Friday, March 23, 2007


#1 Saving children from drowning

I learned to swim when I was six years old, and it took me as long time. I flunked my first deep water test, among other things. I was afraid of water, or so I’m told. The actual feeling of fear is something I’ve apparently repressed.

So I overcompensated. I learned to swim, then I swam a lot. When I was eight, I was given the choice of continuing on in the Boy Scouts, or going to the downtown YMCA three times a week. I chose the Y; it had an indoor swimming pool.

I took the YMCA Lifesaving test when I was 13, and passed. It carried an automatic pass for the Red Cross certificate, because the Y’s test was notably more difficult. I began working as a lifeguard at the Y when I was 15.

It was a pretty easy gig. The 60 X 20 indoor pool, when it was used at all, was mostly used by middle-aged men swimming laps, most often one at a time. In fact, for long stretches of time there would be nobody there at all, and I could read or daydream. When a swim class met, the instructor would be in charge, and I could take a break, wander over to the weight room or the gymnastics equipment, whatever. Like I say, an easy gig.

The pay, of course, was really low, below minimum wage, even, since there was some provision in the law about non-profits, or so I was told. During the summertime, when there were plenty of other jobs for lifeguards--at pools with sunshine and girls--the downtown "Y" had trouble getting anyone to do the job. One summer, I wound up being the only lifeguard they had. One week I worked 72 hours, 12 hours a day for 6 days straight, for something less than $50. As I said, the pay was crappy, though it should be noted that this was several major rounds of inflation ago; my first year's college tuition at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was around $1500.

All in all, I was glad to have the job, even if it meant forgoing the summer tan and the chance to strike an elegant pose for the girls while the wind blew my hair (that's a small joke; I had a crewcut at the time). Besides, the YMCA was three blocks from the Nashville Public Library, and I was a bookish sort. I also did very little swimming myself that summer, because you're not supposed to swim when you're guarding the pool, and I was always on duty. Still, I do remember one particular instance of my getting wet.

A little extra background: the downtown YMCA had an arrangement with the various suburban branches, as well as with several school groups and day camps. So periodically we would get groups coming in to use the pool. I didn't particularly like these events. They meant extra work during and after, though usually not before, because the powers that were usually didn't bother to give me much notice before such a group showed up. In fact, I'd often hear about it from the front desk right about the time when the group arrived.

The group in this story was of grade school age, and only had boys in it, about twenty of them, plus two chaperones. Maybe that was why they'd gotten their signals crossed, or whatever it was that caused the incident. All I know for sure is that just after the group got in through the door, someone blew a whistle and all of the kids ran and jumped into the pool.

Maybe they were used to pools with no deep end. Maybe they got confused as to which end was the deep end (though, frankly, the diving board should have been a tipoff). Maybe they just overestimated their own swimming abilities. All I know for sure is that four of the kids were in trouble immediately. In my pool.

Kid #1 was fairly close to me, so I flipped him the end of a towel and yanked him to the side. Kids #2 and #3 were together, trying to climb up over each other to stay afloat. They were somewhat farther from the side, but there was a pole on the wall that we used for fishing out debris. I grabbed it stuck it out to them, and kids in a panic grab anything, (including each other). Both grabbed the pole and I yanked them to the side of the pool. I didn't even wait for them to release the pole; I just laid it on the deck and trusted them to hold on or climb out on their own.

Kid #4 was out almost to the middle of the pool, but on the side away from me. I might have been able to reach him with the pole, but he was already under water, and I wasn't sure he'd grab onto it, nor was I sure that kids #2 and #3 would let go of it. Whatever. I jumped in after him, feet first, because that's the way you're supposed to do it. I did not use any fancy carries. That would have been a waste of time. The pool wasn't that deep, maybe eight feet where he was, and I'm over six feet tall. So I just went down to the bottom of the pool, reached up and grabbed him, lifted him far enough so that his head was out of the water, and walked him across to the side.

So there we are: four drowning kids, four rescues, elapsed time: less than thirty seconds (it might have been less than fifteen seconds, given the well-known fact of subjective time dilation). They were out on the side, sputtering and coughing, before their chaperones even knew they were in trouble. I don't even remember them thanking me, though I expect they did. I also expect they would have gotten the kids out on their own, if I hadn't, but the fact is, they didn't, I did. And I’ll make one final parenthetical aside that seconds matter in such cases, because there is such a thing as aspirated pneumonia that can come from inhaling even small amounts of water.

That is the only time in my entire history of being a lifeguard that I can remember saving anyone from drowning. I will suggest that the incident justifies my entire career as a lifeguard. I did exactly what I was supposed to do, in exactly the manner that I was supposed to do it, right on down to the part about not going in until it was absolutely necessary. And I know that, in the event of an emergency, I am at least capable of doing the right thing. Quite a lot for less than thirty seconds, isn't it?

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