Swim Test

Just yesterday, there we were at the Duke Faculty Club.  Rosie and John are both in the water.  Their joy is unmitigated, undaunted, un-PYC. Rosie, this week, has learned to put her head underneath the water and burble along for a few feet.  When she surfaces, she is ecstatic.  John just swam two lengths of the Olympic pool.  A swim test – an eternal rite of passage.  For John, it’s no problem.

If only it had been that easy for me.

–  –  –

Tad held the Evinrude steady as it propelled our Boston Whaler way past the buoys and into the sound.  The motor cut through the still black water. It was already hot at 9 am.

Tad put a Camel out on the sole of his top-sider and squinted into the morning sun.  Ed, who was facing me, rolled his eyes in my direction and chuckled.

“Ohh dude,” said Tad, “I can barely stand up.”

“A friend indeed,” said Ed.

I could tell that I was going to hate Tad and his friend Ed.  It was not just that they were older, or that their parents belonged to the Pequot Yacht Club and I was just taking morning sailing lessons like some kind of tourist, or that they both had sun-bleached Boast shirts and hair that curled around their Croakies like Roy Scheider. I mean, sure, those were all good reasons to not like Tad and Ed, but I was just getting to know them.  I could tell that there were going to be more.

Still, I wanted to be sort of opaque about that, because I was also completely terrified. Tad and Ed were in charge of my swimming test. They were 17, I was 11.  Again, it was back when an 8 year old could ride in the back seat of a station wagon without a car seat, or when a President could walk two miles, and still be “pro-American.’

As soon as they stopped this boat, I was going to be the one treading water and they were going to be the ones laughing on deck.

Ed took out a bullhorn. “Hey putzes,” he said, “drop out.”

That was his order for us to flip off the side of the boat and drop into the depths of the Sound. I burrowed my arms deeper into my armpits.  When I looked up, I saw that Weems, Buttner, and Vietor were all in the water.

I could not tell Tad why I was frightened. I could only imagine the famous movie poster – the swimmer breast-stroking on the surface of the waves,while a 30-foot great white shark races up from the deep.

Tad, who had been leaning against the other gunnel, looked down at his watch.  “Stop wasting our time, kid,” he said.

“Go tread some water.”

Tad folded his arms and leaned against the gunnel.  I guess he was supposed to be watching me, but right now, all I could see was his neck craning to finish a Coors.

I jumped into the water. What had merely been mysterious and wavy, was now black and freezing. I could see about three inches down.  So I wouldn’t even be able to see the shark, I figured, until it had eaten at least one of my legs.  And then, I wouldn’t be able to tread water.  So what was the point of this test?

Above all else, I wanted to be somewhere else. I did not want to be heading out to the deep water.  Fine, I will learn to sail.  You could not just fall into the water at the Pequot Yacht Club. You had to pass a swim test first.

About ten minutes later, Tad dropped a ladder over the side of the boat.

“Get back in here,” he said.

He slipped his Ray-Bans onto his forehead.  He took a long look at me.  I imagined that he was going to smile and extend a warm towel, or at least a look of newfound respect.  I had, indeed, survived the potential shark attack.

“I bet you are a day student,” he said.

Now, it’s easy for kids.  No Tad and Ed.


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