Barbie Walker worked as a lifeguard at the Three Springs pool. She sat atop a fiberglass lifeguard chair with her nose high up in the air. A silver whistle on a black string hung around her sunburned neck and balanced, like a big cubic zirconia, atop a firm set of breasts that seemed like flotation devices that kids in the baby pool floated around on.
Barbie, along with the other lifeguards at the Three Springs pool, had one resource, besides their whistles, that enabled them to keep kids in- line and safe in the water. If a child was caught breaking one of several rules of the community pool, a lifeguard, instead of spanking a child, could ‘bench’ them. This meant that misbehaving sunbathers had to sit on one of many wooden benches that surrounded the water for as long as was dictated by the lifeguard.
All of my friends had at one time or another been ‘benched’ by Barbie Walker. The boys taunted her often and it was a water sport of sorts, to piss her off and make her blow hard on her whistle. Barbie never had a reason to seat me upon one of the hard benches. My time at the pool was spent perfecting what were called ‘can openers’ —a cannonball of sorts, where when I landed, I grabbed my right leg at the knee and entered the water with just my left toe. Upon submersion, I leaned slightly back, causing a gigantic splash that often reached as far as the lifeguard stand where Barbie sat keeping a close eye on things.
When I came up for air, Barbie always smiled. It seemed the drops of cool water were refreshing to the lifeguard. I watched as she leaned over to rub the cool droplets all over her legs coated in Coppertone sunscreen. The whistle would drop from its resting place between her boobs, and for one brief moment, I’d stare in hopes that her floatation devises would pop out of her tight spandex one-piece.
Breezes warmed by the sun and filtered through miles of wooded mountains caressed the chlorinated water and warmed my dripping skin as I stood atop the highest dive at the Three Springs pool. A mower in the distance made rounds across the town ball field and the scent of freshly cut grass caused my stomach to growl. All the black pieces of crud that had collected under my humungous toenails throughout the long winter had magically disappeared. I felt so alive, preparing for my next and greatest maneuver. My toes sparkled like Barbie’s teeth as I stood atop the twelve foot high diving board waiting for the diver in front of me to reach the ladder.
An old man named Michael Zimmerman was always at the diving board when I worked to perfect my “can opener”. Other kids in town called Mike “a crazy old man” because he did a trick on the diving board. He stood on his head for long periods of time at the very edge of the board and slowly, he would permit his body to fall over into the blue water below. He could stand on his head for what seemed like hours, and at times, he only fell over into the water when Barbie blew her whistle at him. What mesmerized me most about old Mike Zimmerman was his ability to stay under water for long periods of time following his unusual entries into the crystal blue water.
The water under the dives, like the high dive itself, was twelve feet deep at the section of the pool where the diving boards were. When the pool first opened for the day, before waves covered the surface of the once tranquil, shimmering oasis and the surface of the water was smooth, like Barbie’s near perfect complexion, one could see an array of coins that had fallen from the pockets of cut- off Toughskin jeans that most of the kids in town wore. The zippers were not prone to rusting and on several occasions, the Baptist and Methodist children of town received second and third circumcisions.
I was always the first in line at the high dive when the pool opened sharply at 1 pm. I’d coordinate my jump perfectly and permit my body to enter the perfectly still water in a straight line. I sank quickly to the bottom and I would grab as many quarters as my little hands could hold.
I asked Mike Zimmerman one sunny day how he managed to stay under water for so long.
“I can teach you, but it will take you all summer to learn,” he promised.
“Teach me, please,” I begged. “I’ll give you some of my french fries,” I offered, holding out a small cardboard container of the hot, greasy potatoes that were only seventy-five cents at the pool. The fries were incredibly good at the pool. I put enough vinegar and salt on mine to kill an ant—which is what I often did after finishing my fries while laying on my beach towel in the grass, watching a tiny world unfold under my nose where everything seemed so busy and none of the tiny black and red ants seemed to want to swim. Before learning to dive for quarters, I spent many summers at the pool as a poor, broke, white boy with a bad haircut watching other children eat them in pure bliss. Our mother could afford only to give her three oldest sons a quarter a piece for food at the pool—that quarter was spent on Flava-Ices—frozen Kool Aid in a long, plastic straw. I knew as a little boy with an order of those fries, one could convince anyone to do anything for them.
