Ah, Memorial Day Weekend. Although not the official start of summer, the holiday typically heralds its imminent approach. With my favorite season in sight, it’s time to complete our summer school series. Recounting these old stories during an exceptionally snowy winter in North Carolina kept those lazy, golden days within reach for me.
Yesterday, my wife and I took the boys to our pool and lounged while we watched them expend their surplus energy. While there, I thought about one of my favorite jobs ever: lifeguard. While a few stints at a country club pool in college was fun and had its perks, there was different kind of lifeguard position I held that trumps the others.
At nineteen I became the lifeguard for Murdoch Developmental Center, a large campus for the mentally handicapped. The pool sat atop a small knoll in a large grass area near the center of the campus. The cottages where the residents lived surrounded the grassy field. From the pool I had a great view of the sky with plenty of free time to watch it. The cottages had scheduled times for their residents to swim, so I had long stretches between groups where I sharpened my imagination on the soft edges of cumulous clouds as they floated overhead.
The best part of the job was the overwhelming joy of the residents that always buoyed my own spirits. No matter what mood I'd been in before they arrived, I found myself walking with lighter feet after my interaction with the majority of them. One particular resident who loved his pool time was an older man whom I’ll call Steven. Short, spry, and full of smiles, Steven appeared to be in his mid-fifties. He may have had me by 30 years at the time, but he darted around the pool like a 10 year-old.
When I first met Steven, he wanted to play a variation of dodge ball with the sponges we kept at the pool as toys. When dry, the sponge balls were feather-light, but soak them in the water and they carried serious weight. I tossed four dry sponges to Steven and kept an equal amount for myself. New to the game, I mimicked Steven as he compressed the toys, then dipped them into the pool to fill them.
“You go first,” he called from the opposite end of the rectangular pool. I eased one across the pool, lackadaisical in my throw as I didn’t want to hurt him. Steven watch the sponge’s long arc, then stepped to his right at the last second to let it sail by. Before he had completed his sidestep, his arm blurred.
In that instant, my chest felt as if someone had slapped me with an open hand. I looked down to see a bright red welt forming in the center of it. I looked to the cottage staff member who had brought Steven. The man tried to keep his laughter under control, but couldn’t. I had to chuckle myself even though my chest felt as if fire ants had laid siege to it.
“Wow,” I said. “Steven has quite the arm on—”
I looked down at my chest again. Steven had nailed me once more in the exact same spot. I whipped my head up to him giggling as he raised his arm to throw again. But this time I bolted left in an attempt to deny Steven a stationary target. I didn't succeed. Steven’s pinpoint accuracy countered my movement.
Another welt formed on my right arm. Finally, I whipped one of the sponges toward Steven, not holding back this time. He dodged and the ball missed. I threw the remaining sponges, including the ones he’d thrown. Not once did I connect with my target. My stash depleted, Steven picked up the balls around him and peppered me with my own ammo while I scrambled around the pool to no effect.
I spent the rest of the summer getting pelted by Steven while rarely hitting him with any of my throws. I don’t think he realized his throwing gift, however, I realized quite a bit from the experience:
1) Never underestimate anyone
2) Everyone has something they do extremely well
Another resident from that summer who comes to mind was a bit different than Steven. I’ll call him Zach. Unlike Steven, the pool made Zach nervous. He was legally blind and wanted nothing to do with the deep pool. He would venture into the shallow kiddie pool, which was no more than 6" deep, but he'd never let go of its edge. We’ve all seen the “swimmers” who cling to the side of a pool, but usually they are torso-deep in water. Imagine a grown man clinging to the edge of a children's pool where the water barely comes to his ankles. He had to stretch down to reach the side, almost folding in half as he grasped at the pool's edge. Now imagine this: Zach was at least 6’ 8” tall, so he had a looooooong way to stretch. It almost appeared as if he was walking on all fours.
Throughout the summer, I kept asking Zach to let go of the pool’s side, but he couldn’t do it. I told him he was safe, and if he’d just release the edge and stand upright, he’d be fine. He refused. Finally, near the end of the summer, I asked him to trust that I wouldn’t let anything happen to him, and, if he’d simply hold my hand, I’d make sure he stayed safe as we walked through the shallow water. He paused for a moment as I watched unknown thoughts churn below his features. Then, he let go and stood upright until he towered over me. Joy filled his face as we walked around the entire pool. That look stayed etched in my mind a long time.
I think about Zach often and wonder this: what in our own lives, because of our limited understanding, are we afraid to release? What keeps us crouched in fear, clinging to the tiny world we know, when we have the power and ability to stand upright and discover a much larger world, one filled with wonder, beauty, and prosperity?
Whenever I need my hubris placed in check, I simply recall how I was no match for Steven. And whenever I need strength to stand a little taller and face the unknown, I remember Zach. But both men taught me this: we are all more powerful than we’ve ever imagined. What will you do with that power?