Pool Time

Airport hotel pools are the best pools ever, in my opinion. The guests at such an establishment rarely make use of the facilities since they are normally transitioning from one plane to another and spending only the one night. Consequently, the pools are almost always empty and clean and today was no exception. As we sat on one of the sea of empty sun chairs, I puffed away in my attempt to inflate the little yellow water wings that Short Stack was going to use while he amused danced around in wild expectation of splashing everything in sight. A rare treat.

At home, we don’t have a pool to play in and if we did, it certainly wouldn’t be this warm. Normally, I’m not a swimming kind of guy and to be honest, I think a good part of that is due to the chilly factor. The pools in New England, unless connected to a heating system that would coast you a mortgage payment to run each month, just don’t get that nice to be in. The very best you can hope for is about a one week window that will appear some time in late August where the water goes from “breathtakingly cold” to “pretty damn brisk.” It’s gotta be a scorcher to convince me that diving in will be fun. Then, there’s the fact that our island is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and there is no reason good enough for me to climb into that ice bound embrace. Pretty much, if you find me floating around in the ocean in Maine, please help fish me out because I obviously fell in. Short Stack however, like any other kid his age, seems to be impervious to these mind numbingly cold water temperatures. Here, in Florida, this was going to be like bath water for him. With tiny black spots dancing before by eyes, the last air bladder on his water wings was inflated and we hopped in.

I was exhausted.

He was wired.

This was really my first clue about how this trip was going to go.

For the first time since falling asleep in my own bed the night before, I was finally relaxing and that moment of calm reflection brought the scope of this trip into sharp focus and it rolled over me like a wave. Then again… it might have been the waves my son was making just a few feet away as he reveled in creating splashes that would have gotten him in serious trouble in the bath tub. I was on duty and there was no one coming to relieve me for almost a week. My body wanted to do nothing more than go limp in the water and close my eyes and I had to consciously fight the impulse. I had to watch my son… and with a memory that chose that moment to float through my head, I had good reason to snap back to that very sobering realization.

When I was young, almost as young as Short Stack is right now, I was on vacation with my family. We too were in a tropical setting and the hotel pool called to me like the sirens to Ulysses, as it does to all children. Back then, you never saw kids with floatation devices like water wings or swim suits sporting integral air bladders. Unless you were in the ocean, you swam without and if you did have one, for whatever reason, then it was a bulky orange life vest. I guess the thinking was that if you needed something to keep you afloat, then you had no business being in the water. That might come across as sound thinking but there is one major flaw in the plan.

Me.

For what ever reason, muscle to fat ratios, high bone density, possibly unknowingly desecrating a shrine to some ancient sea god… whatever…. The fact of the matter is that I can’t float. I’m a sinker.

My wife, who would love nothing more than to live each day playing in the water, thought for years that I was simply being a frump when it came to going swimming. It’s something that she enjoys more than most do and she could never quite understand my reluctance to join her in the fun. The whole sinking thing sounded preposterous and more than a little like an invented excuse.

“Everyone can float!”

“Nope. Not me.”

“You just need a big breath in your lungs.”

“Filling up my lungs just doesn’t cut it. I sink.”

“Oh, Come on. Let’s just swim! It’ll be fun!”

“You hop in. I’ll sit here and watch.”

This conversation, in various versions, happened many times over many years as we dated and it wasn’t until some time later that she finally got to see my amazing anti-superpower it in action. One day after being once again implored to simply join her in the water and have fun, I decided that it was time for a demonstration. Kicking off my flip flops, I walked up to her in the shallows of the soft, sandy beach.

“Watch this.”

And taking a full, healthy lung full of air, I walked out to sea and disappeared under the waves. Under water, I strolled in a slow motion pantomime across the sandy bottom, each footstep taking me deeper. I kept this up until my one, big breath of air supply began to give out. I crouched down on the seabed and sprang to the surface, sucked in another breath, flipped onto my back… and slowly settled to the bottom once again.

I can swim, mind you. It’s just all work. The whole “effortless” part of the equation is missing for me.

