“Those of you who are mine, drop. You know who you are. Flutter-kicks, let’s go.” There is no hesitation; the pool deck comes up fast and counting begins with earnest, masochistic urgency. The rest of the formation, about two-thirds of the class, stands at attention wet and shivering from the cold-water rinse. Sore muscles burn anew as boots bob up and down beneath a clear morning sky. This isn’t exercise—it’s suffering. It almost makes the chilly morning pool water seem appealing despite what’s coming next.
Instructors circle like sharks in fatigues while feigning disinterest. The collective counting of the exercise saps strength needed for the trial ahead as it rises toward uncertainty. Breathe in… breathe out… breathe in… it has to stop some time…
“On your feet! Blouses off! Approach the pool!” The directions come rapid fire and are obeyed with even greater speed. You don’t want to be last. A chorus of “Oo-ya!” sounds, and six neat lines of five manifest at the pool’s edge in seconds. Here it comes, just another test-gate, but this one won’t be easy. Not that any are.
Water laps hungrily at the walls beneath combat boots and freshly rinsed camo pants. Then, nothing, for just long enough to feel your heart beating in your throat.
“Prepare to enter the pool.”
“Enter the pool!”
“Oo-ya!” Splash. Classmates ahead drop into the tumult and swim furiously into position. Each rank in succession takes a large step with arms crossed to properly enter the pool. Saltwater burns a dozen tiny cuts and abrasions. Soon, a neat grid of heads is bobbing up and down, watching and waiting.
The dark silhouettes of instructors astride the pool deck give curt precise instructions: 60 seconds holding a brick above the water with one hand, 60 seconds with the brick under water, switch hands, up for 60 seconds, back under, and so on. “Retrieve your bricks!”
“Oo-ya!” It’s a race. Everything is a race. Even if you’re terrified of the finish line – race to it. Once the grid reassembles, it begins. “Bricks up!”
Now only gentle swishing is heard. Purposeful breaths build slowly through pursed lips and flared nostrils. Like the sound of a building orchestra, the huffing, puffing and splashing intensifies to a crescendo.
Then the bricks go down, tucked into the abdomen leaving one arm free to paddle. Kicking slows beneath the surface. Breaths are deeper and slower. The splashing waves rolling through the formation attenuate, and pensive glances dart around.
Towering at the edge of the pool, an instructor watches a plastic stopwatch from behind dark wrap-around sunglasses. A lanyard hangs from it. The cotton pendulum swings–back and forth, back and forth. Time is ticking down. “Bricks up!”
The splashing is more immediate, and the huffing comes sooner. Waves rock and crash. A brief eternity passes. The bricks come down. An instant passes. “Bricks up!”
Don’t think. Legs kick furiously and water splashes. The first brick dips below the surface. “Get that brick up!” the instructors pounce with fury. Like a gazelle fallen behind the herd, someone is in trouble. It doesn’t matter who it is – the water is rising. “Get that brick up!” The water splashes all around as breaths sputter out through waves. “Oo-gla,” someone gargles. “Get out of the water!” Just hold on and it will be over soon.
“Bricks down.” There he is, standing at attention on the pool deck getting yelled at. Everyone is watching, but no one is looking. For a moment everyone is there in his place, a brief reprieve from reality to be anywhere else, even if it’s worse, as long as it’s not in the pool.
A head dips, then emerges with a geyser spewing desperate, and stupid. “Don’t you drop that brick!” The head drops below the surface. Beneath the water, the body goes prone and moves straight and fast to the edge of the pool. A hand shoots forth to grasp the edge and a head erupts for a life breath. “I cah… nt,” he sputters.
“Bricks up!” cracks the air like lightning and a storm of waves begins. There’s yelling at the pool edge. Furious kicks and desperate paddling rocks the waters of our tiny sea. Someone jumps back in the pool and swims into position.
There’s no easy way to say it, the water is rising.
Another classmate sputters “D…” before his head sinks under. He pushes his head above the surface “D… O R.”
“Get over here. Don’t drop that brick!”
Protesting muscles obey, but the water level creeps up as the brick hangs overhead. That stupid brick – it doesn’t even need air. Spurted breaths spray water and a kick up creates an opportunity to suck some air in.
How much longer?
Someone just dropped.
I need air too. Stupid brick! I’m not going to make it. Yes, you are. just hold on. kick harder. it’sokaysomeonedropped. whocares. don’tthatsnotyoudon’tquityousaidneverquitjustkeepthebrickupica ntbreathejusthangonitscomingjusthangondontquitjusthangondontquitjustha…
The brick ripples through the water above.
My legs are lead.
It’s too late.
The velvet warmth of darkness envelopes me.
Strong arms wrap around my chest and pull me up through the curtain.
A whitewash of morning sun dissipates, and a blurry face asks, “Are you okay?”
“Come on, let’s sit you over here.”
I trudge along the side of the pool, suddenly immune from the fury in the water. All that time. All that training. I can’t believe it. How could this happen? How could this happen to me? I guess I was wrong. I was wrong about myself.
The instructor sits me at the edge of the pool deck by the wall. I think about my mom. She said she was proud of me no matter what. I feel the cold of the shade, in my soaking camo pants. It’s over. I watch the water drip from my brow between my knees, and hear the splashing sounds a thousand miles away. Seagulls caw and metal linkages clank against flagpoles. A breeze carries the briny smell of the ocean. I love the feeling of being here; I say goodbye to it. I just breathe. It’s a new breath–no longer desperate, now empty.
How long have I been sitting here? Five minutes? Ten? I don’t want to go back in. Please let it end before I have to get back in. Maybe, if I can try another day.
The Chief walks over; he never talks to us. “Are you ready to get back in the pool?”
“Oo-ya, Chief!” It comes out before I even think it. I rise in a trance and walk back to the pool. The others in the class are kicking doggedly and holding the bricks below churning waters.
“Get your brick.”
I reach down to grab the gray block sitting on the edge of the pool and jump in without preparing. I haul the brick to my position as it tugs at the depths. Okay, I can do this.
“Bricks up!” The order comes. I raise my brick and my legs are even more worthless. Why didn’t I learn the egg-beater kick. I curse myself, but it doesn’t matter now, does it? It’s too late. It can’t have been more than 20 seconds and I’m already sinking.
I tried to find the training pool, but I just couldn’t find it. Who cares? It doesn’t matter now—just kick. I am kicking. Well kick harder. Oh no. hereitcomes. imnevergonnamakeit.itsgonnahappenagainkickh arderthisisstupidillnevermakeitjustquityoualreadyquityoullnevermakeittheresatleast30secondsleftjustquitjustquitjustquitjust…
“DOR!” I shout and start swimming to the edge. Chief kneels at the edge of the pool. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“I need you to formally request to drop.”
“I drop on request.”
The voice comes out of a distant mouth. I’m already down the hall of my mind, watching myself. I think about remembering this moment forever.
“Alright. Out of the pool. Go form up.”
For the last time I “exit the pool.” Saltwater falls away as I return to formation and stand beside a few other guys who either quit or got pulled. The sun is still shining, but it’s cold anyway. My former classmates continue splashing in the pool under the watchful eye of instructors. For the first time in years, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be that difficult. At least not compared to the pool.