It was a dark November evening, and I was waiting in the overwhelmingly huge lobby of the Deseret Gym. My dad was on his way to pick me up after swim practice. It was my dad who taught me to swim when I was four and asked me if I wanted to race when I was seven. I did. I loved the water. The quiet. The bubbles. The sense of flying. It turned out that I wasn’t just a swimmer, I was a good swimmer, a fast swimmer, or at least it seemed I was. My parents even briefly discussed moving to California so I could have a coach who could take me to the Olympics. That didn’t happen. It turns out I wasn’t that fast in the world beyond Utah, and I didn’t have the kind of dedication to hard work it would have taken to swim really fast. But for a while, I was the swimming queen, at least in my family and in Salt Lake City.
Being the swimming queen did take some work. While my sisters played around after school, I went to the Deseret Gym to practice. As I remember I was the only girl on this training regime and the only swimmer still in grade school. The Deseret Gym was sort of creepy, but in a way it was also a cool old place – big windows with lots of small panes, sandy-colored bricks, big concrete stairs, and heavy doors. It might have felt like a prison if that had been my inclination, if I hadn’t been going there to swim. It was dark, and the lights with the very long cords hanging from the outrageously high ceiling didn’t put out a lot of lumen power. The locker rooms in the basement were damp and dismal. The floors probably never dried out. The best parts of the Deseret Gym were clearly the swimming pool and the snack bar. If there was one thing I liked better than swimming, it was probably eating.
This November day wasn’t just any day, it was my older sister’s birthday. Birthdays are usually associated with cake and ice cream. And my sister’s always included cake and ice cream. But for me November 27th was usually a night of hunger. You see, I didn’t particularly care for cake and ice cream. But even more, I didn’t care for my sister’s choice of birthday dinner – liver and onions. It’s hard to believe she chose this, but I couldn’t make this up. Knowing my sister’s eating habits makes it even harder to believe her chosen menu. She couldn’t even bring herself to eat exotic Italian food in the form of Schilling’s spaghetti sauce, preferring to have her spaghetti bathed in plain tomato juice and sugar. Where she ever got the taste for liver, was beyond me. But it was her day, and she got what she wanted, as we all did on our birthdays.
So there I was. With my cold wet hair, clutching my rolled up towel and swimming suit salivating like Pavlov’s dog over the sizzling hotdogs rolling on the slowly rotating metal rods at the snack bar in the gym’s lobby. Those hotdogs had a hold on me. Their crunchy, toasted, black skins begging my teeth to release their delightfully greasy insides. I was starving. It seems as a kid, I was always starving. Maybe it was related to the swimming. We now know, from scientific studies, that people who swim to lose weight often gain weight. There is something about swimming that makes people eat. But this night, the hotdogs would have called out to me, regardless. Liver was waiting at home.
As a rule, it was, “Look, smell, but don’t taste,” things like the rolling cylinders of grease. I knew that. But this night, I begged. “Please, daddy, may I have a hotdog?” His first reaction was the expected, “No.” A man of few words anyway, one word was a sufficient answer. But then I reminded him of the dinner waiting at home, and I probably used those pleading eyes. Whatever I did, it worked. My dad bought me that hotdog. Maybe it was partly because he didn’t like liver either. Or maybe he just sensed my hunger, knew what it was like to be skinny and hungry. He never turned down a morsel, and often made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches after dinner.
A hotdog might not seem like something worth remembering. But to a salivating wet kid on a cold November night, it meant everything. I can still taste the soft nutrient-devoid bun and the hot, fatty dog – no ketchup, that’s a vegetable. And I am still grateful that my dad broke the rules that night.
What I can’t remember is whether my mom made me eat at least a little liver. That was the rule, but I was pretty stubborn. Still am, I suppose. I also don’t remember the candles or the cake or the ice cream. They were all there. They had to be. It was my sister’s birthday. But I will never forget that hotdog.
I don’t eat hotdogs anymore. Not that they have completely lost their hold on me. They haven’t. But now the price doesn’t seem worth the cost to the pig or the planet. And how could another hotdog ever be as good as that one on a cold November night?