Sundown. I’m on vacation, sitting on the beach. I’m wearing a red Hawaiian shirt, swim trunks, a Resistol summerwear cattleman’s hat, and I’m reading Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”
I’m carefully keeping my electrolytes and B vitamins balanced with a healthful tonic that comes in longneck bottles.
In the middle distance, I’m watching a mother teach her son to swim.
“Don’t let me go, Mom!” the kid shouts, and his voice ricochets off the smooth water. He’s maybe 6 years old.
“I won’t let you go,” his mother says.
“Please! Don’t let go.”
“Keep kicking your legs, honey, I’ve got you.”
The colors of the sun paint a Monet on the Gulf’s glasslike surface. The kid’s father is also watching the ordeal. The dad is half in the water, knee-deep, videoing the whole thing on his phone.
“Wave to the camera!” shouts Dad.
And in this moment I am eternally grateful that I was born before the Age of Phone Video. I wouldn’t have wanted my chubby childhood on film.
I don’t need visual documentation of my fledgling moments. Such as the second-grade Christmas pageant when I dropped a frankincense box off the gymnasium stage and nearly gave Mrs. Simms a subdural hematoma.
Besides, I don’t look good on camera. If someone would have videoed my first swim lesson, I’ll tell you what they would have witnessed: incoordination.
The guy who first attempted to teach me to swim was named Rodney. Rodney was a lifeguard at our public pool. He had army tattoos and a deep affection for unfiltered Camels.
The main thing I remember about Rodney was that he drove a 1970 Dodge Charger (B-body) with a 440 Six Pack Hemi hood cutout and a pistol-grip shifter. Not that this matters.
When it came to swimming, Rodney’s philosophy was pretty laid back. He would throw us kids in the shallow end like bowling balls and shout, “Good hustle!”
You could be lying on the shore, dead from aspiration, and Rodney would still shout, “Good hustle!”
So his lessons didn’t take. And eventually Rodney gave up on me because I was a lost cause. But you know who didn’t give up on me? My father.
It was on a hot July afternoon that my father taught me the art of buoyancy not far from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, at the feet of the Ozark Mountains. I was 5.
My ironworking old man leapt into the tea-colored water of Tenkiller Ferry Lake. He was shirtless, wearing cutoff jeans, and a Resistol Flagstaff model hat.
And I shouted the mantra of all non-aquatic kids worldwide: “Don’t let me go!”
He supported my belly and said, “Kick your legs. Don’t forget to kick.”
“Please, don’t let go!”
His voice was laced with the patience of Saint Norman—patron saint of bowling balls.
“I won’t let go.”
And it happened. It was a miracle. I did it. I learned to tread water. I found myself suspended in the drink, under my own recognizance.
Daddy let his voice boom. “You’re doing it, kiddo!”
Next, my father taught me to do a redneck version of the breaststroke, wherein you do the breaststroke while keeping your beverage-hand above water.
And I am evermore thankful that nobody caught that particular day on video because it’s considerably more holy in my memory. I don’t know whether I have ever felt more loved than I did in that lake.
After my lessons finished, I sat near a campfire with my father for the remainder of the evening. I was nine feet tall and made of Kevlar, and sunburned something fierce.
My father and I were both redheads—put us in the sunlight for 13 seconds and we became oven-roasted chiles.
Still, I was feeling no pain that night because all I could sense was my father’s deep pride. And there is no pride more sacred than that of parenthood. My father was so pleased that he placed his own hat upon my tiny head and called me “Hoppy” for the rest of the night.
“Look, Mom!” the boy in the Gulf water shouts, jerking me back into the present moment. “Look! I’m doing it!”
The kid splashes wildly. And he is swimming. Kinda.
I say God bless him. Because it takes a lot of courage to leave the safety of loving arms and launch into the dark water. It’s scary out there, and this kid is braving the unforgiving world just like the rest of us.
I find myself removing my old hat just to inspect the cracked hat band where my late father’s handwritten name is still scrawled on the leather.
“Don’t let me go,” I’m whispering to the sweaty bottle in my hands.
“I won’t,” replies the faded memory of a ghostly ironworker’s voice. “I won’t let you go, kiddo.”
Well. I hope he never does.