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  • Joseph Polack

AN AQUAMAN & 'HENNA GAIJN SWIMMING CLUB'

His crawl strokes were powerful, his endurance against waves, legendary. Some locals called him Aquaman and Kamakura bay has been his home for over 40 years. He does not fear the ocean. Yet, many out-of-town beach walkers feared for his life. 

Since the end of the last summer season, there was not a single lifeguard post left on the beach.


Catching sight of his head suddenly re-emerging from behind the swelling waves, made some people panic. And indeed, watching him from the shore turning into a tiny dot disappearing out of view deep into the bay, was frightening. There were no volunteer lifesavers to alert. Just a couple of elderly tourists hunted by the hungry sea hawks.

Except for a few beached fishing boats, two rusted bicycles, and a heavy wooden tank brought by the ocean, the place looked deserted. Even a squad of local horsemen riding in the shallow waters was slowly withdrawing to safety.

The undercurrents were getting trickier with every passing minute, but the sun was shining, and the clouds were turning from navy-blue to white blue. Proof that the peaceful Shonan sky and volatile ocean currents were guided by different forces of nature.


When the riders galloped away towards a nearby fishing village, the waves calmed down. A few worrying tourists, who were watching him from the slope, could finally relax. The Aquaman was slowly heading towards Yuigahama side of the beach where he had left his sweat clothes hanging over a portable chair. His powerful forearms kept his swimming on course.

He was only a hundred meters away when the horror began again.

The undercurrents began to push him back towards the opposite side of the bay. He seemed to be giving up his fight to reach the shore. His strokes slowed. He did not resist fighting the currents anymore. He was steadily drifting further away from the spot he had left his belongings.

I heard someone arguing to call an emergency number. Someone else suggested to wait. English was mixing with Japanese. The people were getting agitated.

I moved closer to the waterline. It looked as if he was conserving his energy. Instead of fighting the reverse current, he was swimming parallel to the beach. When he discovered a temporary change in current, he took his chance. With a few explosive strokes, he broke through the waves closer to the beach.

He was out of danger.


Without waiting for his return to the shore, I left for my hillside home. Being newly settled in Kamakura then, I hardly knew anyone except a few neighborhood fishers. My daily routines were divided between a morning writing, an afternoon swimming, and shooting a documentary about the fishing village.

Though I did not know who the athletic Aquaman was, and never saw his face from a closer distance, with every passing week, I was becoming more fascinated by his oceanic swimming skills. From the clever ways he handled the invisible danger and avoided undercurrent traps, I guessed the middle-aged man must have been an experienced outdoorsman. Or perhaps, a competitive athlete in his younger days.

Whenever I was passing by his empty beach chair, I looked for him somewhere among the waves. Though I could not see even a tiny dot of his head, I knew he was fighting his battles against the waves, while trying to avoid getting entrapped by the changing tides.

Then, one day when I was wandering around the fishing village looking for something fresh to make sashimi, I spotted a foreigner relaxing in the familiar beach chair. Though I saw him from behind, I noticed that the gray-haired man wearing the casual sweat clothes was enjoying a bottle of wine. His black swimming trunks were drying next to him.


When an hour later I got my fish and was passing by his chair, he did not even look at me. He was too busy reading a Japanese business newspaper and sipping his wine from a thin, fragile looking wineglass. A few weeks later, when I bumped into him again, he responded to my greeting with the reserved simile of a man who did not wish to be disturbed.

At closer sight, his face looked much older than the resilient master swimmer I had followed for weeks. Yet, it was the same man.

I didn't know then that the man who was enjoying the solitude of the bay life was going to share with me his life journey in the years to come. But he did. And I didn't know why. Perhaps because we were the only guys who swam year-round without wetsuits. Or because we both loved having a drink after getting out of the ocean. Or simply because I bought a similar foldable beach chair and we began swimming occasionally together.

One afternoon when the waves got rougher, and we had to cut our swimming short, he invited me to his house for a drink.


