18 July 2011
During the summer I am 18, a buddy invites me to go tubing with him at Cove Lake after work. Considering that the adventure involves a fast boat and hanging out with the guys, I accept Dusty's invitation without hesitation. I am first to leap overboard, and I am anxious to set the bar high for the other tubers. However, the instant my feet hit the murky water, before the lake consumes my body, I panic. In my mind, it is two years earlier in this very lake, and I am drowning.
It was a hot and humid day, and 4-H kids swarmed Cove Lake. Paddle boats churned, volleyball teams battled, swimmers splashed, and hot dogs disappeared by the pound. "Push our barge to the deep end!" some younger kids yelled to me and my girlfriend, Anna. Five kids had acquired an enormous inner tube they could sit on while someone pushed them through the water. I had already taken Anna for a strenuous, yet romantic paddleboat excursion and managed to hide my exhaustion. I was not an accomplished swimmer, but I would not neglect my next opportunity to impress.
We began propelling the barge energetically toward deeper water. "This is hard work," I thought, as we drew closer to the rope and buoys marking the outer boundary of the swimming area. The crew above barked conflicting navigational commands to us slaves struggling below. We finally reached the ropes and stopped for a breath as other teenagers relieved us of our burden.
After recuperating on the ropes barely long enough for our heart rates to return to a semi-normal speed, Anna suggested, "Let's swim back to the shallow. It's not too far." My gut told me it was too far, but Anna was a swim team champion. The day had gone so well this far; I did not want to ruin it now.
After a few strokes, I realized what I had committed to. Anna steadily pulled ahead, but for me, it seemed like the shore was not getting any closer. My strong freestyle stroke was reduced to a pitiful doggy paddle. Lead filled my arms and legs, and oxygen was elusive. "Help!" I screamed with my last drop of energy. I inhaled water as my head went under. The twenty feet that separated us could have been one hundred. I was helpless. My head bobbed again, and I blurted a second call for help. I was drowning. The water was taking over, and I wanted air. I was oblivious to Anna shoving me toward the shallow water. By the time my struggles had attracted the attention of adults on the shore, Anna's repeated screams of "You can touch here! Push off from the bottom!" had finally reached my brain where survival was my only concern.
Allowing my head to be submerged in liquid burial to find solid footing was the most difficult thing I have ever done. But once it was accomplished, the sandy bottom felt sturdy as concrete. Sanity returned with each breath as I pushed off again and again. I was weak and still trembling in terror when I crawled onto dry land, but I was alive. As I lay limp on the grass, I vowed to never enter the water again.
Now, two years later, the vow is forgotten until my feet touch the water. Gasping, I bob like a cork in my lifejacket. "What's wrong with you?" Dusty yells. "You're white as a sheet."
"Just give me a minute," I call and then recount a short version of my story.
Dusty inquires, "Are you sure you want to do this?" I am calm now after floating in the water for a moment and verbalizing my fear. I know I cannot avoid water for a lifetime.
"I'm ready. Just take it easy."