The Olympics are here again, and I can’t rally up much interest. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I keep finding out who won and who lost each event before it’s broadcast (thanks a lot, New York Times). Maybe it’s because, as I’ve written before, there are no characters anymore; everyone is slick, smooth, and tediously decorous. No real drama, not even in the athletic performances, which are uniformly excellent and hinge on the tiniest millisecond.
I used to love to watch the swimming and diving events. I love to swim, even though I’m neither fast nor elegant in form. As for diving, it’s always been a mystery to me how you get good at it without breaking your neck. In fact, I will agree that, even now, of all the summer Olympic sports, diving provides the most suspense, because even a gold-medal diver can misstep or over-rotate, so you catch your breath until she safely slices into the water.
I learned to swim at age five in the Officers Club Pool at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland. EA is notorious for two things: LSD experiments on soldiers in the 1960s, and a stockpile of deadly chemical weapons dating back to World War I that they finally disposed of only about ten years ago. My father was a civilian employee who worked on post. We lived in a development a few miles outside the gate, but as a little girl I spent a large chunk of my time on the post grounds themselves.
When I was a kid, no one talked about the tripped-out soldiers or the weapons stockpile; I’m not sure how much of it was publically known in the late sixties. There were “deadly force” areas tucked into remote corners, but they were largely invisible and you had actively go find them. For me, the post was a wonderful place, with shady, tree-lined streets, and deer so tame they’d walk right up to your parked car. There was a riding stable with horses you could pet, and a small airfield where, each 4th of July, the Rec. folks put on a carnival complete with pony rides, a tiny ferris wheel with four cars, and about twenty-five ramshackle booths. You bought a bunch of tickets for five cents apiece, then you made your rounds. There was Pitch-Til-U-Win, where, if your aim was good and you were lucky, you could win yourself a small pink plastic poodle with sparkling blue eyes, and even if you weren’t, you’d at least end up with a Hawaiian lei made of paper flowers. There was the Wheel-of-Fortune, where if you were very very lucky, you could walk off with a stuffed dog with vinyl ears, and the Pick-a-Duck game, where you could win a straw hat. There was the Spin-Art booth, where you poured primary-colored tempera paint out of Tupperware ketchup bottles onto a piece of spinning cardboard and got your own work of art to hang up on your wall. The air was redolent with sizzling hot dogs (for the kids) and pit-beef sandwiches (for the grownups), and for dessert you had your choice of snowballs or cotton candy. Then, as darkness fell, your dad got the blanket from the car, and the whole family, smelling now of OFF bug spray, headed down to the grass field by the runway to swat mosquitoes and watch the fireworks.
There was a post bowling alley, too, housed with the post gymnasium in a great, faux-Gothic pile of grey brick. I learned to bowl there (the only sport I was ever competitive at: at one time, I had a 165 average). My parents played on an evening league, and while the grownups bowled, the kids were allowed to go next door to the gym and bounce basketballs in their stocking feet. There was also a small, nine-hole golf course where my parents learned to play. At the first tee stood a great tree for climbing and spying on the golfers walking by with their cleated shoes making a lovely crunching sound on the asphalt, and kids were always being chased out of it by irritated players who were trying to tee off. My city-mouse parents fell in love with the game, and thought I’d love it, too. So I spent part of three summers taking golf lessons there. I was probably the worst golfer ever (one day I managed to lose seven balls in three holes), and I hated every minute of it. Where I wanted to be was at the pool.
