Friday, July 7, 2017

In Too Deep

July 7, 2017

Summer in July. If you’re from Fresno, that means if humanly possible, you’ll spend as much time in the pool as you can. If you’re a kid in the 1970s in Fresno, that means every day, all day, flaunting the scorching sizzle of 105 degrees of unrelenting heat by splashing, playing, and diving into the deliciousness of the backyard pool. We had sitting-on-the-bottom-of-the-pool contests, and races walking on our hands into the deep end. We belly-flopped and did back flips and cannonballs off the diving board. We took breaks to run in the house to pee if we thought Mom was paying attention; we didn’t run into the house if we thought we could get away with it, because it was so much work to drag ourselves out and away from the fun, dry ourselves off completely so as not to drip a trail of water through the house, and peel off (and then put back on) the cold, soggy suit just to run back out and rejoin whatever games were in progress. (I know you’re judging here; I also know you’ve done it too. And if you have kids now, you’re fooling yourself if you think they’ve never peed in your pool.)

We had a built-in group of playmates, since there were five of us kids. Our next-door neighbors had ten kids, some of whom were older and out of the house, but many of whom were right there with us in our pool every day. Around lunchtime, Mom would often appear with a stack of sandwiches and some grapes or oranges. We also feasted off of the two mulberry bushes that were in our backyard. (Until we moved to that house, I thought mulberry was just a made-up word that was used in a nursery rhyme.) We knew Mom was in the house and was only a yell away in case of emergencies, but she didn’t often come out to the pool to swim with us. She was scared of swimming, borne of the sink-or-swim lessons she had as a child, when her step-dad threw her into the lake and told her she’d have to figure out how to get back to land on her own. She never got over the panic she felt around water, but she wanted us to have a pool. (She also paid to take us to swim lessons so we could learn how to swim in a less threatening environment than she did.) Although Mom occasionally passed by the kitchen window with a casual “Be careful!” or “Watch your little brother!”, we were mostly joyously, raucously, exuberantly free from parents, from worries, from cares about anything more important than which kid got to decide the next game that we played. Sun up to sundown, that’s where we were. It’s a wonder we survived without drowning or sunstroke.

Today we wouldn’t dream of leaving our young kids to their own devices all day, especially not in the pool. The dangerous part for us, though, was when Dad was off for the weekends and he decided to join us in the pool. Dad liked to rough house and was impatient with ‘weakness’. He’d jump in the pool and wrestle and fight, pitting his 200 pound frame against his 12 year old son, his 10 and 8 year old daughters. On the one hand, we liked when he would join in our games; he was a busy man and spent a lot of time at the office during the week days. There was always an edge, though—the feeling that things could turn at any moment. They often did. Riding on Dad’s back was fun; watching him swan-dive into the pool, seeming to freeze momentarily mid-air to cockily salute and wave to an adoring audience—well, we loved those moments. But inevitably, Dad wanted to wrestle us, take us on precariously close to the deeper end of the pool where he could stand, but we could not. There was something strange that overcame him during those battles, a competitive spirit that could not be tempered with logic or reason. He played dirty, not one to let his kids get the better of him. His signature move was to suddenly swing around to face whichever kid was trying to ride his back to bring him down. He’d swiftly reach out to hold us underwater, the palm of his hand planted firmly on the top of his opponent’s head—the ultimate show of superior strength and agility. To this day I can remember the feeling of being held, firmly and helplessly, under the surface, just moments shy of far too long—arms flailing, panicked eyes casting about for some means of escape, feeling the burning sensation in my lungs and knowing I couldn’t hold my breath anymore. I remember several times thinking, “He’s going to forget to let me up in time. I’m going to drown before he lets me up!” Inevitably, when Dad did finally let me or my brother or sister up from his vise-like grip, we’d either be angry (my brother, my sister), or we’d be crying. Gary even tried to sucker punch Dad in retaliation once, but a swift, sneak attack underwater is difficult to pull off. It set Dad off even more, and Gary was pushed underwater once again in order for Dad to underscore his dominance. Dad’s victorious gloating grin after these matches would be eclipsed by that impatient, irrational anger. He’d call us babies, he’d rail at us for playing the game and then being sore losers. He’d become enraged and said he wouldn’t play with us anymore, and then he’d either banish us to the shallow end or tell us we weren’t big enough to go in the pool at all and would make us get out for the day. He’d brood and sulk for the rest of the day. There were always arguments with my mother, too, when she told him he needed to be more gentle with us; he needed to remember that he was bigger and stronger than all of us. He, on the other hand, didn’t want to raise sissies; he didn’t want to have weaklings for kids. We needed to get over it and toughen up. At the same time, he seemed to need constant validation that we acknowledged him as the strongest, the wiliest of us all. He needed to know that we knew he was the alpha male. Even as a kid I thought it was irresponsible—unparental, even.

Those 1970s summers were seemingly carefree and without purpose, but they taught me a lot, too, about what I expect, and what I accept, from those who hold positions of power in my personal, professional, and public world. Back then, I was willing to jump back in the pool again and again, knowing that danger and anger lurked there, for the trade-off of my father’s playful bravado and fun that always preceded it. But I what I eventually realized is that risking my well-being in order to feed someone else’s insecurities is simply not worth diving into. Is it selfish to not want to drown under the weight of someone else’s baggage? Those hot summer days taught me that being selfish is sometimes necessary for survival.