It’s not often that I felt I had to rely upon my own body for support. I keep danger away as far as possible. A habit that directly resulted in stunting growth while keeping me from life’s joys.
As a kid, I looked with wincing envy at my peers as they tackled players or jumped ditches with boyhood bravado. They often received awards and praise for their accomplishments or were put in casts for their failures, scrawled with graffiti get-wells, the talismans of boyhood.
Not ever should you want a broken arm, no, but for all the attention a cast offered? Come on, that’s different. I never suffered a bone break. Up until this writing, forty years later, I never pointed to a moment where, like an adolescent Robert Shaw, I could say, "Here is where I pressed my luck. Here is the scar that told me I was crossing a line or taking a risk. Look, I am a boy!"
My father’s an athlete. He ran hurdles for Vestal High in the early fifties. I know this because his record still stands, and whenever I entered the squeaking gym, I’d see his name hanging resplendent in green and gold from the rafters, along with all the other hall-of-fame kids that had made their mark. He later became the school’s athletic director and boss of all the gym teachers from my kindergarten on up.
Coaches watched as I graduated through the grades. Toss me the ball and see me cringe. Track season was the worst, coming in dead-last and collapsing on the ground under the coaches’ stopwatch and disapproving glare. Hey man, coach me, don’t judge me, but no.
Every sport has an agony of defeat, and being the game’s hero wasn’t worth it to me. I lie, of course. I always cry watching the Olympics, and here I am writing about the subject some thirty-odd years later?
I knew my father listened to stories about ‘Chuck’s kid’ with the grim determination of non-interference. Either thinking I’d grow out of it, or grow into it, or grow someway. Hey man, coach, you’re an athletic director, so direct me! But he was looking out for me in a different way, making sure he didn’t inject me into his sports fantasy. Instead, through Doctor Spock’s hands-off loving support, he instilled the kind of self-esteem that I can write about even today.
As I never asked him for help, the fault is mine because I’m a bit afraid of him. I love my Dad. He’s awesome, but as a kid, I confused awesome with awestruck and put him up there with John Thorpe, Jesse Owens, and Christopher Reeves.
I thought of him as I backstroked across a flooded quarry imagining all the little pushes that he never sent my way and wondering exactly how important that was to my being weak and fat and unable to swim the length of this dark water.
I was 14. The summer was humid. All of Vestal’s summers are, and their oppressive weight had kids seeking any break from the mugginess they could find in the years before central air was standard.
I’d gotten a call from one of my friends, Paul, that he and a few others, whom I didn’t know, were all going someplace I’d never heard of before to swim. My gut dropped, and I rushed off the phone to get to the bathroom. Meeting new people was not my thing, nor is stripping and flashing my bulbous stomach an effective first impression. My act works better in dark rooms discussing or preferably watching movies. However, Paul was my best friend. Let’s be honest, my only friend. So if he were going, I would follow. Maybe I could get out of having to swim. Make up a last-minute excuse and exit gracefully? I’ve done it before with not-so-bad results. Again, I lie.
We’d ridden our bikes down the Vestal Parkway to a place called Castle Gardens. The greatest generation built a small development along the floodplain of the Susquehanna River. The lots are empty now, their homes washed away by the floods of 2006 and 11, but in the summer of ‘83, the neighborhood one-story ranch houses were in full swing.
Turning off the road, Paul and I followed a gravel drive that dead-ended in a big chain-link fence with the sign, “No admittance, danger, deep water.” that caused me to flinch like a baseball in a strike zone. Waiting at the fence were the two new friends I was auditioning for, so I put on a front, bravely pulled my bike to a sensible stop, and attempted humor.
“A quarry? Isn’t this where kids drowned in after-school specials?”
No one laughed while we exchanged names without handshakes.
Bill was tall and quiet. Like a pitcher adjusting his hat, he’d unconsciously push his glasses further up the bridge of his nose before speaking. Darby was small. An inadequacy he hid from the height of a loud, quick mouth. I knew they didn’t like me; I also knew they didn’t like themselves, as most teens don’t, so I was comfortable with it all.
We pushed our bikes through a hole in the fence, opened years earlier by a couple named Mike plus Jane forever 1975, and approached the cut lake. You wouldn’t know it was a quarry on first look. No chiseled walls or gravel pits to mark the excavation. It was just a dark glass pond reflecting the shrubs and oaks that encircled it. Only the fact that the water came to a pool lip instead of a gradual slope marked it was man-made.
A rope tied to an overhanging tree was direct across from us, one of those commercial soda cliches activities meant to be fun. All I thought of was how ridiculous I was going to look swinging on it and how dangerous the whole thing was.
Scoping out the narrow trail, Paul and Darb thought it would be easier to walk around the water’s edge to the opposite shore and then swim back to pick up the bikes later. “It’s not that far?” In other words, it is far, but not that far. I had only been with these guys for like, five minutes, and I already had a lot of ground to catch up on, so I also agreed that yeah, it wasn’t so far. Lier.
