Fear in the water
Our old black Buick careened down the steep gravel wash toward the water’s edge of my family’s favorite swimming place. Burden Lake is a small lake in the back reaches of Rensselaer County in the Hudson Valley of New York State. It seems like very few people know or seek out this spot at the lake, an almost totally isolated hidden gem of beauty and serenity, ideal for, among other things, skinny-dipping. Because my mother was with us this time, we were required to put on swimsuits even though she, being our birth mother, knew exactly what we looked like!
Today was an altogether different story though, a day none of us would likely ever forget. We were going full speed down that wash when my father, next to me, suddenly yelled out loud, “WHAT THE HELL? NO BRAKES!” We were no more than 80 feet from the water’s edge. We all panicked instantly. At the last moment, he grabbed the emergency hand brake and yanked it back hard. It hit me squarely on the shin bone. I let out a guttural scream, wrenching in pain, as crimson rivulets of blood trickled downward on my left leg.
“It hurts, it hurts,” I cried ever louder, choking and coughing at the same time, probably louder than any other seven-year-old kid could ever scream. It took the best effort my mother could muster to bring me under control. Then she started to cry uncontrollably. My older brothers and a sister in the back seat were also paralyzed with fear. The car’s wheels locked and we came to a sliding stop, half sideways, as the front tires made parallel deep ruts on the sandy edge of the beach. The left front wheel was resting in the water!
In our family, only my father could swim at the time, and it was what is commonly known as the basic “dog paddle.” The other five of us all probably felt then that our lives were about to end – except, of course, my father. He quickly regained his composure, even started to laugh at the whole situation. We kids didn’t think it was funny at all. We were momentarily frozen in fear.
Ten years later that I went back to that same spot on that same lake with two high school friends. My buddy John, the high school jock, 240 pounds of brawn and a top athlete, was intent on showing me the easiest way to become a great swimmer. He brought along a couple of fishing rods and some bait.
Knowing of my fear of water, John said, “Bob, you gotta get over that, it’s not a big deal learning to swim. Bein’ a baby about that, at your age, will have everybody laughing at you. EVERYBODY knows how to swim and today you will know, too!” He went on, “My father never took ‘NO’ as an answer for anything. When it was time for us to learn how to swim, he took us out into deep water with his fishing boat and just tossed us out into the water. And, By God, we learned how to swim!” I should have known what to expect, but I naively let it all slide by.
We lazily rowed outward toward an island in the boat he had rented. We chatted for several minutes about girls, school and college and told jokes. Before I had even a moment to think, and with no warning whatsoever, John and Roman tossed me overboard. Gurgling, spitting and panicking, all at the same time, I started to paddle, probably subconsciously, toward the shore. It seemed like I was thrashing about forever, intent to just make it and not drown! It was the most horrible feeling – stark fear, inhaling water, coughing and then probably drowning. But, as I was approaching the distant shore, something very strange seeped into my psyche. A feeling of warmth, ever so slight, came over me, confidence, and then – even relaxation. That feeling grew by the moment. I knew right then that I was going to make it to shore and be a survivor. Some moments later, my toes touched the bottom and I confidently walked ashore.
Then came the anger – anger that my friends who I trusted tossed me into the water without so much as a “see ya later!” When they came ashore, they smiled but I was furious for what they had done to me. I managed to get over the anger in a few short minutes, and managed a smile.
On the way home, we had some good laughs; our friendship had survived and I bubbled over with a new confidence that I hadn’t felt in years. We stopped at Jake’s Pub, had a couple beers, laughed some more, and I, probably subconsciously, realized that friendship embraces some of the trials and errors of life.
Those two friends are gone now, but that precious memory survives and I am still rather grateful for the experience of that day many, many years ago.