There were two pools on post: one for the NCOs and enlisted, and one for the officers. My father, because of his job, was able to buy a membership at the Officers Club Pool, not surprisingly the nicer of the two. As a member, you got a colorful patch your mom had to stitch to your bathing suit. The pool was down by the edge of the Gunpowder River, next to the actual Officers Club building and tennis courts, close by the senior officers’ housing (Majors and up). A line of trees ran between the pool and the river, and there was a sporadically-manned concession stand in the groundhog-filled field. (One summer, we found a dead groundhog; he provided a thrillingly gruesome lesson in decomposition over the next couple of weeks.) The facility had two pools: the baby pool for the infants and their moms (sneer), and the big L-shaped Olympic-sized grown-up pool, complete with two diving boards – one five feet high, one twelve. This was where I learned to swim, taught first by Miss Sally (she was maybe 16), who was short, blonde, wore a pink kerchief, and was considered “mean” by the kids, then by Miss Mariane (also 16 or 17), who was taller, had short dark hair, a very deep tan, and was nice. Swim lessons happened in the morning before the pool opened, and the water was always cold.
Once you had passed Advanced Beginners, you were considered proficient enough to swim without a parent being present, and, in that more innocent and less paranoiac age, moms would drop their kids off at noon and pick them up again at suppertime. Everyone had change to buy their lunch, or brought it in a paper bag. Sometimes, the concession stand wouldn’t be open, and you had to walk over to the Officers Club proper, sneak into the eerily quiet building, and make your way to the vending machines, hoping no one would see you and holler at you for dripping on the polished hardwood floor.
The pool had a ten-minute break every hour so the adults could swim laps unimpeded; we hung out impatiently on the edge, dangling our feet and waiting for the lifeguard to stop flipping her lanyard around her fingers and blow the whistle to let us back in. We also had to get out at five p.m. when the loudspeaker began blasting a tinny version of “Colors in Retreat.” A half-mile away, on the parade grounds, a squad of soldiers was lowering the flag, and you had to stand at attention, facing thataway, until the song ended. Then back in the pool until your mom or dad showed up to take you home.
I was never very good at it, but I could manage a basic competent dive off the low board. For the high board, other than one memorable time on a dare, when I crept to the edge and fell headfirst down (it felt like smacking cement with my skull when I hit), I stuck to jumping. The high board dives were left to the soldiers and the jockiest teenage boys, who did jackknives and half-gainers and tried to catch Sally and Mariane’s eyes.
Except for one summer. I was about eight, and the boy was perhaps fifteen. I don't remember his name. He was gangly in that way adolescent boys are when they start really growing, all arms and legs, big hands and big feet. He was a true redhead, with skin so white it was almost translucent. He was also blind. His blue eyes were unfocused and slightly milky, and he walked with his head tilted to the side, as if perpetually listening.
The first time it happened, everyone stopped and watched, holding their breath. Suddenly, there he was at the bottom of the high-dive ladder. Once he was sure the board was clear, he climbed up and walked half-way out, holding onto the chrome railings. When the railings ended, he reached down to feel his way forward along the edges, his long fingers as graceful as sea anemones. When he got to the end of the board, he felt to make sure his feet were positioned in the exact center, stood up, then hurled himself headfirst into the air.
He hit the water in a respectable version of diving form. Then he popped up, swam over to the edge of the pool, found the ladder, made his way back to the bottom of the diving board, climbed up, and did it again. And again and again. And all summer long, there he was, until we got used to it and stopped getting nervous as he did this incredibly brave and joyous thing.
I’ve been thinking about this boy a lot. I’ve been thinking about all the metaphors we use for writing, and the things we tell ourselves to get us to actually write. “Write what scares you,” we’re told and we say to ourselves, but the problem with that is, well, that’s it’s scary. I’m in the process of struggling with some poems that I know I have to write, but I don’t want to write them because they terrify me. I don’t know where I’m going or how much water there is in the pool, because like the boy (who didn’t know he was going to be turned into a metaphor here), I can’t see bottom. I can’t see anything. I’ve gotten myself up onto the high dive, but I’m hanging onto the railings for dear life. And the poems wait…
Of course, for a writer, there’s no climbing down again. Once you’re up there, you’re up there, and there’s a line of impatient swimmers at the bottom. And jumping is cheating and won’t do. There’s only one answer for it. Creep to the edge, take a breath, and hurl myself headfirst into the air.