The surrounding woods form a coliseum of trees where summer’s practiced Olympians gather determination, courage, strength, and expectation. August wraps itself around a microcosm of civilization masked as childhood preoccupation.
The sun glints into the forest’s bowl in slanted lines as morning blossoms into afternoon. The anticipation of afternoon’s heat and all that the heat carries with it builds in my gut as I, the rookie, pester the experienced athletes to begin the games. My brother and sister, six and seven years my senior, give in to my impatience so that they do not have to acknowledge their own eagerness to take the plunge.
My family took a plunge of our own when I was seven and purchased a swimming pool-the first in-ground swimming pool on Bunner’s Ridge. Because it was the first pool on the Ridge, any given summer day might attract up to 20 cousins looking for relief from the sweltering heat. My siblings and myself, of course, readily welcomed the company. More competition equaled more fun. More moms watching their children swim meant a wider variety of carefully prepared snacks and sweating drinks dutifully packed in coolers to curb starvation and dehydration.
The crunch of gravel under tires slowly creeping up the driveway meant that another branch of the family tree had come to the ritualistic gathering around the water. They would all draw together as the baptism of childhood pride ensued. The mothers would sit with the food and discuss matters at hand while the offspring sucked everything possible out of the day. Eventually, each woman’s dinner plans would be combined into one communal cookout, thus prolonging the fun. Thanks to solstice, the closest family would remain poolside until eleven o’clock at night, the die-hard floating motionless on the surface of the water to watch the bats swoop down and eat the bugs on the water’s surface.
I learned at an early age to swim under water like a fish, to do multiple front flips and back flips under water in one breath, and to walk down the ramp to the deep end on my hands. There was, however, a pinnacle up to which I had to build. This pinnacle was one that had to be conquered anew each year as winter drove away the tolerance summer had built.
My family’s pool starts at three feet and slopes down to eight and a half feet. Every cousin worth his or her salt knows that one must be able to palm the bottom at any given spot in order to look the other champions in the face. Scuba divers and eight year olds know that once you swim deeper than five feet, water pressure builds to a level that causes very strong and sharp pain in the ears. It is only with repeated trips into the depths that one ceases to notice the pressure. Every scuba diver and adolescent also knows that there are some things at the bottom that must be seen, with or without the pain.
The world looks different from under water, especially from eight feet below mother level. The watery sky contains mysteries only a child can comprehend. Before they are suppressed by maturity and obligation, a child can spend an entire day observing their world through goggles, coming up only for air or to toss something else to the bottom to be retrieved. This could range from the diving rings someone inevitably got for their birthday to Aunt Bev’s water resistant watch.
My brother never had a problem diving to the bottom of the swimming pool the instant we wrestled the cover off in May. He never acknowledged the pain. I am pretty sure he felt it just the same as I did, but had to be sure that everyone knew he was capable-never to be slowed down by the laws of physics that the rest of us dutifully obeyed (at least until we could find a loophole). In a race to the bottom he would get there before me, stay under longer, and get all the diving rings before I had a chance. I think half the reason I even cared about getting to the bottom at all was to eventually gain the skill to prove him wrong.
My sister would languish in the sun on top of the water in her purple and orange bathing suit with the removable straps to avoid tan lines, coated in baby oil in hopes of attracting more rays. I am sure that she could swim to the bottom, and did so at least once to prove her worth, but as the eldest of the swimmers she claimed the right of floating above the fray.
My younger cousin Wesley and I learned to swim together when the pool was installed. I was seven and he was three. I strongly believed he was conceived to be my best friend. As constant companions, competition was unspoken, yet ever present and implied. He was four years younger, but I was the girl. Not only was I the girl, I was the smallest girl in my class, the smallest girl in the family. As brand new swimmers we would each hold on to one of the rails flanking the steps into the shallow end, too short to stand in the three foot water and too scared to learn to swim. Once we learned, however, Wesley became part frog. He could swim anywhere in the pool in seconds, pushing off the vinyl-lined wall and shooting through the water like a torpedo. I never admitted my jealousy and, instead, insistently worked on my speed.
Once Wesley learned to touch the bottom, I knew I must force myself within a day. He was, after all, four years younger. The excruciating pain of five feet stopped me several times. It is amazing how quickly you can change direction under water and reach the surface without even kicking off the bottom when you feel as if your ear lobes are about to kiss one another as the contents between them shoot out from your eye sockets. I persevered with the motivation that my place in the family rested on the bottom of the pool. Every attempt took me farther, but every effort hurt more. When I finally reached the bottom it wasn’t for more than a touch and I was finished with swimming for the day, perhaps two. But I had done it. The pain in my ears did not matter, nor did the regularly inserted eardrops covered by cotton balls and heating bags from my mom to curb the ensuing earache. No pain could take away the fact that I had done it.
The one thing that could hamper that joy was the knowledge that a repeat performance was required at a moment’s notice every day until late September. Not only was the skill necessary for diving ring retrieval (of course you can’t leave those in there or they will clog the drains), but also for the knowledge that at any moment someone might accidentally drop their most prized possession-a ring, glasses, a firstborn- for which the most accurate diver would search. The discovery of the missing treasure would be followed by a hero’s welcome.
After the first trip to the bottom, the same painful ceremony accompanied each year’s opening-day dive to the floor. The pressure simply served as a taunt-a dare to go deeper and stay under for longer. There was a time when my ears became so impervious and my lung capacity so strong that I could pick up the entire collection of diving rings in one breath’s trip. I was not alone in this skill-my athletic brother and cousin could do it as well. I was satisfied enough to be a part of the elite. They might have been faster, but with goggles I could do eight back flips in a row without taking a breath.
I cannot pinpoint the last time I went to the bottom of the deep end. Maturity, band practices, and summer jobs eroded pool time. My permanently ingrained suntan of the early years turned into the slight pigmentation of the busy. The pool still gets attention, but it is not done justice. It is lying in wait for another generation of cousins to raise one another as the mothers chat about who’s making the hot dog sauce for dinner. The pressure in my ears no longer comes from water, but the realization is the same. There are some things at the bottom that are worth the pain.