Dear Matthew Alice:
Recently my mom took my son to the Plunge for swimming lessons, and he came home telling me there were "Nazi signs" in the pool. Sure enough, I took him the following week, and every third or fourth decorative tile along the edge is a swastika. What's up with that?
-- Cindy, Pacific Beach
Before Hitler got hold of it, the swastika was as lucky as a rabbit's foot. An ancient symbol of good stuff. Mission Beach is not home to the Thursday Evening Society of Dogpaddling Nazis, and it wasn't in the 1920s when those tiles were installed. It's just another thing ruined for interior decorators and the rest of us by the usual accumulation of latter-day boneheads. The symbol -- sometimes the left-turning version, sometimes the right -- has appeared in drawings of the footprint of Buddha (in India, China, and Japan), Mesopotamian coins, old Navajo baskets and blankets, and on doorways and ledger books in Hindu and Jain societies. Hindus considered the clockwise cross a sun sign, the counterclockwise a symbol for night, magic, and the short-tempered goddess Kali. To Scandinavians, it was the hammer of Thor. Attention Jeopardy! wiseguys: Another name for the swastika is the "gammarian cross" (a cross made of four Greek gammas), a Byzantine grave symbol. Many of these meanings still pertain in non-Western countries, where the swastika hasn't taken as bad a hit as it has in Europe and the Americas. Ironically, the word is from a Sanskrit root and means something like "bringing good things" or "conducive to well-being."
The swastika started its downhill slide in Germany in 1910, when it was suggested by an eager anti-Semite as the perfect symbol for groups of like-minded friends. The National Socialists Party adopted it formally in 1920, and it went on the German flag in 1935. When John Spreckels's Mission Beach Amusement Center opened in 1925, the Plunge featured the "swastika" tiles, which had been hand-made for the project in Mexico, where the symbol appears on ancient Mayan temples. Maybe the best we can do now is consider a dip in the Plunge to be an activity "conducive to well-being."