“I can see the water tower”
“I can see the water tower”
That was the chant coming from the back seat of the white Rambler Station Wagon as our family headed up the steep hill towards the beach on the hazy days of summer. The blue water tower was the highest point of the neighborhood, and once in sight we knew we were only minutes from a refreshing plunge in our summer oasis, Centennial Beach.
Sitting on the front porch in our bathing suits, pail and shovel at the ready, my sisters and I anxiously awaited my dad’s return from work. With his arrival, an excited bunch of barefooted little blonde girls, wrapped in white terry cloth beach robes, piled into the back seat for a much anticipated trip to the beach.
Pollywog to Jr. Life Guard, the summers of my youth were spent swimming, diving, digging, building, running, rowing, sailing and napping along the lake shore of Centennial Beach.
As pollywogs we lined up on our bellies at the shore and learned to flutter kick and blow bubbles. Achievements that, once mastered, opened the gateway to the Red Cross swim curriculum. Each summer ended with a test. Each summer began with a new level of swim instruction. At 12 years old, I had advanced to Life guard training with my sister.
The rigors of that summer were nothing I had ever experienced. The fun days at the beach gave way to miles of swimming to build strength and endurance. The luxury of laying in the sun reading Nancy Drew Mysteries was traded for studying First Aid, C.P.R. and water rescue manuals.
Unlike the fun lessons of prior years, these lessons were physical and frightening. Instructors would pull us underwater and we’d have to free ourselves and get them into holds. We had to carry them, in the fireman’s hold, the full length of the beach. We had to swim fully clothed. We had to float on our backs for extraordinary lengths of time. We’d have to tread water until the whistle blew.
It was a summer of rigor, endurance, strength and fear. By the end of the course there were only three of us left standing, prepared to take the test.
The final test was four parts. The written test. The C.P.R and First Aide test. The endurance swim and water rescue test. Passing each test category meant advancement to the next, more rigorous section. All three of us made it through to the final water rescue test.
The first part of the water rescue portion, tested strength and endurance for self preservation. It involved swimming clothed, treading water and floating. The last two tests were rescue of others.
The tester dropped a Clorox bottle full of sand out past the docks. Retrieving the bottle from the bottom of the lake and bringing it to the instructor in the boat was the only passing criteria.
I watched intently as my bottle was dropped. My eyes fixed on the fading ripples I swam towards my target. My first search dive brought me face to face with huge fish I didn’t know were there and left my heart pounding. After a gasp for air at the surface my second dive went into the dark and murkey depth of the lake. My movement stirred up sediment and set the seaweed into motion. I panicked and dashed back to the surface. With a big breathe drawn I once again, dove deep; this time spotting my bottle.
When I reached for the handle the weight of the bottle took me by surprise. I turned to push off the bottom. Instead of the expected boost to the surface, my feet sank into the muddy floor of the lake. Fueled by another surge of panic, I kicked my feet free and struggled towards the surface. My kicks were getting weaker. The bottle felt heavier with every stroke. When I broke the surface and gasped for air I was spent. I almost welcomed the swim back to shore. It gave me some time to regroup and collect myself.
Having retrieved the Clorox bottle, I was cleared to continue to the final portion of the water rescue test; rescuing a panicking victim.
A life guard swam out to the opposite end of the beach front. My task was to bring him into shore, carry him a certain distance onto the beach, rest him on the sand and prepare him for rescue breathing.
My approach swim was labored. I could feel the fatigue in my arms and my eyes stung from sediment kicked up earlier at the bottom of the lake. I did everything right. I approached my victim. I did my quick reverse to keep myself a safe distance from the victim’s reach. I announced my intention. I swam behind him to secure my hold. I used leverage from my forearm to force him flat to the surface. As I reached across his chest to get my hold, he flipped and grabbed my throat. I tucked and ducked, broke free and fought him back in my hold. He did it again. I secured him again. On it went, all the way into shore. Every hold I tried, he broke. Somehow I managed to get him to waist deep water. I got him into my fireman’s carry and brought him out of the water. The soft sand of the beach made every step with this man on my back a struggle. At the marker where I was supposed to put him down and prepare him for rescue breathing, I dropped him and that was that.
I stepped over him and kept on walking. I reached the parking lot filled with raw emotion. My heart was pounding, My chest was heaving. It was everything I could do to take a breath. Every inhale burned and rattled the water in my lungs. Though I felt the pure fatigue in every muscle straight through to my bones, I could not stop walking. I circled the edge of the parking lot over and over until gradually, my heart beat tempered and I felt calm return to my body.
Though I was pretty sure I had not passed, walking back towards the beach it didn’t seem to matter anymore. It seemed somehow that experience, on that day, changed me. I felt like a different person. In the twelve years of my life, I had never done anything that hard. I was 84 pounds dripping wet and managed to get a life guard three times my size, kicking and screaming, to shore.
Lifeguard certification notwithstanding, getting to the end of that test was one of the biggest accomplishments of my younger days and I could feel it. That was my first awareness of what success feels like inside my gut. It was my first real insight into what I was capable of. It was my first conscious feeling of “Wow! I can’t believe I just did that!”
Since that day, each truly successful moment in my life has conjured up that same feeling I had walking back to the beach. That hard to describe shift that changes the way I walk around in the world and deepens my understanding of who I am.
I am finding that the re-discovery of my hope has a similar effect on me. Though the feeling it conjures up in my spirit is different, how it moves me in the world is very similar. A hopeful perspective changes what I am capable of. It changes how I present myself and how far I dare to reach. It changes how I reflect on failure and how often and where I seek opportunity. With hope by my side, I hear my inner bell. That intuitive piece of me that was awakened the day I didn’t become a life guard and gave me my own definition and measure of success.
- here’s to hope