When I was six, my mother decided I had to learn how to swim. She didn't do it hoping I'd win an Olympic gold medal or star in Tarzan movies - she was much more practical than that. She did it so I wouldn't drown.
And what better way for me to learn than through expert instruction at the beach?
The beach was on Lake Flower, on the site of our current goose preserve. Because it was centrally located, it was a gathering place for the town's kids and the scene of many delightful childhood memories, I'm sure. But not for me. My memories of that beach are something out of Stephen King, all due to those swimming lessons.
I don't know who sponsored and staffed the lessons, other than some group chockfull of good intentions. But when it comes to good intentions, let me remind you of the old cliche that the road to hell is paved with them. And for the purposes of this tale, it appears they're the buoys on the river to hell as well.
The instructors were high school girls, handpicked for this assignment. Of course they had Red Cross lifesaving certification, but they had other things as well, namely unlimited patience, buoyant optimism, and a constitutional inability to recognize human pain and suffering. And thus the wellspring of my dilemma.
The problem wasn't the girls - it was the combination of the girls and the weather. I know nothing about global warming; however, I do know the summers of my youth were much colder than today's. Daytime temperatures in the 90s were unheard of; temps in the low 80s were rare and the 70s were the norm. And it was often much colder than that.
A cold day
The morning my mother took me for my first lesson was bitter, gray and windy. I knew in my little bones this was not the time to have anything to do with water, other than to boil it and make cocoa. But I also knew it was fruitless to point this out to my mother. She'd made her mind up I was going to swimming lessons, and when my mother made up her mind, she was less a parent than a force of nature.
And so I sat in the back of the car on the way to the beach, feeling instead that I was in a tumbrel, being driven to the gallows.
When we got to the beach we met up with the other little victims, who were standing around, shivering and looking as freaked-out as I felt. The instructors came over and the parents went back to their cars, where I'm sure they started the engines and turned the heaters up to "High."
There were two instructors - both bouncy blondes with bright blue eyes, big dimpled smiles and names like Muffy and Fluffy. After the intros, they chatted on merrily about how much fun we were going to have, all the while ignoring the obvious fact we were all going into the second stage of hypothermia.
Finally, either Muffy or Fluffy asked, "You all know 'Ring around the Rosie,' don't you?"
We all said yes.
"Ok, great," she said, rubbing her hands together. "Then we've got a great little game for you."
The "game" consisted of us holding hands, forming a circle and then wading into the water up to our knees. Next, she explained, we'd chant the song, go around in a circle and as soon as we'd sung," all fall down," we'd sit in the water.
My feet had already gone numb and when I looked into the water, it looked glacial green and downright lethal. Then either M or F started up the Ring Around the Rosie shtick, we started going in a circle and before I knew it we'd hit the "all fall down" bit and I, along with my fellow sufferers, dropped.
The shock was immediate and total. As my tush hit the sand, my breath left in one huge whoosh. And here's something else: I was always the smallest kid in every group, so while the water had barely reached the others' waists, it was up to my nipples, which I noticed had just turned as blue as Lord Krishna's.
Me and the Big G
I was the age when I'd just been introduced to the concepts of God and prayer, but I didn't really know what either meant. I only knew God was an old guy who could do anything and prayers were favors you asked Him when you really needed help.
Even with that little knowledge, I knew if anyone needed a favor from someone who could do anything, it was me. The only problem was I didn't know how to pray. So I did something I now do all the time - I faked it.
I muttered, "Help, God."
For reasons of circumspection, I'm sure I whispered it. But I probably could've screamed it at the top of my lungs and no one would've heard me because it would've been drowned out by the "Kacketa-kacketa-kacketa" of my fellow P.O.W's teeth chattering like 100 pairs of castanets played by 50 meth-mad flamenco dancers.
But it didn't matter if anyone on the beach heard me, because Someone else obviously did: As soon as the words escaped my benumbed lips, the sky was split by a huge lightning bolt, followed by a blast of thunder that shook the whole lake.
Before we had time to react, another lightning bolt flashed and another round of thunder exploded.
Three kids shrieked,"Mommy!"; two girls burst into tears, while the rest just sat there, shuddering uncontrollably. But not me. I was awash in a calm that would've made the Dalai Lama turn green with envy.
One of the instructors stood on the shore, dumbstruck, incapacitated, her hand over her mouth, her baby blues glazed over with a thousand-yard stare. Luckily, the other one sprang into action.
"Quick, everybody!" she shouted, "Out of the water and into the bath house!"
It was a command she didn't have to repeat, as we all tore off to safety.
I was far in the lead, setting a world record in the 20-yard dash that still stands.
But it's a shame I was in the lead. Because I had my back to everyone, they couldn't see the huge grin on my face, put there from my rescue by God Almighty Himself - personally.