Away from the beach Uncle Jim has perhaps never sat very comfortably. He didn't marry until the day before his 40th birthday, and he was separated from his nonswimming wife for the last 16 years of their marriage. "I didn't get along so well in married life," he says. "It's hard to hit it right." His wife's death in 1968 left him with a three-story house in Woodlawn in the upper Bronx to rattle around in for nine months of the year, with no company except the late Mrs. Havender's $25,000 doll collection. He practices mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (which he has had to use only half a dozen times) on the largest doll.
His two sons visited him occasionally, but he was away lifeguarding or pursuing such projects as attending night law school a good deal of the time while they were growing up—"I never even taught them to swim"—and he sometimes hints that he should have spread himself a little thin and got to know them better.
"I live a very simple life," he says of his lifelong concentration on matters of the surf. "And I think I ought to be criticized for it," he adds with less than perfect conviction. His off-season habits now are austere. Thanks largely to an inheritance from his father, he is worth "close to half a million," he says, "but I go around switching off all the lights." He practices a little estate and real-estate law and frequents the New York Athletic Club.
Because of matters concerning his property, Uncle Jim is unable to move to Florida where he could lifeguard year-round. Besides, he says, "A lifeguard down there is just another guy doing a job. He isn't worshipped by the girls the way you are up north, where you make an appearance only one-fourth of the year." But he goes down there occasionally to visit the Swimming Hall of Fame and he takes in a few swim meets around the country. Sometimes he is asked to officiate, "But I'd rather pay my way in, and sit in the stands and decide for myself who is great."
The greatest man of all in Uncle Jim's estimation is Lindbergh. "I can't see anybody but Charlie. I was at a Jack Sharkey fight and they announced that he'd taken off. We had a moment of silent prayer. 'He's out in the darkness. Nobody knows where he is,' the minister said." Uncle Jim doubts that he has gone far enough in his own life.
"I wrote a letter a while back to a girl I know real well, and told her I'd figured out I wasted my life. I should've been traveling, going somewhere." He reads everything he can find about polar exploration, and he wants to go to Antarctica.
But the thing that galls him the most is that "I miss being able to do those somersaults under the water. They're part of my little routine. Oh, do I miss 'em. Maybe I can get a better nose clamp and carry on.
"But what the hell, I'm 81. I used to porpoise for a quarter of a mile. I don't think I could do 40 yards today. I used to get two new bathing suits every year, but I'm 81, I'm through with stocking up. I'll just use these suits until I quit.
"I may not quit. I may die out here. I'm on the way to 90, and I want to croak before I get there. I don't know anybody 90 years old who amounts to much. I know people in the NY AC who were Olympic athletes who can hardly walk with two canes today. They end up with a male nurse putting on their shoes for them. There isn't anybody spared."
But gloom is an undertow, which Uncle Jim can still get up on his belly and swim out of. He has interests. In the summer, at night, alone in his folding bed, with lights flashing into the windows of his shack from bomb-run practice offshore, he reads up on ecology and natural history. He wishes now he'd become a marine biologist as well as a swimmer. He is thinking of taking up writing.