The water in the lake at Camp Ogama was brown.
As with many things, I am no expert at explaining the color of water in lakes. I know that bodies of water are generally blue. I’m looking at water right now out my window – the Pacific Ocean – it’s blue. We have a cabin in Indiana near Lake Michigan. That’s blue too. Toronto, my home town, sits on the banks of Lake Ontario. Blue. Hawaii? Turquoise blue, but still blue.
All the bodies of water I’m aware of are blue. Except for the one at our camp. I think the “blue” thing has something to do with a reflection of the sky on the water, which, like the water in a glass of water, is, itself, colorless. This does not explain the camp lake exception. The sky above our camp was not brown. So the lake must have been brown for another reason.
It may have had something to do with the lake bottom – comprised of brown, silty sand. To a person who’s never experienced quicksand, it could have been quicksand. There was no substance to it; it felt like you could sink right through it. (Except you didn’t.) The lake might have been brown, because of the soft sand getting stirred up and mixing with the water to turn the lake opaquely brown.
It’s like if you stirred a spoonful of Nestles’ Quik (do they still make that?) into a glass of water, the formerly clear water takes on a cloudy brown color. I’ve spent five paragraphs on a brown lake. I’m moving on.
Except to say…
Nobody likes swimming in a brown lke. Especially a freezing cold, brown lake. And especially even more, a freezing cold, brown lake with leaches in it.
The lake was known to contain leaches, I’m not making this up. This fact was acknowledged by the camp’s placing large blocks of salt under the docks, so the leaches, attracted to the salt, would adhere to the blocks and leave the campers alone. The strategy kept us protected, but it was hardly a boost to our swimming enjoyment. Looking at blocks of salt covered with leaches.
But, when it was real hot – or they forced you to – you went in, quicksand-feeling, frigid temperatures, leaches, leach-covered salt blocks, and all. And you tried not to drown.
When I was nine, I had not yet learned to swim. “Dog Paddle”, does that count? It’s not in the Olympics, so I’m not sure. The “Dog Paddle” was all I could do. Sputter around for thirty seconds, then, stand up, exhausted, as the silty sand slithered between my toes. That wasn’t swimming. Even the standing up part wasn’t fun.
After a first day swim test, where, I swam, I believe, nowhere, I was awarded a punctured red poker chip strung on a plastic lanyard to wear around my neck, the “Red Tag” indicating, “If he goes anywhere near water, watch him!”
Swim instruction classes were intended to upgrade our swimming abilities so that, eventually, I could exchange my “Red Tag” in for one that allowed you to venture into water that was higher than your knees. Every summer, we were taught the various swimming strokes – first, the backstroke, then, sidestroke, the crawl, and finally, the breaststroke.
The instruction was progressive. When you mastered one stroke, you moved on to the next. This is why, to this day, I can only do the backstroke. Every summer, by the time I was ready to move on to the sidestroke, camp was over. By the following summer, I had forgotten the backstroke and had to start again. It took the whole summer to relearn it, so time ran out before I could advance to the sidestroke or any of the other ones. They looked like fun, but I never got there.
The swim instructors varied in ability and patience. Let me say one thing on my behalf before I tell you about the guy who threw me in the lake. They wouldn’t let me take my glasses onto the dock. I had to leave them on the shore with my t-shirt and shoes. That meant not only was I afraid of the water – because, unlike land, you could lose your life in water – I also couldn’t see.
When I say, I couldn’t see, I mean I really. Couldn’t. See. When I was two, I had surgery on both eyes for cataracts. After the surgery, I could see, but only while wearing very thick bifocals. Those were the ones they’d instructed me to leave on shore with my t-shirt and shoes.
You know the phrase “blind fear”? My condition was “blind fear” squared. Blind, blind fear.
We were sitting at the edge of the dock, our legs dangling over the freezing brown water of Fox Lake, when our Swim Instructor, Ben, or Big Ben, or Big Ben swam for Canada in the Olympics, told us to jump in. Everyone jumped in. Except me. The conversation was brief.
“I don’t want to.”
That’s when he threw me in the lake. I went under, came up gagging, dog paddled for twenty seconds, and then said,
“Can I come out now?”
Not surprisingly, Big Ben taught me nothing. That may not have been partially my fault. I tend not to pay attention to people who have picked me up by my bathing suit and tossed me into a lake.
Years later, a kindlier and more patient swim instructor named Paul had a magnificent insight. Swimming on my front, at least the way I did it, depleted my energy in a matter of seconds. One day, Paul – whom I listened to because he hadn’t thrown me into a lake – says to me, “Turn over on your back.” I dutifully comply – belying the accusation that I’m “difficult” – and suddenly, I’m just floating along.
