Fleshing out the memory by
(18 Stories)

Prompted By Scouting

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A swimmer getting as close to the water as possible in the 1960s.

I grew up in an Air Force town in Oklahoma, a town that sprang up out of wheat fields in 1942 as a place to house the military and civilian workforce at Tinker AFB.

You can learn a lot of things in scouting, and a few you just try to forget. Until it's time to shock your kids and grandkids.

My family moved there in 1949, and it seemed to me that the names of all the men were preceded by a “Sergeant,” “Lieutenant,” or “Colonel.” Every street in town had a name related to airplanes or hero pilots. That’s where our Lockheed Drive came from, just one street over from Boeing, and a stone’s throw from General Senter Avenue.

Scouting just fit

So my town was a patriotic one, and the military, church, and a set of conservative rules and values permeated it all. Hence, scouting seemed a natural fit, and there were a lot of green and khaki uniforms to be seen.

Tuesday night was Boy Scout night from about 5th grade through 7th for me. It was about the only socially structured event on my weekly schedule, except for church on Sunday mornings. Both events took place in the Wickline Methodist Church just around the block from our home.

From Scout to Explorer

Like all the other scouts, I began as a Tenderfoot, worked my way through the Second and First Class ranks, and then earned enough merit badges to become a Star Scout. I was two ranks away from the top, but my growing sense of independence and interest in girls pulled me away from scouting for a couple years, and I never made Eagle.

I did return to it as a sophomore, however, when I joined the post-graduate group of scouts known as Explorers. My fondest memories were of those three years. There was less structure and more exploring of your possible career interests in life.

A learning experience

All in all, I think Scouting helped me in the initial stages of growing up. As I mentioned to a friend  recently, earning merit badges like Home Repairs came in handy when I had to replace two windows I broke by hitting baseballs through them.

I also learned about gun safety, camping, public service, and a host of other things, including what poison ivy looks (and feels) like. In Scouting, the more merit badges you accumulate, the more you learn.  It’s sound theory, assuming you do the work yourself and don’t farm it out to your dad while you sit back and watch.

I also honed some aquatic skills that served as the springboard for getting lifeguard certification which got me several years worth of lifeguard jobs that saw me through college. Those jobs also got me a lot of summertime dates.

Learning what quirky looks like

All this said, there was this one quirky — if not totally bizarre — memory from my Scouting years that I still have trouble believing, even though I lived it many times as a teenager. Maybe I should just spit it out instead of trying to finesse it:

Both as a Boy Scout and an Explorer, we would go swimming at the YMCA in Oklahoma City, and the Y had this strange rule that our swimming had to be done in the buff.Turns out, a whole bunch of high schools around the country had the same rule.

Yup. We all swam nude.

It wasn’t mixed gender swimming, but it still felt weird. Feels even weirder as it pops into memory today.

Every time I talk about this — and believe me, I don’t do it much because it sends younger family members screaming into the night — I still find myself asking internally: “Did this really happen, or is this some crazy dream that’s haunting me?”

Having a bunch of boys and their adult leaders swimming naked takes on a more ominous cast when you think about all the recent lawsuits over perversion in the ranks of scoutmasters over the decades.

A collective memory?

Given that Retrospect is a site for Baby Boomers, I strongly suspect some of you have the same unsettling memory. Here’s one that comes from a guy in New York City who was having lunch with a friend in Manhattan when her dad began talking about his own memory of nude swimming at the Y. He writes:

“Nude-nude?” I asked. “Totally nude,” he said.

He remembers the instructor telling them something about it being more sanitary that way. “But,” he conceded, “no one really questioned it.” After a moment, he paused.

“What the hell was that all about?”

Checking some American history, I discovered that nude swimming wasn’t a Boy Scout mandate, but a YMCA practice, as well as the norm at thousands of American high schools. It followed a mandate from the American Public Health Association from 1926 until 1962. The feeling was that skinny dipping was more hygienic and sanitary than using a suit. Some Y’s kept the practice going another 10 years beyond that.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who missed out on all this and  still needs more proof that all this isn’t an early April Fools joke, check out this YouTube video called, “Nude Swimming in School.”

These memories don’t erase

As I look back on my scouting years, there were two non-erase memories amid those others that fade into a collective blur.

The first is of my very first overnight camping trip as an 11-year-old Tenderfoot and the extreme case of homesickness I suffered through that night, even though Mom, Dad, my dog Laddie, and home were only 20 minutes away.

