This piece was written in summer 2013, during my 365-day writing journey, A Year In Words. I'm reposting today in honor of my 10-year anniversary since beginning the project. Enjoy.
It was peaceful, quiet and warm. I can imagine this is what it was like in utero. The water rushed over me, and I felt a sense of serenity. Euphoria. Then, panic. Suddenly, everything was bright and loud. My breathing came in short, labored gasps. I took in all the air I could before going back down into the quiet, wet underworld.
This cycle went on for what seemed like an hour. It was probably 30 seconds, but one thing I knew for sure, drowning was no way to earn your Cub Scout swimming patch.
A few months prior, when my mom approached me about signing up for Cub Scouts, I was all in. “What the heck?” I said. “Let’s give this thing a whirl. The Cub Scouts could use a man like me.”
And so, as with so many other things in my life, I signed up without any concept of what Cub Scouts do or any real interest in the organization at all. But we got a blue shirt, a yellow scarf
and several iron-on patches (some earned but others simply for paying the initiation fee). That sounded good to me.
Now if I have this right, the Cub Scout pecking order goes like this: Bobcat, Wolf, Bear, Webelo. I think since I left the fold in the mid-1970s, they may have added Tiger Cub as a “training-wheel” rank that comes before Bobcat, but that wasn’t part of the gig back then. But let me tell you, I was ready to meet this thing head-on and start that climb to the summit of the Cub Scout hierarchy. To get there, I knew I’d have to take anything this group could dish out. They weren’t going to break my spirit, no way, no how.
The first three levels got patches, but the highest level, Webelo, got a special plaid scarf; similar, I imagined, to what the Irish or Scottish version of the Cub Scouts would wear. Very
Of course, one of the levels (I think it was Wolf, but don’t hold me to that) required some swimming aptitude, something that neither myself nor my best friend/cousin Mike had.
And don’t be fooled, we knew we couldn’t swim. It had been documented (by failed swim lessons) and witnessed (by both family and friends) on numerous occasions in our brief time
on this Earth.
Yet there we were, on a Sunday evening excursion to a YMCA pool in the next town over. (That’s how people from small towns talked back then, they said things like “next town over.”)
At the time, our town didn’t have an indoor pool, and swimming in the river in January was probably too much for even the battle-tested troops of the Fightin’ 43rd Cub Scout pack.
At the outset, both Mike and I were apprehensive to say the least, but we managed to keep our spirits up as we rode to the pool with our comrades, all proficient—or at least passable— swimmers. Mike and I figured we’d do a little splashing around in the shallow end, earn our patch (or pin or certificate or whatever) and emerge unscathed.
Well, what’s the popular saying, “The best laid plans of mice and men . . . ” blah, blah, blah? Well, for one such Cub, let’s just say I—quite literally—got in a little bit over my head that night.
We (the men of the 43rd and our chaperones) had been in the pool for about an hour, just swimming around, having fun, throwing a miniature football and jumping off the diving boards. For a while, it was all good. I could swim enough to get myself back to the edge from 10 or 15 feet away, so early on, when in deep water, I remained cautious, aware of my location (as any good Cub Scout would), always staying in proximity to the edge. Best friend/cousin Mike also knew his limits but had a different strategy. Being a weaker swimmer than I (go figure), he remained in the 3-foot area.
A wise choice.
As my time in the water increased, so did my confidence, and I guess I let my guard down. Suddenly, I found myself in the middle of the pool, in five feet of water, well over my head at the time, and for me, the equivalent of being washed out to sea. At that moment, no one on shore suspected anything. From their vantage point, it just looked like a bunch of happy Scouts swimming and playing. And I can imagine my body English looked like any other able-bodied kid playing and screwing around.
But let me tell you this: I was not screwing around. I was, by my estimation, in the early stages of drowning (not to be melodramatic, but as the saying goes, “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, but doesn’t swim like a duck . . . ”)
Realizing I was in distress, I used the following survival tactic: I’d hit the bottom and push off as hard as I could to get my head above the water so I could yell something (i.e., HELP!) simultaneously waving my arms before going under again. The first few times, no one seemed to notice.
The next few times, several people waved, as if to acknowledge my clever “water stunts”:
Onlooker 1: “Look at him! He’s having so much fun. Did you know he’s Rose and Don’s boy?”
Onlooker 2: “Oooh! That was a good one! I really like what he did with his arms that time!”
Onlooker 1: “What’s he saying?”
Onlooker 2: “Oh, I think something like, ‘I love swimming! I’ve never had so much fun!’ ”
Onlooker 1: “Oh, that time I think I saw him say, ‘I love Cub Scouts!’ Let’s wave to him again!”
On and on it went, like a perpetual dunk tank. Meanwhile, my wise and always cautious best friend/cousin Mike was still splashing around in the 3-foot area, without a care in the world;
a puppy that had found a puddle.
In reality, he was probably doing the math on exactly what time we needed to leave so he could get home to catch part of his favorite Sunday night radio show, Dr. Demento. Anyway, after another round of underwater “blastoffs,” I finally saw "him" in the distance. My vision was blurred by the chlorine, my energy sapped, my breathing shallow.
But even in this weakened state, he was no mirage. He was the real deal. His name was Dave, the older brother of a fellow Den member. If I remember correctly (and that’s a stretch), Dave had been sent along to help the Fightin’ 43rd that evening. And that night, he earned his stripes, and that’s no exaggeration.
When he saw me, he dove in, cutting the water like a torpedo, and scooped me up with the ease of Superman plucking a damsel from the tracks just before the train came rumbling through.
Back on deck, now safe and sound and wrapped in a towel, I sat up to see Dave, our Den Mother (a great woman in her own right), and half of the Fightin’ 43rd standing above me (not sure where the other half was at that moment). And then, I saw best friend/cousin Mike, and his expression and reaction spoke volumes about the gravity of the situation.
He was laughing.
Now, in such situations, you might think this to be a strange reaction, especially coming from a friend or family member (and he happened to be both). But I didn’t. In fact, I would have
expected nothing less from him that night, nor would I today. Further, I would have been disappointed to see any other reaction from him. And after one final coughing jag to clear my lungs of pool water, I laughed too.
You see, that’s been our mutual reaction any time one of us gets in a bind, takes a hit to the head, a baseball to the “jewels” or experiences any kind of embarrassment. We laugh. Others don’t always understand or appreciate it. But that’s just what we do.
But understand this, at that moment, and in so many situations in our lives, Mike wasn’t laughing at me to make fun of me. Well, maybe a little bit because let’s face it, if you were watching this circus from a distance, it probably looked ridiculous. But really, when we laugh about stuff like this, it means things are OK.
It’s our signal to the other that says, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not a big deal.” It was also our private indicator that when something happened to me, it might just as well be him and vice versa. Because we were—and are—that close.
That night, I was grateful “older brother Dave” was with us. Was I really in danger? Probably not as much as I thought. But I was damn scared, Dave saw that, and helped me out of a tight spot. But that night, I also started to appreciate what it was like to have a best friend like Mike there after it was all over. And that shared laughter was, and continues to be, the trademark of our friendship, one that speaks a language—and has meaning—that only he and I can understand.
But if you want me to translate his laughter that night, it was this: “All right, idiot, you’ve had your fun. Now, get up and come back to the 3-foot with me where you belong. By the way,
I’m glad you’re OK.”