In the summer of 1995 there was a hurricane or maybe just a big northeaster that bitched its way up the coast screaming for the week before I went back to boarding school to begin my senior year. Swimming was out of the question. Packing was infinitely easier without the ocean distracting me, because I am in love with the ocean. Maybe I'm a masochist but I love to bodysurf on huge waves, skipping along the glassy trough until the foam all comes apart. I like it when the ocean teaches me a lesson in respect, because she doesn't care whether or not I grew up here. It keeps me honest.
The day I was to leave for school I got up early. The rain had stopped at about nine o'clock the night before and so I hoped the lifeguards would be on duty instead of standing, arms crossed, at the entrance to the beach, like bouncers. No tourists, no locals. Waves are too big. I can't save you in this mess.
Mom and Dad and I brought chairs and books down early. A little bit of sun, some good reading, and hopefully some bodysurfing. The tourists had rented in late August and had been cooped up all week. They were everywhere. The guards had "DANGEROUS SURF" flags on their chairs, dark red, white letters. The waves -- the waves. They were huge. Three layers of surf: a two-foot surge of foam at waist deep; five foot mischief makers, coming in from all directions at about chest deep, swirling around the riptides; and seven-footers, about a hundred yards out, rolling in beautifully, crashing all at once. Beyond those waves there was a sandbar, like it was custom-built for swimmers seeking a good ride in. Further out the surges and riptides were unpredictable, but the crests looked five feet tall. Getting out into it required fighting your way through the criss-crossers and the foam, then staying in front of the lifeguard long enough to get a rider back to shore. Stand ashore a moment, soak up some sun, catch your breath... and go back in. With a good enough wave, an inexperienced swimmer will sprint back in and find himself exhausted just as he gets in over his head. Then he's at the mercy of the riptides, and the lifeguards have to save him.
Dad knows his limits. He grew up here, and after five or six waves he took a long break. I stayed in: I was in great shape from running all summer, and this was the last I'd see of my ocean for a year. Imagine my surprise when I saw her head bobbing past in the water. Blonde, tiny. If you've seen Aliens imagine Newt. I saw her struggling and jokingly said "Hey, little darling. You're awfully far out for a day like this." She popped up again, saw me, and yelped quietly, one word, before sinking under again: "help."
I took three strokes over to her and caught an arm. I pulled her onto my back and began treading water while I thought of an answer. "What's your name, honey?" Gloria. "How old are you?" I'm ten now. "Oh, are you in fifth grade?" I go back to school next week. "Me too. My mother teaches fifth grade. Do you like math?" Sometimes. "Alright, Gloria, my name is J.R. and I'm going to take you back to shore before we get ourselves caught in... ah... a riptide. Ah. Hrm."
Maybe you can see us already. What on earth makes a little fifth-grader come out to where the water is eight feet deep before anyone can even notice she's gone? A ten-foot wide jet of water, turbulent and green, hiding under the foam, is what. A riptide. And I had just swum over into it. The ten second conversation we had, where I calmed her down and kept her from drowning both of us, had caused us to be sucked another fifty yards offshore. We were two pink specks bobbing up and down in five-foot hills of water, and then we were three. My dad was a lifeguard when he was a kid. He saw me swim into the riptide, and from the shore, was able to see the filthy pale green through the surf. Maybe he saw Gloria, too. I've never asked him, but I'm almost certain he knew the whole situation before he arrived. When he asked me what was going on, I answered him calmly... and until I wrote this just now, I don't think I even realized that he was doing the same thing I did with Gloria: talk, calm, focus, rest up. Plan. Then swim.
We spent forever handing the girl back and forth, treading water, trying to get a lifeguard's attention. In the course of those ten minutes, my legs began to ache and I worried for dad, and for Gloria. Dad and I might very well have argued for hours about who should hold the girl, each demanding that the other swim solo to get out of the riptide first. We moved, ungainly and burdened, getting tired, but: parallel to the shore. (Those are the four words to remember ten years from now when the water turns green and plucks you off your feet: parallel to the shore.) The first lifeguard arrived just as we got clear of the riptide. He made the decision for us: the girl went with him. The next lifeguard took my dad because he was older, out of shape, and less likely to make it on his own. So I swam for shore alone, assured that as soon as one of them got to shore they'd come back for me.