This brings me back to my childhood in the pool. It was an important moment for me and one I can remember perfectly, though it was almost a lifetime ago. It was the day I discovered that I sink and that you can’t call for help under water.

Early that tropical morning, I had successfully convinced my Father to take me down to the deserted swimming pool and let me play before the other hotel guests roused them selves and filled it up with their own games and antics. We had wandered down past the palm trees, placed our stuff on one of the empty deck chairs and I was now happily playing in the shallow end and loving every minute of it. My Dad was close by and watching me and other then the one other kid who was apparently old enough to go swimming on his own, we were the only two there. I come by my chatty nature honestly and as I paddled around, Dad was striking up a conversation with the only other poolside visitor by asking the kid where he and his family were from and what they had seen there already. I was lost in my own little world of splashing and play and paid little attention to the two of them as they sat on the edge, legs dangling in the water. I was never more than one good lunge away from Dad and he was doing his job keeping me safe. Things seemed fine. The problem is, no matter how hard any one tries, no matter how vigilant you are, no matter what you do to stay focused on the task at hand, no one can sustain that level of diligence indefinitely. And it only takes one second.

As I walked about in the shallow end, I neared the edge of my approved domain and my foot accidentally stepped over the submerged edge. The pool’s bottom fell away beneath my foot and the surface of the water sucked away any call for help. I can remember graphically the sensation of sliding down the steep incline, unable to arrest my descent and trying to stay on my feet as I slid along until I had reached the bottom where I stood as rooted as I would have been standing on the grass above. At this point in my life, I did not know well enough how to swim back out.

What I remember most keenly from this terrifying moment of my life was how un-terrifying it was. I knew I was in trouble and I knew that the situation was pretty dire, but the overwhelming thought that went though my head was, “Really? Like this? I’m going to drown?” Looking up through the deep, impassible water, I could still see the legs and feet of my Dad and the other boy as they sat on the pool edge, still chatting and I was struck with the notion that though I could easily see my Dad, I couldn’t call to him. I was stuck only a few feet away from my savior and I could do nothing but wave frantically and hope to be seen. It was a very humbling experience.

I don’t actually remember Dad pulling me out of the water, though only a second or two later, that’s just what he did. I had been noticed looking back up through ten feet of water and he had dove and pulled me out. After expelling what water had collected in my respiratory system, I was fine, though I think Dad was more heavily shaken the I was. I remember him holding me tight as we dripped on the ground and apologizing over and over. As a child, I found this to be completely strange and backwards. It was I who had stepped into the deep end. It had been my fault getting in that terrible situation in the first place, hadn’t it? I didn’t exactly understand.

Now, I’m the Dad.

Now, I understand.

Since the experience frightened my father far more than it did me, I spent a lot of time over the rest of the vacation getting swimming lessons from Dad in that very pool. When we got home, I was enrolled in swim classes at the local YMCA. I can swim well now, but I never forget that I sink.

Short Stack wasn’t about to sink at all. Though he has a good understanding of the exercise, he has no interest of finding out if he can do it on his own. The water wings clung to his upper arms, each a mini life jacket working to keep his head up and out of the water and his toes never leaving the safety the reachable bottom. If he wanted to venture out farther, it was with the demanded assistance of being able to cling, lemur like, to my side, my arm wrapped tightly around his waist, and that was fine with me.

Casting aside any more thoughts of relaxation for much later, I joined in with gusto as we splashed, hooted, laughed and played in our private little oasis. The sun loungers were empty but for our own towels and clothes and other than our own voices and the occasional jet overhead, the prevailing sound was of the palm fronds overhead as they clacked to each other in the late afternoon breeze. I glanced at a sign posted at eye level for pool goers. “No Glass Cups or Bottles Near Pool”

Glass Bottles…

Beer.

OhBeer! A beer sounds good!

Maybe later.

How Much to Get Drown and Shot? Part IV

Somehow, not only did I manage to stay in the boat, but so did everyone else as well. As it turns out, making the raft out of rubber is a very clever thing to do. As we headed over the edge, the entire boat started to bend, undulating down the falls like an enormous, drunk slug. All we needed to do was ride the slug!

