Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Letter to Our Yellow Sun Concerning My Place

Dear People in Tall Buildings or Travelling on a Locomotive,

When I was a boy, I'd say probably 7 or 8, one of the things I loved most was going to a local water park that was called Water Town USA.  As far as water parks go it was small, but when compared to a grass filled wading pool in the back yard with a hose in it, Water Town was a veritable Atlantis.  It had slides and an obstacle course and a giant wave pool that was like a second home.  I loved swimming under the waves and turning around and looking up at all the people floating on the undulating water above me as I drifted in serene calmness below.

I could drift like that, suspended in water, because when my mother found out she was pregnant she got it in her head that she never wanted a child of hers to die by drowning.  My swimming lessons started at 18 months and continued every year until I found myself drifting around in that wave pool.  I couldn't go to classes at the YMCA anymore because the only thing beyond the level I was at was life guard training and you had to be 18 to go into that.  So, I was released into Water Town with our season passes, with just enough training to feel like I had mastery over the very water itself.

No, not like Aquaman.  Someone better, like Namor.  You don't know him.  Don't worry about it, he's cool.

I spent as much time as I possibly could underwater.  When I dove I pushed the air out of my lungs to keep water from going up my nose and to keep from having to fight the extra buoyancy of a deep breath.  The water was like a cold womb.  I sat on the bottom of pools and leaned against the sides wishing I could just drift off to sleep, and when I felt that human need for oxygen I just stood and pushed myself into the heavens, soaring towards the waterline like Superman, sometimes breaking the water so fast I would come out to my waist and fall backwards into the water like a dolphin on display.  Even now, as I think about it, it fills me with a pure calming joy.

The reason I'm prattling on about how comfortable I was in the water is to give context to the last great summer at Water Town USA and how, even though I don't feel responsible for it, I know I could have prevented it.

One day when I, as I said, was about 7 or 8 (I'm awful with the particulars of my own life), I had had enough of the wave pool and decided to go fire out of the "Cannonball" a few times.  The Cannonball was a short, steep water slide with a little lip at the end.  It was all acceleration and could hurl you parallel to the Earth until wind resistance overcame you and you plunged into the deep pool.  The deep pool was deep in contrast to the shallow pool that, naturally, was shallow and had no slides.

I didn't go in the deep pool much because it was dangerous to dive in, again, because of the high speed slides.  This area, for me, was for adrenaline boosting and not so much for the gentle embrace of Mother Ocean.  It certainly wasn't for milling around in like some of the half drunk, over sun exposed adults thought it was.  So, order of operations for the Cannonball slide was simple and to the point: climb latter, wait for "go" from lifegaurd, blast through that sumbitch like cold Schnapps through a virgin, hit the water at four million miles an hour, and beeline for the latter to get out and repeat.

About the only thing that is repeatedly noticeable when doing this process is the color of the sky and the color of the water.  Blue and blue.  You fly out and catch some rotation and it's just bright blue, dark blue, bright blue, darSPLASH.  Every time.  Blue.

So, on this day, on that series of Cannonball runs, something caught my eye.  Not extremely out of place, but a definite discrepancy.  I would come out of the slide, start to rotate, see light blue, see dark blue, see light blue, and then see greSPLASH.

I would come up for air and look down and yeah.  Green.  What's green doing here?

And not like an algae green.  There wasn't a sanitation problem.  I mean, the water practically gave you chemical burns.  By the kids eyes you'd think they'd been up all night preparing for court.  No this was another kind of green.  It showed up deep under the water.  It was bright, Nickelodeon slime green.

I didn't dwell on it a lot.  Like I said, we children had to keep the Cannonball mechanism going.  No time for hanging out on the latter and staring down at your feet.  You're on slide time, buddy, let's go.  So I shuffled on.  Again, and again, and again, each time noticing that green.  Each time trying another snap guess at what it was.  Did someone put that down there for the lifeguards to have a reference point?  Did someone drop a piece of the water vacuum?  Was it some replacement tile they had hanging around?

The water was in constant turbulence and the only thing I could ever get was the color.

