I am approaching this piece with some uncertainty. I fear that my title is over-sensational and sensationalism is something that I do not strive to attain when it comes to these articles. Also, the content of this article (though it was an adventure!) is quite varied from my usual discover-Maine style.
But read on, dear reader, and perhaps you will find it worth your time. I think it might be.
Lifeguarding is a sort of bread-and-butter job for me. Until, of course, the day comes when I break through as a writer, buy the house next to Stephen King’s, and write full-time. Our story opens upon an evening that felt like any other, just a normal day of lifeguarding at the indoor pool here in Maine where I work. But then I spotted a young man struggling to swim in the 6ft section.
I kicked off my flip flops in anticipation of being needed, and watched as he struggled doggedly towards deeper water. I readjusted the strap of the lifeguard tube that hung across my chest, making sure that the line would not be in the way, should I have to use it as flotation if things went badly.
When you lifeguard for any amount of time, you learn to look for patterns that could mean that a swimmer is not strong, and this young man was displaying some of these patterns. But I have been wrong before, and after lifeguarding for almost four years, I have only ever pulled one kid out of the water before and it was long ago, and at a pond. I am rarely called upon to use my lifeguard certification for actual lifesaving.
Sure, we retrain often and we know that we might have to go in at any second, but a good lifeguard’s job lies mostly in prevention, and the people that frequent indoor pools often know how to swim.
There’s less glory than they tell you in the movies.
I continued to watch as he pulled his friend underwater in an effort to stay afloat (I hesitated for a moment – was he messing around, I wondered?). His friend swam away, oblivious. And then, this young man slipped underwater.
I jumped in, and surprised myself by how quickly I was right above him, (this is why we retrain, I thought to myself) then, using my weight to counterbalance his, I pulled him up and onto my rescue tube.
He had only been under for a few moments, so he didn’t cough much. Then he looked at me with surprise in his wide eyes and exclaimed,
“I can’t swim!”
I almost laughed right then and there. But instead, realizing that such behavior might be inappropriate under the circumstances, I simply asked him if he was alright, and whether he needed help getting to the shallow end or if he could get out at the wall where I had brought him to.
He said he could get out and so he did. I went to the front and commenced upon the half hour of paperwork due every time a lifeguard has to jump in (another thing they don’t tell you in the movies), then I changed out of my sopping wet clothes, and went home.
No thanks. No glory. That was all. But I don’t do it for the thanks, so it doesn’t really matter, right?
Right. Besides, he was only acting the way I knew he would – his box demanded it, after all.
You see, we humans enjoy putting people into boxes. Tie the bow nice and tidy, and we won’t have to have our world-view questioned. We’ll never feel uncomfortable! Pride is so familiar and warm, like a wood fire in a Maine winter.
And this young man was part of a group that comes to my pool every week. I have them all in a comfortable box. They are from a college nearby and they tend to be oblivious to the fact that I just mopped that floor, or that I don’t really want to watch them make out during the half hour weekly that I must guard them. Put quite simply, their conduct can be (at times) disorderly at best. That was all there was to them.
Or so I thought.
Until he came back with his group tonight. He had been banished to the shallow end, perhaps been taken down a peg or two, poor guy, but he did come back and that I can certainly respect.
I saw him and made eye contact as I was about to go on deck and relieve the guard that was stationed out there. I saw him just in time to hold the door so that he could go through before me.
I gave him a small smile, wondering if he remembered me. He looked straight back into my eyes and said, “Thank you.” He held my gaze just long enough for me to wonder whether he was thanking me for the fact that I was holding the door for him, or for what I did for him the week before.
I suppose I’ll never really know for sure, but I choose to believe the latter. My silly box isn’t that important, after all.
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Photo by Autumn Mott