Laughing, shivering and lightly sputtering, we peeked out from under the edges of our helmets and waited for what was next. As it turned out, the command was to start paddling like mad. Our uber-hip river master in the stern had us come about hard and head for the opposite bank of the river. More miniature falls awaited us as we zigzagged back and forth, purposely aiming for the spots that looked the nastiest. Charged up with an unhealthy quantity of whitewater fueled bravery, we obediently flailed away at the current until we were poised to make yet another run over the rocks.

This was getting fun! I was feeling downright competent after we easily negotiated the third or fourth pile of frothing river and thought that all the helmets and lifejackets were a bit overkill for the activity. A few moment’s later, I started to reconsider this.

“Now this is where we really hit some rapids.” The voice of Uber-Cool came to us from his seat where he had been steering our raft. “When I say to, everyone stow their paddle, fast! I’ll do the steering but you don’t what paddles out when we go through the gap!”

Gap?

Just ahead of us, massive rock formations started to squeeze the river down narrower and narrower. The water foamed and picked up speed quickly. Then, just as we heard the command, “Now! Stow paddles!” I watched from my figurehead like seat, river simply dropped from view. No sooner had we complied with the order than the raft shot through a water carved opening in a wall of stone barely wider than our boat. If we had paddles out, they would have been smacked back on both sides. And then, we were airborne.

rafting2
(Not us, but you get the idea)

Something a tad unusual about me is my relationship to water. I can swim, obviously. I wouldn’t have imperiled myself like this if I couldn’t. I mean, really? Who would? The problem I have is with the act of swimming. I’m not bad at it, but it’s not what I ever would do for fun. You see; I sink.

The moment I stop actively working at remaining on the surface, I inexplicably go right to the bottom. My wife, who is a water baby and would live in a swimming pool if we had one, doubted me for years and simply assumed that I was being a curmudgeon when we went to the beach and I inevitably begged off getting in the water myself. Finally, after years of implied curmudgeonhood, I proved my point by simply walking into the water. Just before my head disappeared, I took in a nice big breath and strode beneath the waves like Godzilla walking into the sunset, but much paler and less scaly. From the surface she watched through goggles as I simply strolled along the bottom in slow motion until my air gave out and I swam my way back to the top. Swimming is nothing but work for me and so I avoid it.

As the raft hit the froth, I just managed to shut my mouth in time before the river filled it for me. Sputtering, I came to the surface, clinging to our raft with the zeal of someone who just got religion. Better than half of my boatmates managed the same trick and after we fished the less pious ones out of the water, we paddled for shore, laughing, grinning, some hacking up a bit of fun here and there, but all alive. Uber-cool was not satisfied. Obviously, we were doing it wrong. A quick and soggy seated van ride back to our starting point and las than five minutes later, we were back on the river once more.

“This time,” Uber-cool informed us, “I’m going to hit the gap a little differently. We’ll probably loose more people this time.”

I didn’t like the way that was put. I didn’t really feel like being “lost,” even if it was planned. As he promised, he managed to hit the falls in such a way that the raft took on a life of its own. It bucked like it was alive and a good thee quarters of the paddlers went flying into the drink. Thanks to the type of work I was doing at the time, I had a pretty mean grip, and do to this, and only this, I managed to stay attached as my entire body was catapulted from the raft. Hanging on to the line that circles the boat, I remember looking down on it with my feet high above me. When we crashed back down, I literally dove back into my seat. Slightly painful, but less drown-y.

Still unsatisfied, (they must have had a betting pool going), Uber-cool set us up again for a third go and this time met with success. Getting the best view of the swirling water possible, my head was the first part of our ship of fools to hit. The raft had gone end over end and landed upside down to the cheers and hoots from those on shore.

Last, (or possibly, Second to Last) installment later…

How Much to Get Drown and Shot? Part III

As it turned out, we had a while to wait once we get the to the rafts. The big black masses sat in the grass like rubbery, inflated whale carcasses and we, playing that part of lazy and opportunistic seagulls, lazed all over them in the sun. It was just too inviting in the cool morning air not to stretch out on their black and rapidly warming cadavers. Finally, once some unknown criteria was met, (perhaps the river was deemed wet and hungry enough to be fed stupid Americans) we were told to listen up as someone I gauged to be far to young to be in command, stood up on a nearby humpback and gave us our last, “this is how not to die” talk. He was obviously knowledgeable about his topic and his painfully groomed, nature-boy look gave his words gravitas, at least among those who weren’t snickering at him. Again, I remember nothing of the talk. You can blame it on the river water that later clogged those synapses, if you like.

