Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

GRANNY’S NOTES Underwater lights put sparkle in water carnival

In 1941, the Columbia Daily Tribune stated, "The sixth annual water carnival will be presented tonight in the Christian College swimming pool under the direction of Mrs. Sue Gerard. The theme, which takes place at the bottom of the ocean, is built around a dream of a little boy who falls asleep and dreams he is in the center of a court of mermaids.

"The carnival will include a special underwater swimming number with novelty lighting effects. Designed and constructed by W.F. Gerard. The soloist will present a spectacular effect with strokes, surface diving, underwater swimming and performing various water ballet stunts."

This novelty lighting effect was a set of 16 flashlight bulbs powered by four flashlight batteries and worn by swimmers in a darkened pool room. I first learned that underwater lights could be used safely in the mid-1930s. An American Red Cross field representative from Iowa told me how it could be done. My boyfriend, Chub Gerard, an electrical engineering student at MU, assured me that four flashlight batteries could not possibly be dangerous in the water. After we married, he designed and made Christian’s first set of underwater lights.

He strapped four size D flashlight batteries together and secured them to a belt. The battery pack was to be worn on a swimmer’s back. Four small wires carried power to 16 flashlight bulbs on arms and legs. We tied those wires in place with elastic tape. Chub said tiny switches might rust or malfunction — instead, the swimmers would just twist two bare wires together to illuminate the bulbs. A student in my Water Carnival class volunteered to do the solo, and I helped her work out a routine for what we called "water ballet." She had practiced with the wires and batteries in place, but we had not practiced with lights illuminated lest we drain too much power from the batteries. On show night when the pool area began to fill with spectators, the soloist said, "I can’t do it. I’m simply afraid!" It was the thought of twisting those two wires together that cinched the thing.

I wasn’t giving up. "OK gals, tie these wires on me. I’m not afraid."

I knew the music well, and it was no problem to include the stunts that we had chosen for her routine. I just swam hither and yon, to the familiar music, but it certainly was not synchronized. It was an unusual and beautiful thing to see the lights almost disappear into deep water and then to come shooting back up as I pushed from the pool bottom. I swam everything I could think of: backstrokes, breast strokes, crawl, surface dives, rolling from back crawl to front, somersaults and rolls, much splashing at times when I was up catching breath. When the music ended, I untwisted those bare wires, climbed out at the shallow end and disappeared behind the shower stalls while the applause roared.

There was never any doubt after that about the safety of underwater lights. Chub had said, "It’s no more dangerous than carrying a metal flashlight in the rain."

We used that set of lights for several years, replacing batteries for each show. When we were planning a show later, someone asked, "Why don’t we have a duet with the underwater lights?" Great idea!

Maurice Wightman, Christian College’s wonderfully creative man who could do everything, made four new sets of lights, improving on the originals, and by 1972, when I retired, Maurice had made lights enough for our routines to have eight swimmers. For about 20 water shows, Chub’s "invention" was the highlight of the performances.


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