The Wounded Pool Rat

Blood gushed from his face. I frantically kicked my legs in the pool’s deep end, struggling to keep the husky 12-year-old afloat. Onlookers, at least 60, gawked at the last place I ever wanted them to look: me. I spotted a video camera capturing the entire thing. I knew I would choke. Like always.

Growing up, I never played the role of “winner.” I was large. Oafish, not intimidating. Unconfident and fidgety, I was a colossal joke. I crumbled under pressure. Class presentations, talking to girls, and, of course, sports. If you hit a fly ball over to me in right field (where else would I be?), you needn’t stop at first.

I was the antithesis of lifeguards at my community pool, hometown heroes towering over me, sprinting to save fledglings when we struggled to stay afloat, blowing whistles like mighty Tsar Hasselhoffs when we misbehaved. The female guards, nothing short of goddesses. Their long shimmering hair, tanned skin, and form fitting one-pieces governed my dreams. The whistle was my one-stop ticket out of social obscurity.

Somehow I completed a rigorous six weeks of training, although I didn’t feel I deserved my certification. In a crisis I would not be much good to anyone, but I was hired. I hoped that I could hide my shortcomings and fly under the radar, reaping the rewards of lifeguarding without any of the actual work. I was wrong.

One hot, sunny, morning, a throng of screaming pool rats (stringy pre-teen regulars) clamored at the gates like the bars of Attica. As we opened to let them in, their screams of delight echoed annoyingly off the ceramic walls. Soon we were at maximum capacity.

At noon I sat in the elevated, five-foot high chair overlooking the deep end. With only ten minutes left in my rotation, I observed the pool rats shove each other aggressively for dibs on the diving board. By far the largest, a boy who at twelve already outweighed me, emerged victorious from the scrum. He waltzed, both thundering and cocksure, along the plank as he called for everyone to watch him line up to the edge for his backflip.

The second his feet left the board, alarms sounded in my head. The board’s reverb sounded odd, his weight off center. The board sent him too high. I stared, wide-eyed, mouth agape, as he descended.

His face struck the board, snapping his head back, and he slipped beneath the water’s surface. I fumbled for my whistle and immediately sounded three sharp chirps, an emergency. In three summers I’d never heard three whistles. I leapt from my chair, landing painfully. The pool-rat returned to the surface, crying and choking on a cocktail of chlorinated water and his own blood.

“Bring the backboard,” I shouted to another guard as I slipped slowly into the water and approached cautiously. Had I heard his spine snap or just his nose? My mind went back to my training. One arm up his spine. One on his chin. From there, we embarked a plodding trek toward the shallow end. Any faster and his spine could sever. Two guards waited in the distance with the backboard.

The crowd of onlookers caught my attention. School mates, teachers, neighbors, a group of curious toddlers who had wondered over from the kiddy pool. I winced. My gaze stopped at a man pointing a video camera at me and the prospect of imminent failure increased tenfold. My pulse drummed. Breathing came in too rapidly. I felt an all too familiar dizziness envelop me.

I belched suddenly, a result of panic and a big breakfast. To my astonishment the kid, whose spine I feared crushed, actually laughed at the sound almost as if to communicate “typical us, right?” It was profound. He exuded no fear, no embarrassment. In mid panic attack I smiled. My prognosis of the situation immediately transformed. I let out a cool, controlled breath. I steeled myself and double-timed my tread toward the side.

I strapped the boy to the backboard, a textbook save. The paramedics arrived and delivered the news the victim would survive. The Spielberg with the camera turned the tape into my company, which was evaluated and promptly submitted to the Red Cross, to be used as part of their training video. For the first time in my life, I felt pride, even accomplishment. The amalgam of unfamiliar emotions was twinged with embarrassment when I received the company newsletter, detailing the save with a picture of my oafish looking self, grinning like a chimp on the front page.

I didn’t take home many victories growing up, but this was the one that let me know others were possible.