Then whenever the currents were too tricky for a longer swim, we continued our chatting at his garden. Sometimes I prepared sashimi, and he brought out  California Chardonnay. Other times, he provided the snacks and I brought a Chilean Merlot.

During one of these chats an idea of forming a Kamakura Henna Gaijin Swimming Club came up as a practical joke.


Because of our off-season swimming and outdoor drinking rituals, we become known among the beach goers as the Strange Foreigners, or "Henna Gaijin" in Japanese.

Whenever we were asked why did we keep swimming around the year without wetsuits and goggles, we used to respond that it was because of the HGSC's rules.

That Henna Gaijin Swimming Club (HGSC) consisted of only two members born ten thousand kilometers apart, didn't seem to interest anyone. Instead, the passers-by were interested in more practical questions: what were the membership rules and who was in charge to approve the candidates?

My attempts to explain that there were neither membership rules, nor a person in charge, seemed for some folks, nothing but an excuse to remain apart, if not a sign of arrogance. As there was no way to explain that everything was just an inside joke, I came up with a solution:

The Aquaman, whose real name is Phil, due to his longer swimming experience was elected (by a single vote majority!) as a Chair-for-Life. Then by the same majority, I was elected his Deputy, or a Side Chair.

When our leadership issues were solved, we had to face a bigger problem. Within a short time, we got a growing number of potential candidates from foreigners and locals who heard gossip about HGSC. They were from different walks of life and of varied cultural heritage: an American, a Pole, a Swede, a Belgian, a Philippine, a Canadian, a Spaniard, a Briton, and a number of other nationalities, including several Japanese who had grown up overseas.

And yet, what we all have shared was our joy of watching a sunset or sunrise along the bay... and were blessed with a similar sense of light-hearted humor.


To add a little fun to our endeavor, we came up with an idea that each new member was welcomed to follow our HGSC tradition (!) of choosing a nickname that had a 'chair' incorporated... and a variety of names was amusing: a Musical-Chair, an Under-chair, a Chair-Leader, a Chair-latan, a Chairless,  and so on.

Except for common sense, there were no other rules. And the HGSC's common sense was to never enter the water after having a drink. And seeing anyone in trouble, foreigner or native, getting him or her out to safety was just equally expected. It didn't matter if the emergency happened during a season, or off season, in the spring or in the fall. Being ready to help saving a life any time and every time was what mattered. And swimming around the year in just our basic swimwear made it easier to respond.

Some of our HGSC members were trained lifesavers working as volunteers along Shonan coast during the eight weeks long summer season.

Some other HGSC members have annually participated for years in the "Rough Water Swim Japan Series" being held in the first weekend of July in Zaimokuza beach.


Though the Rough Water Series gathered annually around 600 international swimmers competing from 800 m to 3 km races, we couldn't join as a Henna Gaijin Swimming Club, because our HGSC didn't officially exist. Yet even we swam individually, or represented the formally registered sports club, we still in spirit were representing our HGSC community.

Indeed, the informal HGSC was nothing more but a fluid community of life-enjoying folks. Some folks just happened to have passed through Shonan coast and joined us for a very short time before returning to their overseas homes. Some others remained active members for years. And there were also folks who enjoyed being just "Associated Chairs" or "Chairless Supporters" of our HGSC community of beach-watchers.


Our joint swimming in rough waters brought us closer together. Our conversations become longer, and more personal. Though Phil remained loyal to wine, and never replaced his wineglass with a plastic cup, I switched to canned local beer. Listening to his memories over a drink was like reading a thriller.

His turbulent past was made of many different lives.

Some of his recollections of younger days were happy, others less so. The wartime trauma of being a young graduate of Indiana University's Business School, changed his life, as it did for many Americans of the Viet Nam generation.

When his time arrived, the 22 year old new graduate decided that he did not want to dodge the draft by escaping to Canada or by using any of the other ways to avoid service, such as declaring some imaginary disabling medical condition with the help of a friendly doctor. Instead he avoided being drafted into the Army by joining the US Marine Corps. After finishing Marine Infantry Officer Training, Phil like most of his classmates, was sent to Vietnam as a 2nd Lieutenant. 