“Are you sure you don’t want to learn to do a head-stand before you learn to stay under water for a long time?” Mr. Zimmerman asked.
“I can already stand on my head,” I explained. It was true. I once broke the head stand record at my elementary school. I managed to stand on my head for eight minutes before the gym coach told me to stop because I had shattered the previous record held by Brett Hershey by nearly three minutes and my face had turned a horrible beet red.
“It’s all about the breathing,” Mr. Zimmerman explained reaching for one of my soggy yet tangy fries. I want you to practice taking as much air into your lungs as possible and when you think you can’t possibly take any more air in, take in a little more. Then, leave it all out and do it again, over and over. Practice that exercise regularly, everywhere you are, not only here at the pool. You see, the trick is to make your lungs expand.”
I followed Mike Zimmerman’s instructions perfectly. All summer long, while other boys were taunting Barbie in her lifeguard chair, I practiced the art of taking more and more air into my little lungs. I found that I could easily swim the entire length of the pool without coming up for air, and when I made those deep dives down for quarters, I no longer felt as if I would die before returning to the surface.
One evening, just after Mike Zimmerman completed a head stand that was broken by Barbie’s loud whistle, the old man shared a little more advice in regards to the art of staying under water for long periods of time—
“Now I want you to focus on being calm while under water. Don’t swim frantically. Move your arms and legs slowly—you see, every time you move an arm or a leg, your body uses up oxygen. Keep your mind calm too—that also uses up oxygen,” he explained rubbing my shaggy and stiff, chlorinated hair.
Mike Zimmerman’s secrets to staying underwater worked. I found myself at the bottom of the twelve foot section of the pool for minutes at a time—my secret was to grab hold of a metal drain that was down there; by doing this, I did not have to move any of my body parts. I made a fortune that summer. I found gold jewelry that I swore one day I would give to a wife and I had even found the gold class ring that handsome, Brad Rupert lost while doing fancy dives in an effort to impress Barbie Walker.
When I returned the expensive ring to Brad, he was angry because he said it had a gold chain on it and he swore I had stolen it.
One busy day at the pool when the water was cloudy due to too much baby oil being used by sunbathers, I decided to stay under water for as long as was humanly possible. One of the rules of the diving section of the pool was that before diving or jumping from the board, one had to wait until the individual who went before made it to a metal ladder near the lifeguard stand. Kids were jumping in over top of me. I was at the bottom, holding onto the drain for a very long time. As time slowly passed, I turned over on my back while holding my nose and released a bit of the huge breath I had in my lungs. After releasing a large portion of my deep breath, I learned the weight of the water was enough to keep me from naturally floating to the top. I watched the divers come and go above me. The beauty of the bodies was like nothing I had ever seen. What made the moment magical was that I thought no one could see me, way down there.
After finally returning to the surface, I learned that Barbie Walker, for the first time in her lifeguard career, had actually crawled down from under her big, tarp umbrella and lifeguard chair—
“Don’t ever, ever, ever do that again!” she yelled, “I thought you were dead,” she shouted with tears in her eyes. Now get on that bench for at least an hour. I should have you kicked out of here for that little trick, mister.”
It was not only Barbie standing at the pool’s edge with her hand on her hip. It seemed the entire town was there waiting for me to come up. One of the kids shouted, “Ya big show off!”
“What’s the big deal?” I asked. “What are you all looking at me like that?” I asked, trying to stay afloat with a large sum of coins in both hands.
“We thought you were dead,” my friend, Brian Hoffman explained, “How the heck did you do that?”
“Buy me some French fries while I’m here on the bench, and I’ll tell ya.”
The entire first string from the town’s little league team sat there listening to me explain the secrets of staying underwater forever…”Don’t think about nothing. Just stay calm. Take just a little bit of breath in your lungs—don’t over inflate them. You don’t want to do that—just little baby breaths,” I explained.