I was five years old and it happened on a summer day in 1962. A play date had been arranged by our mothers and I was to go swimming with my friend, Susan, who had recently moved from our Lubbock neighborhood of rented duplex apartments, to a new suburb of ranch houses some distance away. Our parents had been a-couple-of-night-Saturday-nights-a-month-card-playing friends, who would also pack up all of us kids for supper at Underwood’s Barbecue cafeteria, a kid-friendly place where a glass of spilled milk was no big deal.
Susan and I rode our tricycles on the sidewalk up and down the block on our side of West Thirty-fifth Street. We’d lie on the grass licking our Popsicles after chasing down the ice-cream truck. Blonde and brunette, side-by-side, we’d sit on the front steps ‘smoking’ candy cigarettes. We celebrated birthdays at parties in our shared backyard, or at a local kiddy amusement park out on the Levelland highway.
To a small child, who had never been away from the windy, brown backdrop of late fifties-early sixties west Texas, “The Tiny Texan Kiddy Land” was an enchanting place; tickets were purchased at the ‘giant boot,’ a water fountain was inside the mouth of a ‘ferocious lion,’ and birthday parties were held rain-or-shine, inside a special party shed. There were amazing child-sized rides: cars that could be ‘driven’ around a track, motor boats attached to a central arm that circled around in a tank of water, helicopters that would “fly” when a handle was pushed up, and a smoke-spewing locomotive that pulled small boxcars around a looped track. Archival home movies show my younger siblings, Charley and Janet, with Susan and me, holding on for dear life inside the tiny trolley making it’s choppy circuit around a metal track, death-gripping the pole of pastel-colored carousel horses, and shielding our eyes from the flash bar of the camera as Daddy documented our cake-and-ice cream smeared faces for posterity.
Susan’s Uncle Roger was staying at the “Caravan Motor-Lodge,” and she and I had been invited to swim there as his guests. To me this was a big deal, and for the occasion, my mother decided that I should have a proper swimsuit because my white-eyelet panties, my usual running-under-the-lawn-sprinkler attire, simply would not do for a public place. On the appointed day, I crawled into the back seat of their blue Chevy, and Susan climbed over the front seat to sit next to me. We were wearing identical black swimsuits. With this good omen, how could the day be anything but marvelous?
Susan’s mother led us through the motel lobby and outside into a courtyard. Holding hands, we walked past a restaurant that had a huge picture window through which we could see people inside eating lunch. We spotted a handsome man, Uncle Roger, sitting alone at a table beneath an orange-and-white striped umbrella. And beyond him, there it was—the swimming pool—shimmering in the blazing afternoon sun; lounge chairs and pots of colorful flowers shaded by tall palm trees. This “Caravan Motor-Lodge was some incredible place! How would I ever explain this to my brother and sister? And “The Tiny Texan?”—no contest.
We were left in the care of Uncle Roger, who clearly had no plans to go swimming with us, since he was dressed in shirt slacks, and shoes. I was completely clueless about swimming, much less, about swimming pools, as my experience to-date had been more of the blow-up backyard variety filled to a six-inch depth of water from the garden hose. Susan, who had been taking swimming lessons for a few weeks, knew enough to lead me by the hand to one end of the pool where there was a set of steps that led down into it. “Okay, girls, stay in the ‘shallow end’ where I can watch you,” Uncle Roger told us. We laughed and splashed around for a few minutes in the chilly water and Uncle Roger smiled and waved at us. This was great. This was fun. I liked it! I looked over at Uncle Roger, but he was not alone. He was talking to a pretty lady who sat at a nearby table. And, after he pulled a chair out for her, she walked over to his table and sat down next to him. They were laughing and talking to each other. Susan pointed to a rope that stretched across the middle of the pool. “We have to stay on this side of the rope,” she said.
I was clueless, and unfortunately, I was also fearless; it all looked so very simple. I held on to the side of the pool for a few minutes watching Susan, face down, arms outstretched, kicking her way from one side of the pool to the other. Wanting badly to join her, I let go and drifted away from the side of the pool. Chin deep in the water, on my tiptoes now, gaining confidence—not so bad. And then, where there had been two little girls in identical swimsuits splashing in the pool, suddenly there was but one.
The events of that day that I did not die are to me a still-vivid memory over fifty years later. I was adrift; unable to feel the rough plaster beneath my feet; unable to grasp that taunting rope above my head; unable to…breathe air. I felt panic and I wanted my mother. The reflex urge to breathe caused me to gulp water. I was not giving up easily as I struggled, kicking and screaming—but there was no scream, no splashing, and no sound at all. I remember relaxing, body drifting, eyes cherishing the sunlight filtering down, and hand reaching up toward the sky. I felt calm and knew instinctively that this was all that there would ever be for me of life. Dying was really not so terrible; I would never again be sick, or hungry, or thirsty. But, also, I would never learn to read, to write, to swim. I would never again see my mother, my father, my brother, my sister, or my dog. I would never get to grow up; for me, there would not be any more time…
I came to on my belly, in a puddle of vomit and pool water, the afternoon entertainment for a crowd of well-dressed gawkers standing on the other side of the restaurant window. I heard a man’s voice, “Is she…is the little girl…dead?” I was rolled over and looked into the terrified eyes of a dripping wet Uncle Roger, my apparent savior, kneeling over me. Drama over, he lifted me up, carrying me with my arms tightly wrapped around his neck, bawling at the top of my lungs—because I could, with Susan trailing us while we went in search of a telephone…
We moved away a couple of years after that summer and gradually lost track of Susan and her family. Every now and then, I’ll come across a CD of our old home movies and I’ll watch Susan, frozen in time, pedaling her tricycle and grinning up at the movie camera. I never saw Uncle Roger again after that day so many decades ago. I wonder if he remembered me. I hope he had a wonderful life. I have, thanks to him. Did I grow up to be afraid of the water? I was lucky just to grow up, but I’ve never been afraid of the water. Much of my adult life has been spent living near or in the ocean, and I’ve aways felt a sense of gratitude for its’ beauty—above and below the surface.
Lance Note: I have my own version: Not a happy ending.