Kelbe recalls it differently. Watching Bob White's team working out one day before The Relay, he marveled at the endurance of the kids. "When I first tried out for the swimming team I wanted to be a diver," he said. "Coach said I was too skinny—I couldn't compress the board hard enough. He gave me a time trial for 25 yards, and I couldn't even sprint the whole distance. These kids go flat out for 200 yards at the age of 10. But you know, swimming taught me something. Remember how it was when you'd see some other guy's arms, just a blur, a brown blur, flashing ahead of you during a race? Sometimes it was an optical illusion, a psychological quirk, but you'd pull all the harder—keep trying, don't let that son of a gun beat you. It taught me to keep at it. Teachers and grownups always told you to 'keep at it,' but you couldn't believe them until you felt it, and I first began to feel it in swimming. I swam at the University of Wisconsin, but it wasn't the same, the pool was a bathtub. I studied 'light construction' in the business school—we didn't have to take history or English or psychology or any of that stuff. I had one course in forest products where as a test we had to sniff and taste 30 pieces of wood and identify them. I'm now an expert on 'Toothpicks of North America.' "
Then it was time for the workout. The kids would cover 5,000 yards that afternoon, nearly three miles, with variously paced combinations of pulling, kicking and full stroke, no single segment amounting to less than 200 yards. "My God," said Montag with awe, "if we swam 5,000 yards a week we were going some." White chuckled with the friendly sadism of a good coach. "That's one of the main reasons why the sport has changed so much since your time," he said. "Doc Counsilman is the man to blame. He showed that swimming was a softy sport up until the mid-1950s, and he really made his kids work. Swim through the pain barrier, swim until you've puked out all of your self-pity and your natural tendency to coddle yourself." White looked at his boys larruping through their laps, checking their splits on the big pace clocks at the starling end of the 25-yard pool. "I can tell them to swim four 200s at four seconds above their best time, and they can do it, some of them without even looking at the clock. As the season wears along and we get closer to the state meet, I'll reduce the workouts to 2,000 yards, shave 'em down and peak 'em up. This is the fast lane, here. Why don't you guys drop in at the tail end of the line and see how fast they go?"
They went plenty fast enough. Splash found himself a slot in the round-robin line behind a backstroker, a lanky, easygoing kid who seemed to be dawdling. "I thought I'd outfox them," he said. "A freestyler swimming behind a backstroker—I could take it easy in the wake of his toes. But those big feet kept pulling away from me after the first 50 yards. I put on a bit more power, but it wasn't there. It was like hitting the gas pedal when the tank is empty. It turned out later that the backstroker was a 16-year-old named Mark Unak who was the fastest 100-yard backstroker in the state, with a time of 56.2. Finally I just let myself fall behind slowly, enjoying the memories. The smell of chlorine and warm water and the hollow sound of kicking and pulling: they had been natural parts of my life from the age of 11 to 22, but I had not been aware of them then, no more than I am now of the stench and clangor of the commuter train. These were the better sensations. After a few laps your mind goes into a kind of free-association trance. Great gobs of unconscious material drift into sight, as if your hands were digging up the sediment of memory with every stroke. I found myself thinking of the summer outdoor meets—the sun on the hard blue water with schlock music over the loudspeaker and the girl swimmers, whom we saw only at those kinds of meets, with their strong tanned necks and their nipples showing under their nylon tank suits. The memory eased the sting of that little girl going so fast, that damned Diana Dryad."
Leaving the workout that evening, the oldsters had another memory stirred. It was cold and black in the high school parking lot, with that sharp frigidity of the northern winter that makes nostrils tick at each breath. Their muscles were loose from swimming and steam rose from their coat sleeves and collars. "Hey," yelled Montag suddenly. "Look at the halos! I'd forgotten the halos." Sure enough, every light in Wauwatosa wore a subtle nimbus, the gift of the chlorine in the warm water reacting on their now-bloodshot eyeballs. It is the single most distinguishing—and indeed formative—psychophysical attribute of the competitive swimmer. After every workout the world seems to have achieved instant sanctity through his dreary, weary eyes, thanks, no doubt, to his own hard work and the commensurate grace with which he was rewarded. Kelbe, at least, could no longer be deceived by the halos. "When I get home," he said wryly, "my wife and kids will take one look at my eyeballs and figure I've been out drinking, that's all."
