Articles From the June 1994 Unification News


The Swimming Lesson

by Richard Van Loon-Falls Church, VA

I slid open the bathtub door. "Look, dad!"

Dad had on his pajamas. He was flossing his teeth. He looked at me in the mirror.

"No, over here!" I said. He came to the tub, and I stuck my head under the water.

"That's great!" he said then patted my dripping head, his two hands tied together with the floss. "Getting ready for your lessons?" I nodded, wiped the water from my eyes and grinned. "Want to see me do it again?"

"No, that's all right," he laughed. "But thanks for the offer." Then he added, "better save it for the instructor. Those lessons aren't free you know." Dad went back to his flossing. I knew what dad was getting at. The violin lessons, the karate classes, the marching band. I did want to learn to swim, though. It wasn't my fault I was afraid of water.

There was that time at Toby's house. It was hot and he was in their pool in back and his mother didn't know I couldn't swim. So she told me to jump in and I did. It happened to be the deep end and I splashed around like a fly in a bowl of soup until Toby pushed me to the side so his mother could pull me out. It was scary, not being able to breathe.

And then there was that day at the beach. Dad was towing me around in the surf when this big wave caught the rubber raft sideways and flipped me out. I must've swallowed a gallon of salt water before I could stand...but dad had already finished flossing and my bath water was getting cold as stone. I took a deep breath, stuck my face under the water one more time. The next day after breakfast, mom took me and my little sister Patty over to the pool at the rec. It was bigger than the one in Toby's back yard and the water wasn't smooth and glassy. The kids in the class before had already splintered it up and the sun, which was coming in through these huge windows, was bouncing off the tiny waves, shooting around the walls in little beams.

The instructor got our group in the water right away. It was up to my chest and when I walked, my feet felt like they were drifting out from under me.

"Line up!" the instructor said and we all lined up along the wall. Then he had us push off with our legs and glide along the water like superman. But this was very hard because my feet kept sinking down and touching the bottom, so that I'd end up standing again.

Then the instructor gave us these plastic sticks with balls on the ends. We held them out in front of us and he towed us around. That part was fun. And it was a good thing I had practiced putting my face in the water because we had to do that too.

For Patty, who was three years younger than me, learning to swim had been a dream come true. I guess that was why she did better than me. After the first day she was already floating on her front and on her back.

On the second day the instructor had us jump in from the side of the pool away from the shallow end. The water was up to my neck. The other guys kept jumping in but after my first time I just stood by the wall shivering. The instructor wanted us to do the same things together like a team, but I guess he could see I was scared and decided not to push me. When my mom came to pick up me and Patty, the instructor had a talk with her.

I went to one more class the next day, and then I dropped out.

Patty kept going and after the course finished two weeks later, she was the best in her class. That weekend we were invited to lunch by one of my dad's friends. He lived in a condo and after eating these small, triangular sandwiches with no edges, wouldn't you know it, we all went out to the pool.

The pool was shaped like an "L." We sat at some tables near the shallow end. My dad's friends had a son two years younger than me. His name was Benjy. He was a real creep, so I got into a lounge chair, put the back down, stretched out in the sun and closed my eyes.

"Mommy, mommy, I want to go swimming!" Patty said.

"Oh! Do you swim, Patty?" Bill, my dad's friend, said. I opened one eye. Patty was beaming like it was her birthday.

So everybody got up to go swimming. Benjy came over and pulled my arm. "Hey, Alex. Let's go swimming," he said but I just kept my eyes shut and pretended I was asleep.

Benjy dove into the pool and everyone else got in too. The sun got stronger, and I was feeling like one of those chickens mom roasts, sizzling and turning brown. Still, I didn't dare move. Get into that pool with Benjy doing laps and Patty splashing around like a water queen? I'd die. They stayed in the pool pretty long. I couldn't take lying in the sun much longer so I decided to go home. When I got up and walked away, no one came running after me. I guess I wasn't missed.

Our house was locked, but I got the hide -key out from under the -a stairs. Inside it was quiet. I sat on the couch. I felt so empty inside that soon I began to cry. No one was there to hold me, so I went to the kitchen and got some ice cream. While I was eating it, I decided to run away. I was a failure. I had no future. Not here anyway.

I had never run away before and at first the idea scared me. Where would I go? How would I live? But the way I was feeling, I didn't really care. I mean, if no one else cared about me, why should I? I got my money from my room ($14.32), put on a shirt, grabbed my jacket and went outside.

I rode my bike down the driveway and onto the street. After a while, I got very hungry. I stopped at a supermarket and made a bee -line to the Hostess display. I scooped up an armful of twinkies, paid for them and went out.