And the second was letting it all fly from the high dive at the Y with some 30 other nude guys swimming around in the crystal clear water down below.

Think I’ll shove that one back into the locker for another decade or so.

Profile photo of Jim Willis Jim Willis
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Thanx for sharing these memories Jim – al be it disturbing ones.
    I knew a man who grew up in Brooklyn swimming at a Y pool. During certain hours it was males only and nudity was the rule.
    I thought it strange.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thanks, Dana. For the longest time, I thought this was just a local Y thing, and I was surprised to learn that a lot of other guys my age had had the same experience. I thought a lot about that later during my lifeguard years (one of which was spent at a Dallas Y in the 70s where everyone wore trunks, thank God!)

  2. Marian says:

    Despite that odd memory, Jim, scouting seems to have been good to you. I have a fuzzy recollection of some men telling me about the nude swimming at the Y, and bizarre it is. In 1971, when I started Brandeis, I believe everyone had to pass a swimming test. This wasn’t a problem for me because I was a good swimmer, although it terrorized others. I believe they separated the women and men, and we women were given standard black swimsuits (?!) that we had to wear. I have no idea why we couldn’t wear our own. Strange memory …

    • Jim Willis says:

      Marian, thanks for the comment! I think if we all tried hard enough, we could come up with some weird memories. At least those for which we haven’t erected firewalls. But you’re right, scouting was good for me at that time in my life, and we all needed some structure during those young teen years. My troops were not heavy-handed like some I’ve heard of.

  3. Suzy says:

    Thanks for the story, Jim, and I’m glad to hear that scouting was a good experience for you. I wasn’t surprised by the nude swimming, because I knew that was standard at YMCAs in their all-male swim classes (after all, the M stands for Men) in the ’50s. Comments I’ve read online about nude swimming at the Y generally talk about how great it was! So I’m sorry if you are uncomfortable with the memory of it.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    This was really interesting, Jim, both for all the positive take-aways from your scouting years, and of course, from those nude swims. I’m trying to think about the hygiene angle. Perhaps the trunks would sit in the lockers and get moldy, rather than being properly laundered (or at least left to dry out) after each use?

    I did a lot of swimming at our local JCC when my kids were very young, always in a suit and co-ed, so never experienced anything like what you describe. And like Marian but a year earlier, I had to pass a swim test at Brandeis (I don’t remember a regulation black suit; I wore my own bikini – I used to swim at their pool too, then follow up with a sauna, where a creepy professor would also often sit. He was known to have wandering hands and harass the co-eds; we all experienced it, shrugged and let it slide).

    A vivid camp memory is skinny dipping with my cabin mates in our lake to wash our hair (naturally using Prell, which lathered up well; that’s what Mary Martin used in South Pacific for the song, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair”). The feeling of ducking under the water, then swimming away to get the suds out (we didn’t understand environmental impact then), was so sensual. We had just hit puberty and there were no boys allowed. It was heavenly.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thanks for the comment, Betsy. I think we all went through things that we’re still a little confused about. It’s the hygiene angle that baffles me. As a former lifeguard, I did a lot of things to help keep my pools clean, but asking swimmers to go nude wasn’t one of them. Although a swimsuit doesn’t offer much of a barrier between the oops! of lower-body accidents and the water, it seems better than no barrier at all. I guess the public health folks finally came to that conclusion, too. That said, my wife and I have been known to skinny-dip under the cover of darkness in our backyard pool!

  5. Dave Ventre says:

    The nude swimming at YMCAs went on until 1962? I sometimes think I was born too late. Now I realize I am glad Mom waited. I think I first went swimming at our local Y in about 1966….

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    My husband still talks about having to swim in the nude at the YMCA and in high school. Like you, he does not remember it fondly. Although he did not recall having issues with his body image, he knows that boys who did really suffered. It seems pretty barbaric to me.

  7. I learned to swim–in the nude along with all the other boys and instructors–at the YMCA in Indianapolis, Indiana.
    Thanks (sort of) for the memories1
    I am a big fan of scouting and only regret that I stopped after Cub Scouts, for a variety of reasons.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Dale, I knew at the time it wasn’t the Boy Scouts’ idea, because everywhere else we swam as a troop, it was trunks only. Never could figure out what the public health agency thought nude swimming was more hygienic, though.

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