I took to swimming on my back immediately. There was nothing to it. You floated on the surface, and when you felt yourself sinking – a little arm action, a little “frog kick” – and you’re propelled ahead. Well, actually, backwards.
For the first time ever, I could actually swim. I couldn’t see where I was going, but at least, I was going somewhere. And there was a significant bonus. Unlike, swimming on my front, I didn’t have to put my face in the water. I hated that. I had this theory that because of my eye surgeries, if I stuck my face in, the water would seep into my head through my stitches and drown my brain. That’s possible, isn’t it?
In later summers, the maximum swimming requirement was sixteen “lengths”, a “length” being the distance from one dock in the swimming area to the one on the other side. Not only could sixteen lengths get you a “White Tag”, allowing you to swim anywhere, it also qualified you to go on canoe trips and to go water skiing.
Water skiing looked like fun, and I wanted to give it a shot. I passed my sixteen lengths – all backstroke – and, despite the fear of having my legs sheared off by the motor boat’s propeller, I tried water skiing.
And tried and tried.
I fell forty-three times in a row. That wasn’t like me. Normally, if I fail at something more than twice, I immediately give up. Forty-three failures was unheard of for me. I was failing beyond my wildest imagination.
There are a lot of ways to fall in water skiing. You can bend your arms. You can straighten your legs. You can lose hold of the rope. You can lean too far back and fall backwards. You can lean too far forward and fall on your face. You can lose your balance trying to get up. Falling forty-three times, I had a chance to enjoy all these experiences. More than once each. Only one falling was not my fault. The rope broke when it was pulling me up.
Cue the Triumphant Fanfare. And don’t spare the trumpets.
It was a day like any other day. But this time, the outcome would be different.
I’m floating in the water behind the boat, sheathed in a waterlogged life preserver that weighed about ten pounds and was liberally caked with wet sand. I was in perfect “starting position” – holding the bar between my legs, my arms extended, my ski tips above the waterline, my knees bent almost to my chin.
I knew what I was doing. Except for the part where you ski.
“Looking good,” shouted the boat driver. I smiled appreciatively, but I wasn’t reassured. I had “looked good” the other forty-three times too.
My heart was pounding, as I felt a sharp tug on the rope. The rope stiffened, as the driver gunned the motor.
I felt myself being pulled out of the water. To that point, all systems were “Go!” My form was perfect. My balance was good. I was in exactly the right position. I just needed to stand up.
And I couldn’t do it.
My previous efforts to stand had always done me in. I could never “pull the trigger” without losing my balance and falling. This time, I was determined not to fall no matter what. So what did I do? I let the boat to pull me around the lake while in a seated position.
My form was perfect. I was simply skiing sitting down.
I could hear the driver shouting, “Get up!”, but I would have none of it. I had never gotten this far before. I was in heaven, as my butt skidded along the surface of the lake, the waves spraying, in big rooster combs, over my head.
The lake contained an island about a quarter of a mile from shore. The water skiing route traveled out to the island, around to the other side, and back to shore. I was almost at the island.
I had never been up so long, though, technically, you couldn’t say I was actually “up.” I didn’t care. I was seeing the back of the island for the first time.
Emerging from the other side of the island, I was still in the game. Loving the ride, and heading towards home.
And, to the people on shore’s way of thinking, certain death.
Being in the water, I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Which was fine when you were heading away from the land. But it was considerably less desirable when you were headed towards shore and it was time to let go. Having never gotten that far before, I had no idea what to do.
And on top of that, I couldn’t see.
As I raced towards “home”, sitting but happy, I could hear a roar coming from the beach. I thought they were cheering my success, but that wasn’t the case. Extending from the beach was a boathouse, and I was heading directly for it.
The crowd wasn’t yelling “Yay, Earl!” They were screaming, “Let go!”
I beamed at my supporters. (I thought they were yelling, “Yay, Earl!”) I reviewed my accomplishment in my mind. I may not have gotten up – okay, I hadn’t – but for the first time in forty-four attempts, I didn’t fall. I was a hero in my own eyes, and, I thought, in others’ as well. “Others”, it turned out, believed I was doomed.
The crowd’s yelling wasn’t working. My eyes would not be a factor. Something had to be done, or my triumph would conclude with me going “Splat!” against the side of the boathouse.
Aware of the problem, the boat driver suddenly cut the motor. Instead of making a wide arc terminating in a “Boathouse Facial”, my glorious ride ended gently, as I bobbed comfortably on the lake, just yards from disaster.
The next time I went water skiing, I sat down all the way to the island.
And then I got up.