A few months after going to Viet Nam, at the age of 23, Phil's leg was blown away just under the knee by a hostile explosive device.

Listening to his story was both painful and uplifting. Many of the young Marines in the platoon Phil was commanding, perished before the war ended or were even more severely wounded than he was. So he wasn't embittered by his Viet Nam experience. Instead he felt fortunate that his life wasn't taken as happened to so many young men who were caught by the tides of war. In addition, Phil told me that the experience of war and the gift of life, opened new and broader horizons for him.

Phil's way back to the civil society, as a disabled war veteran, was eased by acceptance in to Stanford University's graduate school. After graduating with a Masters degree in Japanese language and Economics in the East Asian Studies Center, he participated in a research project studying Japanese business in the US.

When I asked him if he enjoyed Stanford, he said he loved it, in part because of its proximity to Squaw Valley and other ski areas in the Sierra Nevada range. At first I thought my swimming mentor was making fun of me, but he wasn’t. With the help of a coach who developed a teaching method and equipment that enabled amputees to ski, Phil caught the skiing bug and spent every week end possible on the slopes.

After coming to Japan and initially enjoying the powder snow skiing of Hokkaido and Nagano, he gradually shifted his interest to a sport he could enjoy most of the year round in Kamakura-ocean swimming.


Through the years of swimming and chatting with Phil, I was trying to piece together his life journey without bothering him with too many questions about his past. I also didn't know much about his life outside of our Henna Gaijin Swimming Club.

There were times when Phil didn't appear on the beach for weeks. Then one day, I incidentally bumped into a gentleman at the Kamakura JR station who reminded me of Phil. And indeed the silver-haired man wearing a dark blue suite was Phil. He was returning from Tokyo where he was working as Japan country head for Moody's Analytics. What a surprise to learn that my swimming friend made his living by helping to set credit ratings for Japanese financial institutions.


For us, the Henna Gaijin Swimming Club's members, Phil was first of all our jolly Chair-for-Life and a mentor in escaping invisible undercurrent traps, and only secondarily was he a credit rating analyst.

Last week, I cycled from my Enoshima neighborhood to celebrate with Phil the 8th Anniversary of our Henna Gaijin Swimming Club at the same Kamakura beach where we had met in 2012.


Though he recently celebrated his 76th Birthday, Phil was ready to challenge me for our usual swim. He, as usually, headed towards the center of the bay, while I followed a safer path, towards the Zaimokuza beach.

The Japanese beaches were officially closed, yet the surfers were all over the bay. Except two of us, there were no lifesavers around. And legally we should not have been encouraged to stay in the water.

Many surfers were already used to the sight of two Henna Gaijin swimmers, but some beach goers remained anxious. The waves were getting lower, but the undercurrents were growing stronger.


After forty five minutes I made it safely back to the shore, and few minutes later I noticed Phil. His crawl strokes were slightly less powerful than last year, but his endurance remained in tact. Though my crawl was faster, he beat me by almost four minutes by enduring the waves longer.

I brought a sparkling wine for celebrating on the beach our Henna Gaijin Swimming Club's 8th Anniversary, but Phil insisted on revisiting his garden, as he had already prepared his usual selection of salad, olives, and other snacks.

We parted with a toast for his four grandchildren: two born in the USA, two in Japan, and a fifth on the way in Akita. Then we toasted to my own two grandchildren: the oldest one born in Manhattan, the youngest in nearby Fujisawa.


It took me an hour to cycle back to my Enoshima neighborhood. After arrival I was greeted by striking online news. Due to the continuing fear of Coronavirus second wave, the regional and local governments decided that regardless of the growing number of surfers and swimmers, the official lifeguards wouldn't be posted at the beaches this summer.

As our Henna Gaijin Swimming Club, being just a community spirit rather than any officially accredited body, we will remain keeping our beach-watch, as we have done for the past eight years.

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