6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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Rescue Me (Training to be a Lifeguard at 51)

After I returned to work from vacation, I learned that I had been volunteered for lifeguard training. At my age of 51 you’re not sure whether your boss has just given you the ultimate compliment or whether he is totally lacking in reality. Although I do exercise regularly and make a modest effort to keep in shape, swimming has not been my physical activity of choice for sometime. Thus when I was told I was going to have show up at 8 o’clock Wednesday morning at Camp Fairhaven in Brooks, Maine and be prepared to do a 500-yard swim, I felt a little apprehensive to say the least, especially considering that the only swimming I’ve come close to lately has been in my bathtub, and there’s no 500-yards about it.

No sooner than I arrived at the camp, I was greeted by one of the lifeguard instructors. She pointed to the dock down by the water, and told me to head on down. From where I was standing the pond didn’t seem to be that formidable, but when I got down to the dock, I started to have a different perspective on things. It was a perfect day for a swim--clear sky and a bright summer sun glistening off the water--with the temperature already at 80 degrees. Sticking my hand into the water, I was relieved to find it wasn’t too cold. I was greeted by a couple of my colleagues who were also there for the training. It wasn’t too long before the instructor arrived. She called us together and then explained that what she wanted us to do was to swim toward the other shore using a modified crawl and after turning around, to swim back using a breaststroke half way, and then freestyle for the rest. “When swimming out, make sure to keep your head above the water. You want to be looking straight ahead the whole time,” she said.

She then climbed into a kayak and paddled out just a ways. Looking at us, she said, “Anytime you’re ready.” I walked to the edge of the dock and looked across the pond. “This is just nuts,” I said to myself. I stared down into the water, and then dove in. Whether I wanted to or not, I was now committed and decided to make the most of it. In my teens I used to be a long distance swimmer, and won a few one-mile and five-mile swim awards. About a third way into my swim, though, I started to realize that the pace I used to be able to swim at was not the pace I could swim at now. I began to quickly tire and found myself having a difficult time catching my breath. I stopped swimming and asked the instructor if I could just flounder a bit and catch my breath. “Do you need to come out,” she asked. “When I finish I will,” I replied. After catching my breath, I resumed swimming at a slower pace, and finally found myself making progress with forward motion. About 50 yards from the other shore, the instructor finally said, “You can turn around.”

After making the turn, I focused on the dock that I jumped off from. I kept a steady pace and began to feel more self-assured as the dock loomed larger and larger. My arms and legs started to feel like rubber, but I kept on going. Finally I reached the dock and, oh, did it ever feel great to get my hand on the edge. Even though the entire swim was only about 12 minutes it seemed like forever. After two attempts I was able to flop myself up on the dock like a trout that’s been reeled in from a catch. It was good to see that my much younger colleagues were equally exhausted. The instructor climbed out of her kayak. “Congratulations,” she said; “You all passed.”

Thus began our training as a Certified Red Cross Lifeguards. We found ourselves in a class with a group of seven teenagers who work as summer counselors at the camp. For the duration of that day and the next two, we spent time in class learning about injury prevention, techniques used in performing rescues in the water, first aid and CPR. When we weren’t in class, we were in the water, sometimes as long as three hours at a time, learning and practicing skills involved in rescuing a victim near the surface, under the surface, and how to do rescues in the water with victims who may have sustained head, neck, and back injuries in the water.

Even though Wednesday may have been a perfect summer day, the next two days were cold and rainy. Thursday the temperature never broke 60 degrees and after being in the water for a while, my hands started to numb out on me. I find that when I’m cold I don’t concentrate very well, and as a result, I was having to perform a rescue technique more than a couple of times until the instructors finally said, “Good.” After taking the written tests Thursday night, I showed up at the dock at 8 A.M. Friday to take the final water skills test. Unlike Wednesday morning where it had been a sunny 80 degrees, it was 52 degrees and raining. I looked at the faces of the rest of the people who were in my class, and saw they were pretty much equally expressing what I felt. One of the younger persons finally spoke. “I hope I get each skill right the first time, because I don’t want to be in the water any longer than I have to.”

The instructors greeted us and then told us to get in the water. It was hard not to be miserable but all of us surprisingly made the best of it and helped each other get through the Skills Test as quickly as possible. I even surprised myself when I nailed all the difficult rescues in one attempt, especially with the head splint technique that’s used for a face-down victim who’s suffered a possible neck or back injury. The day before I struggled quite a bit with trying to remember that I needed to grasp the victim’s arms midway between the shoulder and elbow. Considering that several of my victims drowned yesterday because I forget one or two steps involved in performing a rescue, I felt good today knowing that all my victims survived. After two and half long days, it felt pretty good to know I passed. My body, though, barely passed. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt completely sore all over. With all the swimming and performing rescues, I’ve discovered muscles that I didn’t think I had anymore. And so Friday night I spent a long time doing my favorite swim—the stationary plop-oneself-down-and-take-a-load-off in a bathtub of warm water with Epsom salts.

S. L. Cunningham