I swam for a long time.
When I made it to shore, my dad and Gloria were surrounded by a semicircle of tourists asking questions. I made landfall north of them, on my belly, like we first came from water. I don't think anyone noticed me -- I wasn't accompanied by a lifeguard, so to the crowd, I wasn't part of the drama. I stood up, soaked, chest heaving, eyes blurry. I remember hearing a strange whistling noise when I breathed, like a sea gull or a plastic seagull squeeze toy. The sand was thick, and tough to walk in. I made it to my beach chair and Mom asked if I was okay. I don't remember what I answered, but she says that I fell asleep after asking if I could take a nap. It's possible that I pass out instead, I guess. When I regained consciousness, Dad told me a few things I missed. Gloria's parents had been engrossed in conversation, and missed the whole thing, so they had come up a half hour later to thank Dad; I was still asleep. The guards had such a hard time getting through the surf that by the time they got my dad and Gloria to shore, I had caught up with them, and was mingled in with the other tourists who were swimming. The guards looked for me, but they didn't know where I was, so it was a good thing that I had gone for shore on my own. And of course, they credited my dad and I each with half of a "pull": that's when a lifeguard saves someone. I swallowed some water, and when I coughed, I knew my throat would be sore for a few days. The smells, the colors, and the sensation of muscles so empty they hummed when the blood flowed through them -- I'm not going to forget that. If I close my eyes it's like I'm still there.
That afternoon I drove up to Middletown, Delaware, dropped my trunk and bags off in my room, put on running shorts, and went on a five mile run with the cross country team. A few of them remarked that I looked a little winded and I shrugged it off -- probably blamed the drive. That night I snuck out of my room and went down to the edge of Noxontown Pond and watched the moon's reflection. The next morning I woke up and my body ached. A few weeks later, Mr. Rue introduced my creative writing class to this poem. It has been my favorite ever since.
In a stable of boats
I lie still,
from all sleeping
The leap of a fish
from its shadow
makes the whole lake instantly tremble
With my foot on the water, I feel
Take on the utmost of its power.
I rise and go out through the boat
I set my broad sole
on the skin of the sky
, on the moonlight
stepping outward from earth onto water
of the miracle
of children believed
that I could perform as I dived
for one who had sunk from my sight.
I saw his cropped haircut go under.
I leapt, and my steep body flashed
, in the sun.
Dark drew all the light from my eyes.
Like a man who explores his death
by the pull of his slow-moving shoulders,
head down in the cold,
Wide-eyed, contained, and alone
among the weeds,
and my fingertips turned into stone
from clutching immovable blackness
Time after time I leapt upward
exploding in breath, and fell back
from the change in the children's faces
at my defeat
Beneath them I swam to the boathouse
with only my life in my arms
to wait for the lake to shine back
at the risen moon with such power
that my steps on the light of the ripples
might be sustained.
Beneath me is nothing but brightness
like the ghost
of a snowfield in summer
as I move toward the center of the lake,
which is also the center of the moon,
I am thinking of how I may be
the savior of one
who has already died in my care.
The dark trees fade from around me.
The moon's dust hovers together.
I call softly out, and the child's
voice answers through blinding water.
he rises, dilating
the surface of stone with his forehead.
He is one I do not remember
having ever seen in his life.
The ground I stand on is trembling
upon his smile.
I wash the black mud
from my hands.
On a light given off by the grave
I kneel in the quick of the moon
at the heart of a distant forest
and hold in my arms a child
James Dickey (1923 - 1996)
Written, 1962. I challenge anyone to read this aloud and not feel the suffocation as the boy drowns. I challenge you not to feel guilty when the moon comes up and you breathe so so easily in those short lines. I challenge you to hear a single sound in the moonlight besides the rippling water. It's no accident.