As different groups grabbed various rafts and headed for the water, my brain momentarily switched back to Dad control and, drawing on many years of reflexively trying to snag the front car on every rollercoaster I’d ever ridden, I impulsively took a front row position in my own raft. I rationalized this to my Mom’s side by hypothesizing that when we hit the whitewater bow first, I would not have to worry about loosing my front teeth on the helmet in front of me. I tried not to think about the rocks and their role in the fun-to-be.

The river was looking downright placid where we put in and fairly shallow as well. Looking down through the crystal clear and heartstoppingly cold water, I could clearly see softball sized rocks rolling by on the riverbed not far below me. It was shallow enough to stand up and fairly quiet, but the river was wide here. That changed ahead. That’s a lot of river to squeeze down. Things would change soon.

Behind me, The Doctor was paddling away and as I glanced around I spotted Ioseph and Mountain Man happily chatting as they dutifully drove us on down the river. It had been a long time since I had seen them together in a raft together and Mountain Man, for one, looked far more relaxed this time.

Our previous raft adventure had been years and years prior and the boats were far less rugged. And smaller. Much, much smaller. That time, My Father, Ioseph, Mountain Man and I had gotten it into our heads to go and visit a lighthouse on a nearby island. The Doctor had been absent, and as has been the case in previous adventures, when one of the “Group of Four” was missing, my Dad happily filled the spot. The island in question wasn’t more than a quarter mile off shore and was famous for being covered in the most luscious blueberries and raspberries. They grew so plentifully, that they stained the rocks as they fell from the bushes.

Armed with Ziploc bags for the berries, two inflatable rafts of the department store variety, life jackets, paddles and at least three brain cells, we cast off from shore and rowed like heck for deep water. I was in the raft with my Dad and when we were roughly half way there, my Dad happened to look back to check on the second boat. He immediately burst into poorly stifled laughter. Glancing up from my furious water pummeling, I could scarcely manage the same. The other raft was bobbing along after us but the occupants made for quite a picture. Ioseph, roughly the size and shape of a bear had just about bent the raft in half as Mountain Man, tall, thin, lanky Mountain Man perched on the bow like a worried pirate’s monkey. The look on his face said it all and as far as I can recall, it’s the only time I’ve ever seen him afraid for his life. Ohhh, for a waterproof camera!

This time, things looked downright orderly. We had a huge boat, filled with behelmeted, smiling fools, our life jackets were actually being worn and I’m guessing that the dozen or so of us had nearly ten brain cells that functioned! We were set!

The tempo of the river started to get faster and we needed to paddle less and less to make headway and more and more just to go in the desired direction. Mostly submerged rocks made the water start to froth here and there and then, I saw it. The first waterfall.

As waterfalls go, it wasn’t something terribly spectacular. You’ve no doubt driven by more menacing ones with out noticing them at all. If you brought a date out to see it, you’d never hear the end of it. It was perhaps seven feet high, but lest me tell you this: When you’re actually ON the water, that’s a mean looking seven feet. My face froze in that “I’mhavingfunohmyGOD!” grimace as the water that had previously been under my bit of raft dropped away. As the whole thing started to nose over the edge with me as the hood ornament, all I could hear was the rush of falling water and from behind me, The Doctor yell, “YAY! WE’RE DOOOOMED!”

I didn’t even register the full body smack of the freezing cold water. Adrenalin is simply amazing stuff.

-Later, Parte the IV!

How Much to Get Drown and Shot? Part II

When the morning came, it arrived like it always does when one is sleeping under a few microns of nylon and down. Too early. Unlike most first nights spent in the woods, I actually slept like a log. All the night noises that usually make me flinch awake and stare into the darkness as I run through my mental lexicon of snuffles, breaking twigs or bug noises, were beaten out by the strange exhaustion that comes when you’ve spent hours and hours driving in unfamiliar territory, hoping that you’re going the right way. The beer, I’m sure, was a helpful sleep aide as well.

