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Learning the Hard Way

July 31, 2011

The Glen (Kenny still clinging , upper right)

I’m not sure how many folks have actually had near drowning incidents, but believe me, it’s not likely that they would ever forget it. My own near drowning incident occurred at Boy Scout camp when I was twelve.

Attending summer camp for two weeks at Camp NoBeBoSco in northwest N.J. was a given for the many members of my very active scouting group, Troop 176 in Bergenfield. The anticipation for this yearly sojourn was great and filled with much packing and repacking and last-minute reviewing of the outdoors section of the Boy Scout Handbook. I had always assumed NoBeBoSco was the name of some great Indian warrior for whom the camp was named, but in reality it turned out to be an acronym for North Bergen Boy Scouts. I’m glad I didn’t know that back then. It would have taken some of the edge off the experience.

On that particular day, a group of us went on a special hike. The destination was a storied location several miles from the campground area itself. It was simply called The Glen. This was a large mountain stream that flowed over broad sheets of moss-covered granite that sloped into a deep pool of water to make the perfect natural water-slide-equipped swimming hole.

The hike to get there was probably not that demanding, but for some twelve year olds, it might just have well been the ascent to Everest.  One such twelve year old was Eric, the bespectacled egghead of the group. He was certainly game enough but just didn’t have the physical capacity to do the job. As the rest of the bony, energetic scouts surged excitedly ahead, Eric lagged far in the rear, stopping often to rest or drink water or adjust footwear. At one point, he plopped himself down by the side of the road and dramatically proclaimed, “Just leave me here to die!” Apparently he watched quite a few movies. I don’t recall how the leaders finally got him there, though we heard rumors of an Indian travois being hastily lashed together.

Once The Glen was reached, the prospect of plunging into cool water after a long, hot hike was too much to bear for any group of sweaty young boys, so equipment was quickly shed and a mad dash ensued to the water’s edge.

Now, this was not a bone-fide recreation area; there were no lifeguards on duty, only several older scouts in the group who happened to be adept swimmers. All appropriate safety warnings given to us by the adults before leaving went by the wayside during the charge to the stream, followed by the joyful sounds of splashing and yelling. But at least all of the scouts could swim.

All, that is, except Kenny Malouf and me.

Kenny, an introspective sort, quietly found himself a small rock jutting out from the granite midway down the rock slide. He sat himself down in the rapidly running water, grabbed hold of that rock, and held onto it like dear life itself for the remainder of the afternoon. Every photo taken there that day shows him in that same spot.

I remember gingerly stepping out onto the mossy granite shelf, cool water rushing over my feet, and, seeing Kenny apparently so content, considered finding myself just such a spot. Before that thought could even settle, I felt myself sliding. Uh-oh, this is not good. Upright seemed like a rather bad position to be in, so I executed a rapid squatting sit down maneuver that I thought would restore balance and security. Instead, gravity and the rushing stream took the momentum of my movement and simply followed it through, resulting in me sliding, now in a layout position, feet first into the waiting pool. The one with water over my head. Not at all an ideal situation for a non-swimmer.

I immediately began doing what all near drowning victims most likely do: thrashing and screaming. Only problem — that’s exactly what a dozen or so other boys were doing in that pool. Except they weren’t doing it because they were in the early phase of drowning.

Luckily for me, one of the stalwarts of our troop, an athletic high schooler named Bobby Hoberg, happened to see me, and recognizing the difference between enjoyment and panic (I think he had the merit badge), dove in and pulled me the few feet to safety. Again, luckily for me, no one really noticed what had just happened in the havoc swirling around the waters of The Glen that day. Bobby was the modest sort, so he never mentioned it, realizing the importance of saving face to a gawky twelve year old (exceptional work, considering that he never was one himself; guess he had that merit badge, too).

After regaining my composure, I nonchalantly strolled back upstream, carefully surveyed the sliding area, and located myself a rock to cling to much like the one Kenny had found. The water ran safely over me, soothing both my bruised body and psyche.  The hike back to camp at the end of the day was uneventful, partly because it was downhill and Eric could handle it and partly because my mind kept replaying what had occurred. I don’t recall exactly my thoughts other than that twelve-year-old brain of mine trying to contemplate my brief flirtation with mortality. My one brilliant conclusion was that I had better learn how to swim.

However, that did not occur, and the following year found me back at NoBeBoSco still lacking that vital skill. It just so happened that my father had signed on to be the adult leader for the second of the two weeks. The year that had passed had diluted my resolve to become a swimmer, so my first week at camp was merrily spent doing other things.

When my father arrived, his first question was, “Did you learn to swim yet?”

“Ummm, no, not yet.”

“Not yet? What are you waiting for?” This, as it turns out, was not meant as a rhetorical question. I was signed up post-haste to begin my lessons first thing Monday morning.

After breakfast on Monday, My father walked me down the gravel path to the lakefront dock where the swimming lessons were to be conducted. He left me there with a wave good-bye and made his way back to our troop’s campsite to oversee it as was his duty. I watched as he disappeared over the crest of the hill and then made a U-turn away from the swimming area. I headed for my favorite spot: the small stream that fed into the lake a little way down from the docks.

I spent the swim class hour there hunting frogs and newts along the banks of the stream. It was great fun, and although I had a few pangs of remorse, they were quickly forgotten as I involved myself in my amateur biological pursuits. This process was repeated each day, and since my father was a taciturn man with no reason to doubt my whereabouts, I didn’t even have to lie about my swimming progress.

Friday came, the final day of swim classes, and for the last time my father walked me down the hill. When I thought the coast was clear, I started to make my way towards the stream. I just happened to look up the hill and saw my father reappear, heading back down the hill. My heart leapt to my throat. I sprinted to the dock. There, the beginning swim instructor was idling away the time on the dock, all the kids having already advanced to the other areas for more advanced instruction.

Out of breath, I was barely able to mutter between pants, “I’m here for lessons!” He looked at me quizzically, then shrugged and hopped into the shallow water alongside me. He started to explain the rudiments of the dead man’s float just as my father arrived at the water‘s edge. I shot a quick wave and tried to look like a really involved beginning  swim student, but I was scared out of my wits that I had been found out. However, he merely sat on the shore and watched.

The instructor tried to cram several days worth into that one hour, and by golly, he did enough for me to overcome my fear of the water. I came away knowing that it was indeed okay to stick my face in the water (“Just hold your breath!”) while doing the dead man’s float. I learned how to kick and add in a simplified crawl stroke. The hour ended before he had a chance to show me how to breathe correctly, a skill which has eluded me ever since, though I got good enough to eventually achieve Swimming Merit Badge (which also almost was the death of me, but that’s another story).

My walk back to the campsite with my father had little conversation but much reflection on my part. This would have been so much easier (and less anxiety-filled) had I gone about this the right way. This was a lesson well-learned that day, though its continued application over the years has been less than stellar.

I came away from this experience knowing how to swim, though, and that has proven to be both enjoyable and valuable. So armed, perhaps I should even add to my to-do list another visit to The Glen.

Hey, Kenny, are you doin’ anything next weekend?

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