Eventually the other part of the park, a shack filled with arcade machines on a sopping wet carpet, drew my attention and I decided to dry off a little with some Off-Road and a little Robocop pinball.  I got a drink, went to the bathroom, got some ice cream, and decided it was time to drift in the abyss once more.  To get to the wave pool you had to go past the deep pool with the fast slides and the near heat stroke adults.

As I rounded a corner I noticed that I wasn't getting to the wave pool any time soon as a giant crowd had formed on the path to get there.  It wasn't extremely unusual.  The park did things like this sometimes.  The X-Men cartoon was pretty popular back then so they'd have some poor guy dressed as Wolverine come by or maybe throw out t-shirts or something like that.  But these people weren't cheering.  These people weren't holding their damp arms out and jumping.  These people were completely still, and completely silent.

The only sound was the awful wailing of that woman as she held that dead boy in her arms, and rocked him back and forth in his bright neon green swim trunks.

I don't know who the boy was or where he was from.  I think I heard later that he was part of a church group on a field trip.  I'm not sure if that woman was his mother or his caretaker or what.  Maybe she was just some lady.

Some people murmured about paramedics and lifeguards.  I honestly don't know for sure if he was completely dead, but I do know that the kid was black, but he had also turned a shade of blue.  They wondered how long he had been down there.  I didn't say anything, but I had a pretty good idea of a possible time frame as I realized we had been swimming over that kid's body for at least half an hour.

Later that night when I was home something hit that's not right, I'm not going to say it like that.  A hit is sudden and decisive.  This was very, very subtle.  I wasn't horrified, really.  I didn't feel guilty.  I was sad but only as sad as you can be for a total stranger.  I just remember thinking, damn man, what was that kid, twelve feet down?  You've gone twelve feet on your own.  There was even a ladder to kick off of.  He was half your size.  It would have been easy.

You could have pulled that kid straight off the ground and flown up to the top like Superman and he might be alive now.

Again, I didn't feel guilty that I hadn't done it.  We didn't know.  Nobody knew.  I mean the lifeguards didn't grab him for Christ's sake.  It was just the dawning realization that I COULD have saved someone.  That there wasn't anything special about that act.  I had the tools.  If I had known, if it had dawned on me, I would have just gotten him.  It was almost--empowering-- to realize that the ONLY obstacle that had been in the was was KNOWING that someone was in trouble.

After that incident the water park was never the same.  They turned down the pressure on the slides.  They had stricter rules about what you could do and when and how old and how tall.  They slowed down the wave pool, and then turned it off altogether.  I knew it wasn't my fault that the park seemed to be permanently at half mast, but I also knew that there's a good chance that had I just been a little bit more aware, looked just a little closer, I could have prevented it.

Let's take a giant leap forward through time and settle on a drive home one afternoon.  I was piloting my Mother's big blue Ford conversion van.  This thing was like the C-130 of cars, but man was it comfortable.  I was coming back from picking up my sister from school.  I was in college and since my mom taught classes late, I was in charge of grabbing my sis and ferrying her home before I went back for my evening shift as a lab tech at the college.

The route I chose to take home was not one that was approved of by my mother.  She preferred a lone highway that had no lights or traffic.  I preferred the more direct way home that was lined with little shops.  This would later be a contentious point between us because of what happened next.

I was driving along, going the speed limit (which was rare) when I saw a long, white sedan fly out of a beauty parlor parking lot.  Right. At me.  I jerked the wheel to the left.  I was in the far right lane and all my fields of view were clear so I went for it.  I got into the left lane, she kept coming, I got into the turn lane, she kept coming.  I considered pushing into oncoming and boom.  Captain Nemo sank another one of Her Majesty's Ships.

I got a jolt to the right and my view was filled with beads of glass as our lower case "L" turned into a capital "C". The impact of the broadside was so great that the side of the van actually caught her car like a baseball glove, but we were still going forward so it then just tore the front of her car right off.  The hood and front tires spun off into the side of the road and she was left with her car ending at the windshield like a Laurel and Hardy sketch.