All of us, shambling and bleary eyed, shuffled off in the directions of showers, sinks or coffee vending systems in our own private rituals of restarting our mental engines in preparation of today’s events: “Trying to have as much fun as we could with out drowning.” Once the other campers/would be rafters had all gotten vertical to one degree or another, we assembled in the main building for our orientation talk on water, boulders and how to keep your head above both. The mix of people here to have fun in the nearby white water was about what you’d expect. Mostly youngish, mostly male and mostly not paying very good attention to the talk, present company included. The problem was that we were in the wrong mindset for paying strict attention to a lecture. We were there to have fun! The few, obvious hangover victims spent the time hovering over steaming cups of black coffee, the young yahoos blithely chatted to the other young yahoos and the rest of us spent our time looking at the photos on the walls of rubber boats full of smiling, terrified people, seconds before going for an impending and inescapable swim.

rafting

To be totally honest, I remember NONE of the talk. I’m still here, so I’m guessing that I didn’t miss anything. After we picked up our helmets and life vests, we all clambered into the club van and headed for the river. We could hear it from our campsite, but this, as it turned out, wasn’t where we were going to be putting in.

These are always odd moments for me. My parents come from very different stock when it comes to adventure and the way they see the world, and being a mix of that, it often puts me in a position of some discomfort. If I had multiple personality disorder, I’d be one of those crazies you see on the street corner having heated arguments with my self.

Mom, is cautious.
Actually, Mom is VERY cautious. It’s not that she’s a fearful person. She’s not. It’s just that she likes to have thought out every possible angle of every situation before it’s approached. She needs a plan and if the accumulated data indicates that things will not be in her control, then she tends to avoid it. In plans, she finds comfort and things like throwing your self into a raging river with a dozen other people and a raft the size of a van that may, or may not smack you in the back of your head, just doesn’t come out sounding like a good one. This plan would obviously not be played out.

Dad on the other hand, likes to wing it. Plans are good and all and come in very useful during the workday, but when it comes to fun, he’s almost always happy to simply step out the door and see what happens. This is a man who, when he was younger, would go to the airport with a toothbrush in his pocket and get on the standby list, just to see how far his meager funds would get him. If the flight was full, he’d get on another list and see how that panned out. This kind of adventure would make my Mother bananas. Again, it’s not that it would scare her so much as the fact that she couldn’t plan for all the eventualities. Her brain would overheat as she tried to map out every possible coarse of action that could happen. Dad calls it having an adventurous spirit. His father in law refers to it as, “Ready, Fire, Aim.” Both ways of living have their benefits and the two of them actually compliment each other very well. After almost forty years of marriage, I guess I’d say that it works well for them.

You might think that since I am a product of these two philosophies of life, I would be perfectly blended of each part and able to plan well for life’s journeys, while still being able to let go in the moment and see what comes, but that’s not really how it boils down in my psyche. It ends up being more like a cage match between the Id and Subconscious, the winner gaining control my actions until the other can wrest them from the other’s grasp. How this usually plays out, is with me about to do something dangerous and fun, huge grin on my face and fists clenched when, “DING!” the Mom side finally gets the Dad side in a full Nelson and screams, “What the HELL are you doing here?! Are you seriously about to attempt this? What ARE you THINKING?!”

These are not calm moments for me and they usually make me hum nervously as I look around at where I am in a desperate effort to either distract my self until the moment passes or find a window to leap out of and escape. This was one of those moments… but the van was moving and the windows only cranked out a few inches. There was nowhere to go except in the drink. We pulled off the road and into a small clearing filed with enormous rafts, paddles, more vans and more nervous-but-trying-not-to-look-nervous would be drowning victims. The nearby river looked calm and flat as it lazily rolled by.

My Father’s voice whispered through my head, “You paid money to raft on THAT? Man, did you get ripped off!”

Mom then added, “Thank God! I hope you brought a snack and towel.”

More later…

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