Three afternoons under Coach White's tutelage did little to return the old swimmers to their former speed. Except, that is, for Kelbe, who had never lost it. The others managed to recover a few lost skills, like flipping their turns and snapping their towels. "These guys aren't that tough," Montag confided after one workout. "Why don't we make it a double event—the relay and a towel-snapping contest? So what if they beat us swimming, we can take our revenge afterward!" He cracked his towel with the long, deft wrist snap that had made him the terror of Wisconsin swimming two decades earlier and neatly removed an inch-deep gouge from a bar of soap in the shower room. "Touch�, you athletic little creep!" He had pecked out the "i" in Lifebuoy.
So it was all back together, finally—the smells and the colors, the work and the play, four friends who had remained teammates through 20 years. All that remained to be done was the swimming of The Relay itself, and the psychological game that would have to precede it if the recapture of the past was to be complete.
"I really doubted that I could 'get up' for it after all those years away," Splash confessed later. "I mean, we knew we couldn't beat them, and without at least the illusion of possible victory, how could we pretend to ourselves that defeat would hurt? Still, by God—and this is one of the greatest things I've ever gotten out of anything in my experience—it was there, it didn't fail me. I looked at my watch when I felt it start. Just 23 minutes after noon on the day of The Relay. Regular as clockwork, as they say, just like it was in the old days. At first it was only a flicker, a brief preoccupation, a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. I helped it along with some of the old rituals. A few curses, as obscene as I could make them, directed not only against my opponents and my coach but against myself for letting me get into so grave a confrontation. The butterfly grew stronger with every obscenity. I fed it further with a mug of hot, strung tea—Earl Grey, as I recall—so thickly laced with honey that you could feel it in your wrist when you stirred. I hadn't shaved or brushed my teeth that day, another of the old rituals. Makes you meaner and tougher, we used to believe. The butterfly began to flap its wings down at the base of my spinal cord, and pretty soon there were a dozen more ticking and flapping at the top of my gut.
"The afternoon wore along with perfect symmetry. I was alone in my father's house, watching the Wisconsin winter through the big picture windows—goldfinches and cardinals at the bird feeder, flights of mallards rising and circling and landing on the Menomonee across the road, icicles dripping from the eaves and then freezing again as the sun went down—but I wasn't seeing a bit of it. I was seeing instead the hard blue water of the near future, with Montag coming out of the turn at the far end of the pool and lurching hack toward me with his last, awkward stroke, me waiting on the block to take my own start. Sometimes in my reverie Montag would stop cold in the middle of the lap and drown: dead of an exploded memory, the victim of my nostalgic madness. Other times he would put on a surge reminiscent of Don Hill or Dick Cleveland back in my college swimming days, and give me a body length's lead when it was my turn to start. Mostly I just scowled and sat and felt the butterflies trying to get out."
By the time Splash joined his grizzled buddies at the pool that evening, all of them were up and ready. They were outfitted in the same cardinal-red tank suits they had worn on the old team, while the young swimmers wore a newer, flipper green and gold. (During workouts, White allowed the whole team to wear whatever color or patterns they preferred, a concession to the New Generation many less successful coaches have been loath to make.) It was obvious that the old guys were feeling competitive. "We used to drink our tea and honey to get charged up," said Kelbe, watching the youngsters. "They probably do this...." And, laughing, he shot an imaginary hypodermic needle into his forearm.
White had spared his old swimmers nothing. Kelbe, lead-off man for the ancients on the strength of his start, would face Mark Unak, the deceptively quick backstroker who, it turned out, was also a considerable freestyler. Wahlen would go against Mark Irgens, also 16, a sub-24-second freestyler over 50 yards. Montag was pitting his mailman's stride (not to mention his beer drinker's gut) against a mere sophomore, 15-year-old Bob Sells, who had swum the 50 in 22.4 just a week earlier (as against Montag's best-ever 24.8). In the anchor slot, Splash would be up against Coach White's very own son, Tim, age 16, who has done 1:52.9 over 200 yards freestyle. God and the coach only knew what young White could do for 50. "Don't worry," Tim whispered to Splash as they lined up for the race. "I was out sick for the past few weeks and I probably won't even finish." Then he rippled his muscles and laughed uproariously. "It was a nightmare." Splash said later.