They shucked shirts exposing sun-bathed backs fearless to play skins. I kept mine on, advertising my weight as efficiently as revealing my tire.
It took a while to get around the quarry, but the others were too busy bragging about girls and laughing at Darby’s jokes to notice. I was quiet; the sun was too bright, they didn’t talk about movies.
We made it to the rope, and Darby jumped in to retrieve its end. The others were also leaping into the granite-colored water, their yelps of chill skipping on its polished surface.
Darby padded up to a jumping stone, leaving an inkblot water impression as he launched into the air, hanging for a moment and disappearing into the depths below.
The rope coiled back to the rock, and I reached for it. I held it tight, and just as I began to swing, a fight-or-flight response overcame me.
But my body didn’t. Inertia pushed me off balance, and the reality of my weight caused my grip to loosen and burn on the rope. Instead of swashbuckling into the water, I fell straight down, almost cracking my head on the quarry’s lip. I stayed under a moment, dreading the sound of laughter that would be directed at me by my friends, but when I came up, everyone was just like, “What? Huh?”
I don’t know what was worse, the fact they didn’t see me fall, or that they didn’t care enough to notice.
It went on like this for a few hours. Me trying to have fun without being noticed while also noticing that no one noticed I wasn’t having any fun. I became glummer and glummer with each successful avoidance. Vicious.
It was getting late. I was remembered we had made a pack for swimming across the lake to retrieve our bikes. Again I heard, “Hey, it’s not that far,” spoken by someone as I trod water and looked at our bikes in the late afternoon sun, so close. I followed the path along the water’s edge and remembered how long the distance had seemed to walk. By the time we reach the bikes, we would have dried off, and the yolk of summer’s humidity would again be upon us. If we swam, we could climb out of the water, get on the bikes, and feel the chill of the wind on the ride home. It’s not that far compared to walking.
I became a convert.
We started the swim backstroking, each keeping pace with one another, enjoying ourselves. It was fun; I remember it being fun until I realized that perhaps it wasn’t as fun as, compared to, say, living? After a time, the others had moved far ahead, calling to me and joking about my weight, my inadequacies, and generally attempting that “male bonding thing” at the wrong time as I struggled to stay afloat.
A little nagging voice tugged my attention, saying, “This is dangerous.” Then came the, "Why am I doing this?” followed shortly by, "If I turn back now, it’s just as far as if I keep going."
Paul was the first to sense I was in trouble, and he tread water urging me on with things like, “Just a little farther,” and, “You’ll make it,” and, “It’s all in your head.” Things like that. Then Darby swam back to me to join Paul. Although he had made it to the other shore, he came back to inspire me. Now I appreciate it but at that moment? This boy could swim like a fish while I could barely keep afloat, my arms heavy with envy. I could tell that Bill made it to shore because he called out to me, giving me near-sighted guesstimations as to how many yards I had left to swim.
Paul kicked on ahead. He couldn’t keep my pace without tiring. Darby kept with me the longest, but even he swam away, disappearing out of the corner of my eye. The calls from shore echoed over the quarry coming to me in a muffled manner as my ears dipped below the water.
The waterline is a sound horizon. The tenor in the air is washed away, leaving only the deep base notes of your body to fill the empty space in your ear. A steady slowing beat of my breath, heartbeat, and bone cracks as my shoulders grind windmills through the water. Along with the blank platinum-blue sky above, I became disconnected from living while experiencing life on a deeper level.
In and out, up and down, breath. How long had I been swimming? How far did I have to go? Distance blurred.
I feared turning my head or stopping my swim to see how far I had to go. Breaking stroke would stall my arms like a Chevette at a stop sign. My engine ticking slowly in the heat as my body sunk to the bottom.
This new vision of just letting go, relaxing, and allowing the water to win brought morbid thoughts of how deep the water sits. Fifty feet, perhaps a hundred in some places, and what’s at the bottom? Leftover drills, cement mixers, great Tonka dump truck derelicts sunk like galleons, forgotten and left to flood by a bankrupt contracting company? Anything could be down there, or worse, nothing, just one hundred feet of black, cold water ending at a flat deck of shale bedrock. Standing water, flat rock.
Visions of flies in sodas and beetles in pools struggling against drowning’s unforgiving gravity sank behind my eyes as the voice in my head whispered-
“I’m going to die.”
I’d like to write that just as I realized my possible fate, my hand touched the other shore and safety, but I can’t. Life’s not clean. I still had to swim with “I’m going to die,” another ten minutes. Arms burning, back aching, legs deadwood with exhaustion, and my eyes blinded shut with tears. This is the time when my dad came to mind and when my life flashed before my eyes filled mostly with failed dodgeball games and a low friend count.
The fact I did survive is obvious considering, but there’s still something out there. Something sinking into that black abyss. Something that never wore a cast.