his round face and ready grin. A long, jolly kid whose father was an immensely popular butcher on the old German North Side of Milwaukee, Montag possessed not only charm but three very valuable commodities: a .300 Savage lever-action deer rifle, a deck of pornographic playing cards and a 1934 Ford sedan. Up in Rhinelander, Wis., where Montag's parents had a lakeside cabin, the boys shot guns on the winter ice and pool in the local saloons. In Wauwatosa, rendered mobile by Moonbeam's machine, they were the original "lonely teen-age broncin' bucks."

Montag remembers: "Gee, in a lot of ways high school was the best time of my life. That old '34 Ford—the way we used to do spins on purpose when the roads were icy or go down to the South Side and look for fights with those Polish kids! I could never grow a D.A. because my hair was too curly. I don't know what it was—we were daring then. Now I'm a letter carrier. I walk 15 miles a day. I've got Mace for the dogs, but you'd have to be Billy the Kid to use it, the way they come up on you. You have to hit 'em in the face. In weather like this—it was 22� below last week—the Mace turns into a Popsicle. A dog bit me a couple of years ago. The lady who owns him was walking her other dog and her big one came around the corner of the house and blindsided me. 'Does it hurt?' she asked me. 'Lady,' I said, 'get the dog offa me.' She came up a bit closer, smiling kind of nice. 'I hope he isn't hurting you,' she said. I said, 'Lady, would you please get him offa me?' The leg puffed up like a loaf of bread. I'm afraid of every dog now, and they know it. Even cats chase me sometimes."

Bob Kelbe was the final member of The Relay, and far and away the best "natural athlete" of the lot. At the age of 38 he weighed less (166 pounds) than he had when he was swimming in high school (170). Although he now wore glasses, Kelbe's hairline had not receded half an inch and the spring in his long, wiry shanks, which had given him the best start Splash had ever seen, was coiled as taut as ever. Kelbe was now the vice-president of a family-owned heavy-equipment business. In the lot outside the raw, concrete-block headquarters of Kelbe Bros. Equipment Co., Butler, Wis. stood a 140-foot crane. "You can have it for just $124,516.25," Bob told Splash. "That includes tax."

Kelbe's twin brother Ray, who had been known as Whitey, was now living in California. The twins had probably been the most dynamic sporting duo Wauwatosa ever produced: hockey, football, track, golf, skiing and swimming, they had excelled at each. What's more, they were musical. Whitey played the trumpet, Bob the sousaphone. Both had married their high school sweethearts and produced handsome children. "You couldn't help but envy them their skills," said Splash. "I remember watching them play a pickup game of hockey on the Menomonee River. It was one of those windswept Wisconsin days when even the crows weren't flying. Those guys had all the dekes I had ever seen, and when they checked a guy he ended up in the catbriars on the river bank. I used to chase them downhill on skis at Currie Park. They wove through the trees like those proverbial wraiths you read about on the spoils pages. I ended up with one ski on either side of a pine trunk. When I started breaking Bob's freshman swimming records—he was a year ahead of me at Tosa—I couldn't quite believe it. Maybe he'd spread himself too thin, while I was concentrating my energy on swimming. I always knew he was a better jock than I was."

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