By now it was completely dark. I went around to the back, climbed up on the platform where the trucks unloaded and began to eat.

I had six packages of twinkies. I decided to eat two but they were so good I ended up eating four. It was nice not having anyone to tell me what to do. I even left the 3twinkie wrappers on the ground. Soon I got sleepy. It was still warm outside, so I took off my jacket, rolled it up for a pillow, lay down on the cement and fell asleep.

While I was sleeping, I must've had a dream. I was standing on the edge of a big, round swimming pool filled with brown water. Then someone pushed me in. The water was cold and I couldn't touch the bottom. I was splashing around and crying for help when I saw my mom at the edge of the pool. She was reaching out for me, but I was too far away. (Somehow I had come to the middle of the pool.) Mom was crying and trying to reach me but she couldn't. Then the water started to swirl around. It was like I was in this huge toilet that had just been flushed! It must've been a very rusty toilet because it was making this loud, screeching sound. I started swirling round and round. I was just about to go down the drain when I woke up.

I could still hear that screeching and the place was flooded with light. I looked up just in time to see this huge metal wall coming right at me! I thought for sure I was dead. I curled up into a ball, pressed up against the metal door and waited for the end. All I could think about was how I would never step on another bug again.

The metal wall kept coming, jerking and screeching and rattling closer and closer, until suddenly, with a huge "kaboom," it shuddered to a stop.

I was swallowing hard to get my heart out of my throat when this man came around the side of the wall and walked up onto the loading platform. He was wearing a red jacket that said "Safeway" and he had on big brown boots. I thought for sure he was going to kick at me with those big boots, but he just bent down and put his hand on my shoulder. "You okay?" he said, and I knew he must've had a son just like me.

I swallowed again. My mouth was real dry and when I said, "I'm okay," I sounded like a frog. The guy was looking at me like I had a broken leg or something. I was just going to tell him the truth when I remembered I was a run-away. And nobody cared about run aways. pushed his hand off and he stood up.

"Where you live, boy?"

"Over there," I said, pointing vaguely towards the street.

"What's your address?"

- I don't know. "I I'm visiting my grandma. But it's just up that street."

"Does she know you're here?"

"I -- I came to do some shopping for her. She's real old. I was tired and I fell asleep."

He looked inside my bag. "Doesn't seem like the kind of food an old lady would eat. You sure you're tellin' the truth, boy?" He looked at me sideways.

I nodded.

"Well, listen. It's three o'clock in the morning. You climb up into my cab and sleep while I unload this trailer. Then I'll run you over to your grandma's house."

I really didn't want him to do that, but I'd never been inside the cab of a truck before, so I took my twinkies and followed him.

"That your bike?" he said.

I told him it was, and he said he'd load it in the back when he was done. I climbed up into the cab. It smelled like leather and cigar smoke, just like my uncle George's study. I was hungry again so I ate another package of twinkies and fell asleep. I didn't have any more dreams.

The next thing I knew, the man was shaking me. "Okay," he said. "Now I'll take you to your grandma's house."

We pulled out of the loading dock and onto the street.

"Where is it?" he said.

"Just up here a ways," I yawned.

We drove a few blocks.

"There," I said. "That one on the corner." He put on the brakes. "Let's go."

"I can make it from here," I said but the man wanted to walk me to the door.

"Actually," I said, "that's not my grandma's house."

"Well? Which one is it?" he said.

We drove a little further. I pointed to another house and the man stopped again. "Okay, let's go," he said and that's when I started to cry.

"C'mon, boy, tell me the truth."

So I told him about the swimming lessons, and about the other lessons too, and about the picnic. Then he said something I'll never forget. He said, "You know, you're really a lucky boy. There's millions of kids got it much worse than you. No one said life was gonna be easy. Why, when I got out of high school there was a war going on and I got drafted. Went over to Vietnam, got shot at, saw my buddies die right there in front of me! Then, when I came back, no one cared. They treated me as if I had done something wrong! As if I was the bad guy.

"I tried to run away, too. From myself. I took drugs. A lot of them. The Viet Cong couldn't kill me but here I was, killing myself! I thought of my buddies, the ones who hadn't made it back. That's when I decided to stop fooling myself and to make something of the life I still had.

"So you see, boy, life is like a big swimming pool. And just because we get tossed into the deep end sometimes doesn't mean we have to sink. We just got to learn how to swim, that's all."

So we drove home together, pulled that big truck right up in front of my house. The birds were beginning to sing in the dogwood trees, and when my mom came to the door, she threw her arms around me and started to cry. "Oh, thank God you're alive!" she said, then, "Oh, Alex. Where have you been?"

I looked at the man and he winked 5and nodded his head. Then I looked back at mom. "Learning to swim," I said.

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