Sink or Swim
“We are our own dragons as well as our own heroes, and
we have to rescue ourselves from ourselves.”
Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker
Dragons. I’ve had a few. The one in 1961 had a flattop and floated on barrels.
Known simply as The Raft, I’d study the giant, rusty drums that buoyed the deck from which rowdy cannonballers blasted the choppy surf. From the shoreline thirty yards away, I marveled at their wild merriment, their slip-and-slide antics. But something felt terribly wrong whenever the ancient tubes rocked in the waves. I saw eyes, evil and unblinking. Somehow, I knew that lurking below the grim, sinister brine was a coiled underbelly of spiked scales with bat-like wings wider than The Green Monster at Fenway Park. And it could only take so much. The summer delight everyone called The Raft was something much, much deeper…
Of course, I never told anyone about my musings. Some things you keep to yourself, especially when nobody else shares your angst. Everyone loved The Raft, an ever-changing spectacle of somersaults, back flips, and belly flops. It was gleeful mayhem, a circus on salt. But the mere site of it knocked the wind out of me. Thrashing butterflies inside turned my words to whispers. I’d nonchalantly lie when one of my friends asked, “Doesn’t that look like fun? I can’t wait for swimming lessons so we can swim out to it.” I could only nod my head in bogus agreement and swallow nervously.
Swift’s Beach, twenty miles south of Boston in the town of East Braintree, was not one of the top-tiered beaches in the state of Massachusetts. It was small-time compared to the elite beaches of Cape Cod known for soft, white sand and stunning, nautical views. Neighbor to Fore River Shipyard, Swift’s was veritably blue-collar with hard sand and electrical towers. We went there with a lunch pail, go-to-beach, learn-how-to-swim mentality. We came home dog-paddle proficient and front-crawl capable. Well, most of us did.
I never did get that certificate of achievement.
It wasn’t so much my fear of water that held me back but the fear of what I could not see inside it that contributed to my undoing. Jelly fish and sea crabs made me a little jumpy. A Portuguese man ‘o war was nothing to mess with – same thing with a horseshoe crab. One good ankle stab and I could kiss my Little League career goodbye forever. Even things I could see, like seaweed, were troubling. Secretly, I believed the slimy strings of algae to be loose dragon peelings.
The inimical Miss Tallandmeanie, too, was a thwarting factor. The towering life guard and swim instructor made me uneasy. She detested getting wet and, once, when Anthony splashed her by mistake during kicking drills, she pinched his earlobe redder than a cherry Popsicle. I remember Billy laughing after the ill-omened incident and how she slowly circled him like a shark, her jaw clenched, her piercing eyes zapping his dippy grin.
Miss T distanced herself as much as possible from us in order to stay dry and to be within eyeshot of her boyfriend – senior lifeguard, Varsity Jacket. VJ wore his blue, high school lettered-jacket every day, even during summer. I remember how he thought it amusing to occasionally spiral a football into our practice ring area. He had pinpoint accuracy and once caught Norman in the throat causing him to speak in curious falsetto for a week.
Miss T got wet once during the summer, on the first day of swimming lessons when she hastily demonstrated the dog-paddle, front crawl, and floating techniques. After each feeble exhibition, VJ would howl hysterically into his megaphone, his rude lunacy drowning out our questions. Oblivious to the class, she would bow to him, acknowledging his foolery, and eventually say to us, “Simple, right? Anyone can do it.”
For each class, we paired off to try the moves Miss T had haphazardly shown us the first day. She monitored us from ashore pantomiming various strokes that looked more like imitations of a hind-standing stallion or a salmon-snatching grizzly. It was incredibly freakish.
My partner was Bones, a prankster, and well known for various forms of marine delinquency. He once popped the eyeballs out of a hornpout and stuck them in Ralphie’s bathing suit during dead-man’s float training. Another time, he uprooted a buoy and rode that Brahma bull through class with half of us chasing him like rodeo clowns. Bones taught us how to squirt people in the face by cupping and squeezing our hands together, an aquatic misdeed that never resonated well with Miss T. Everyone wanted to party with Bones, the maritime amusement ride.
By the third week, Bones and I were sinking. We surreptitiously “walked” our swims thinking that we were fooling Miss T who blew her whistle whenever she spotted our counterfeit actions. My brother, too, once detected the artifice while we were walking the dog-paddle and later told me we looked like clodhopping kangaroos.
The lifeguard’s beachfront theatrics were not working for us. Some students, however, were making some sense of her grainy matinees. They were developing hybrid skills and learning how to swim, albeit eccentrically.
For example, Tooter pecked at the water like a pigeon, his head bobbing up and down, and his outstretched arms flapping like wings. Harry slowly lifted one arm to a peak with his fingers pointed to the sky, then closed them tightly into a fist before violently stabbing the tide. His maniacal facial expressions could terrify a sting ray.
Despite their quirks, they could swim. Bones and I could not.
Such was our dilemma on the last day of class, the day of our final test which required us to jump off The Raft and swim to a rowboat twenty yards away in waters well above our head. As the lifeguards oared out to it with the first boatload of kids, I scrutinized the timeworn drums from the shore searching for signs of the cunning beast whose presence I strongly sensed. I saw nothing but steady, stern waves licking the slippery ladder that led to the exam deck.
