By Jim Bates
The head of Parks and Recreation, Fred Nicoletti, extended his hat. “Good luck, kid, he winked. “You’re going to need it.”
Nothing like a little intimidation to add to my already jangling nerves. I was standing on the north beach of Lake Harriet, getting ready for my final test. I’d passed the written part of the exam fine, just like last year. But now came the hard part. Each of us aspiring newbies had to rescue one of the senior life guards to prove ourselves worthy of this coveted summer job.
Last year, the name I’d pulled out of the hat was a guy named Ben who everyone called Bronko. He looked like a bronco. He was stocky and hairy and incredibly strong. When I swam out to attempt a rescue, I tried to put him in a cross chest carry and get him moving to shore. It didn’t work. He just kept rolling over and over with skinny little me hanging on for dear life. I couldn’t stop him. Finally, Nicoletti, who’d been watching the pathetic spectacle from shore blew his whistle.
“That’s enough.” He waved us in. I walked up to him, panting and trying to catch my breath. He just smirked and shook his head to the negative, making it a point of crossing my name off the list. “Can’t have the person drowning drown the rescuer, Jakobson,” he said. The rest of the life guards laughed at his joke. “See ya’ around.”
I rode my bike home, vowing to come back next year. Why? Well, that was the big question, wasn’t it? Why would I want to put myself through that embarrassing experience again? Bronko could have drowned me if he’d wanted. The best answer I could come up with was that maybe it was just a guy thing. Something I had to prove to myself.
My older brother was exceptionally coordinated and excelled at sports. He was good looking, popular, well liked and had lots of friends, all traits I didn’t even come close to sharing with him. I was short and skinny and it seemed like I had been wearing glasses pretty much my whole life. Not a lot of friends, either. I did well in school, though, there was that. And I liked to swim.
Two winters before, I had passed my senior life saving test so I could become a life guard, but as I said, failed the ‘rubber meets the road’ test last summer. I hoped this year would be different, but still didn’t have a good answer as to why. Even to this day. I’ve told this story to my wife, and when I mention the ‘guy thing’ to her, she just shakes her head. “That’s so sad, Soren. It’s just so sad.”
And I have to agree with her that it is. Now. But back then, I felt I had something to prove.
With Fred Nicoletti standing over me, winking away like a crack addict, I extended my shaking hand to the hat and pulled out a folded piece of paper. I unfolded it, read the name and handed it to him. “Damn, I muttered.”
Nicoletti read it, laughed and turned to where Lou Dobson, the biggest of this year’s crop of life guards, was standing, and yelled, “Hey, Big Lou. Got yourself an easy one.”
Big Lou, to his credit didn’t say anything in return. He just looked at me, smacked a mouthful of bubble gum, and saluted.
Where Bronko had been short, round and hairy, Lou was tall and muscular. To me he looking like I imagined Hercules would have looked like. Only bigger, stronger and better looking. God, I thought to myself, I’m done for.
To begin the test, Big Lou swam out about fifty yards from shore and motioned for me to come get him. I waded into the water up to my waist and then started doing the breast stroke. As I approached, my pretend victim started thrashing around, kicking and splashing and swinging his arms, acting like he was drowning.
I knew exactly what to do. I got within ten feet, dove and swam under water to him. I grabbed his waist and twisted him so he was facing away from me. Then I ladder walked my hands up his sides, gripping him as strong as I could to hold onto him. And, surprise, as opposed to last year, this time I gained control. I was giving myself a silent congratulations, when all of a sudden he tried to turn on me. I held firm, broke the surface and with his back to me reached over his chest and secured him in a cross chest carry with my right arm.
I held tight and used my left arm to pull myself and him through the water toward shore, scissor kicking for all I was worth. After a minute, it dawned on me something miraculous was happening. It was working. I was actually rescuing Big Lou.
As I neared shore, I noticed he was becoming awfully limp. He’s doing a great job pretending, I thought myself. I moved forward for a few more strokes before having another thought. A horrific one. I was close enough to shore that I could stand. I let go of Lou and looked at him floating on his back. He was turning blue. I quickly checked and determined he wasn’t breathing. My first thought was maybe something was stuck in his throat.
I turned and yelled for help. Then I lifted him out of the water, facing me and over my shoulder. I slammed him hard on the back. Once. Twice. And on the third smack I felt him cough, and then cough again. I lay him down on his back and watched as color returned to his face. I checked and he was breathing okay. He was going to be all right.
As I held him floating, I saw a big wad of gum floating in water. That’s what I’d pounded out him. If it hadn’t been for me, he would have choked on the damn thing. That’s what everyone told me afterward, anyway.
There were thirty candidates for the five life guard jobs that summer, and I got one of them. After I was hired, Lou kind of took me under his wing. One of the first things he did was give me a tube of zinc oxide.
“You’ll need this for the sun, Sorenski.” Yeah, that was his nickname for me. I didn’t mind. He was a good guy. He even fixed me up on a double date with he and his girlfriend. My first date ever. He turned me on the Motown music, gave me my first joint and all and all didn’t mind that I was a geeky kid with glasses. I appreciated that in him. A lot.
That followed fall, Lou enlisted in the army. He was sent to Vietnam and was killed at Khe Sanh in early 1968. By then I was attending the University of Minnesota and had a deferment so I safe from the draft. I went to his funeral. A lot of us former life guards were there, even Fred Nicoletti. I’d grown my hair long and had a wispy beard. He recognized me, though, and said, “Hey there Sorenski.”
“How’s is going?” I asked. I really didn’t have much to say to him.
“Hell of a thing, isn’t it?” He said, pointing at the flag draped casket. “Hell of a thing.”
“It is,” I agreed with him.
“You take care.” He clapped me on my shoulder and walked away.
Right then and there, the summer when I’d been a life guard with Lou, the one up until then I’d thought of as the best summer of my life, seemed a long way away. Almost like it never had happened. But it had, not only the job, but my friendship with Lou. And for that I’ll always be grateful.