The van stuttered to a halt and I put everything into park and brake and off.  It hadn't occurred to me that this was pointless as the van wasn't ever going to go anywhere on it's own again.  I know, because I asked later, that I checked on my sister.  She liked sitting in the very back bench, and I was in the front seat, so the car slammed into us the only place a person WASN'T.  Dumb luck.  But I asked later and she told me that I had made sure she was ok.  I had to ask because I didn't remember.

What I do remember is sprinting back across the road towards half a car.  I saw red all over the road and smoke filling the interior.  A man that had seen it happen got there at the same time.  We wrenched the door open and pulled the terrified teenage girl out of the car, carried her a away from the wreckage, and sat her down gently on the grass so she could shake and weep.

The man bent down to comfort her and I turned to look at the car.  Blood and smoke was replaced with transmission fluid and a white cloud from the airbag deploying.  She wasn't ever in any real danger, just bruised.  I had rushed over to save a perfectly healthy teenage girl from her benignly disabled Nissan Altima.  Big fuckin' hero.


"Shit!" was all I remember saying to the pirate that had attempted to board me as I sprinted, again, back into the road and ran to our bashed van.  I brushed the glass away and climbed into the passengers side.  I helped her climb out as she cried.  I was the only one not crying, but in my defense, this had been the FOURTH time I had been in a car totalling wreck.  I apologized for running off and she said it was OK, even though I could kind of tell it wasn't.  She was pretty shaken up.  Again, big fuckin' hero, right?

Later the police said there was nothing I could have done.  She came out of that parking lot at something like 35 miles an hour.  She never even saw me.  My mother asked me why I didn't honk and I tried to explain that the horn wasn't a device that was in charge of escaping from a cruise missile so it hadn't dawned on me to deploy it.

A couple weeks after that we got a letter asking if we wanted to sue the girl for damages.  I took it from my mother and tore it up.

Sometimes I wonder if part of the reason I jumped out of my smashed van and ran across traffic was because of that kid at Water Town.  I don't feel like there is a direct correlation.  It's not like I looked over at the smashed car and had a pool flash back.  There wasn't any thought process at all, painfully evident by me running into traffic.

There was one thing that was common between the two incidents, though.  After all was said and done, and I was sitting at home thinking about that wreck, somewhere I knew that even though the situation hadn't been dangerous and I had, at best, fumbled through the act of walking a stranger across 10 feet of grass, I knew that I had seen what I thought was a burning car and I had run TOWARDS it.  I had sprinted, without thinking, on mechanical reflex towards someone that I thought was in trouble.

Did I help at all?  Debatable.  Probably not.  But all the proper protocols came online at the right time.  And just like how I had felt empowered by the idea that I COULD save someone when I wondered about the drowned boy, I felt that same empowerment at the fact that I TRIED to save someone when I got in that wreck.  It made me feel less useless and less helpless.

I think most people have a nagging question inside of them.  If something goes wrong, really wrong, will the fear grip me?  Will the indecision paralyze me?  Will I be the reason someone is hurt?

In Vietnam my grandfather was the tail gunner of a B-52.  The gunner back then was also the bombardier.  One day they went on an 18 hour bombing run and their landing gear malfunctioned.  He climbed down to where the gear was, in flight, and manually deployed it.  He volunteered to do it.  He probably saved his fellow crewmen from some injuries and he certainly saved that plane.  Fear grips that man about as well as a greased pig.  He doesn't have to worry about what will happen in one of the big pinches.

I know I still do.  But, through the water park and the car wreck and many more incidents like them throughout a lifetime of accidents and mistakes, I feel a little more confident in myself and a little more sure of where I stand.

I didn't enroll in the police academy, I didn't become a fireman or a soldier or join the Coast Guard.  But, I think that I try to do right, and I feel like for maybe every 99 parts Clark Kent I might have at least 1 part Superman.  And, if that confidence is enough for me to do whatever I have to do to keep myself and my family safe, and to help my friends or anyone else that I have the ability to help, then I think I'm at least where I should be as far as being a human being.

Chiggie Von Richthofen

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