I was in the last group that ventured to The Raft, my very first boat ride. I had great difficulty sharing in the mirth of my colleagues knowing full-well my swim skill shortcomings. Despite our predicament, Bones did not appear worried. In fact, I was astonished to see him slyly scatter a handful of fiddler crabs inside VJ’s megaphone. It would be my only smile amid the ordeal.
Once atop The Raft, Miss T lined us up in a single file facing VJ in the dingy. Bones and I brought up the rear of the twelve-pack where I stared at the sloppy foam through the slits in the boards below me. I had a two-pronged prayer that day: Miraculously make it to the boat, and to do it before the creature stirred.
My only shot was to mimic one of my peer’s swimming patterns and hope for the best. And so I watched.
First to jump was Howie whose fingers took on the form of a garden-claw tool. He scraped and gouged the waters, punishing the breakers that dared to prevent his passage. If he had only placed his fingers closer together, I thought, he may have avoided rescue operations half-way through his quest. Rotating my arms and cupping my fingers, I practiced his maneuver as Junior dove in for his trial. Smaller than the rest of us, Junior opted for the dog-paddle looking more like a wheel-spinning hamster but made the trek easily. In the third slot was Scottie, whose jouncing enterprise made it appear as though he were traveling with a trampoline. Bones said, “He looks like a waterlogged pogo stick.” I had to agree.
By the time I stepped to the edge of The Raft, I had decided to go with Eva’s interpretation of an upside-down windmill. Moving her arms in graceful gyration, the milky-skinned Eva washed out just shy of the boat. In her ivory-colored bathing suit and cap, she drifted aimlessly like a bar of soap until VJ scooped her up. I was hoping to replicate everything in her routine but the bail-out.
I looked down into the menacing whirlpool as a rogue wave jolted the raft. Trembling, I stepped back, my chattering teeth and throbbing heart in perfect sync.
“Let’s go!” It was Miss T, her tone fierce and impatient.
Again, I crept forward, looking out toward the distant boat trying to remember Eva’s rhythmic water dance. Suddenly, there were hands on my shoulders – a push. I was airborne.
It was complete bewilderment. It was daylight, descent, and darkness in one second. When I hit the water, I remember an explosion of bubbles, an endless string of them as I flailed about trying to get my bearings. Worse than gulping the bitter salt were the feelings of helplessness and disorientation. I knew I had to go upward and remembered Howie’s claw and my cupped version of the move. I began climbing.
When I finally surfaced, I breathed in a mix of air and water, spotted the tip of an oar, and sunk once again. I felt heavy with fatigue.
As I spiraled down, I saw The Raft’s bottom. Stuck to the tubular shapes were flattened, shell-like beehives with eyelids, mostly closed. Right below a few of the open ones, though, was a long strand that dangled all the way to the ocean’s bottom. When it began to move, I remembered the dragon. Its tail? There was a brief shot of adrenaline until I realized it was merely a chain anchoring The Raft in place. Lethargy set in and I felt myself drifting.
They told me the episode lasted not more than three minutes, but it seemed like days to me. As I closed my eyes in the boat during the ride back to shore, I kept seeing hands – many hands reaching for me. One stood out from the rest. It had a blue sleeve.
Miss T’s stinging voice disrupted my thoughts. “You should be thanking this hero,” she said, pointing to VJ who was paddling and profusely sweating in his coat-for-all-seasons.
After my meekly-whispered thank you, she leaned in close to me and said, “You needed that push – that’s how I learned. Sink or swim.”
She then glared at Bones. “And don’t think you’re getting off because you wouldn’t jump,” she said. “The next time, I will personally throw you in, you big baby.”
As we got closer to shore, Miss T said something to VJ about the group of kids playing in the sand where we would be docking. He handed her the megaphone. Miss T stood up in the boat and, scowling at the sandcastle-makers, shouted, “Clear the shore now. I repeat, clear…”
And then there were fiddler crabs.
I never took another swimming lesson. I tried to forget Miss T and that day on The Raft, yet like white caps, Miss T’s sink-or-swim talk would periodically crash my thoughts, her push hypothesis drowning me in doubt.
All I knew is that I wanted to swim. Bit-by-bit, I taught myself how to float and how to swim three yards at a time without walking. I began immersing my face in the water to see what was inside it. I re-lived my anxious moments underwater by The Raft convincing myself of the dragonless sea, that the only things out there were starfish and barnacles on the drums.
A day in late August, two years after the push, I stood alone in light rain on the shore of Swift’s Beach. Aside from a dog chasing seagulls, all was quiet. I calmly stepped into the tide to get a better view of The Raft. A piece of seaweed, all that was left of the dragon, brushed my leg, and I felt a push. This time, the feeling came from within.
Rich H. Kenney, Jr., is an assistant professor of social work at Chadron State College in Chadron, NE. A graduate from the University of Texas with a Master’s degree in Social Work, he received a Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Recent publications include nonfiction prose in Faculty Focus, Social Work Today, and The New Social Worker.