In the 1980s, the Red Cross ran a water safety program which aimed to make Canadians safer in, on, and around the water. Certified instructors led countless children through a program of swimming lessons which consisted of eight levels, each marked by a coloured badge. Lessons started at the yellow level and progressed to orange, red, maroon, blue, green, grey and white. Maroon was a pivotal level. The skills required to earn that crimson badge reduced many a child to tears. Maroon was the assassin of aquatic dreams.
Thanks to its proximity to an air force base, people living in my village could take advantage of a number of government-funded facilities. Civilians were allowed access to a movie theatre, skating rink, squash and tennis courts, and an outdoor aquatic centre. When my parents learned we could take swimming lessons at the base, our summers were officially planned. They felt strongly that my siblings and I would benefit from learning some basic skills and water survival tactics. Yachting and poolside cocktail parties were to be no trouble for their offspring.
Every June as the school year drew to a close, a familiar feeling of dread washed over me. Other children were excited about summer vacation, but not me. July meant swimming lessons and forced socialization. Summer brought an influx of military families transferring between school years, and according to my mother the aquatic centre was the perfect place to meet those families and make new friends. But I didn’t want to make new friends in my bathing suit; I wanted to be invisible.
My brother and sister had natural abilities in the pool. They mastered breathing techniques and strokes with relative ease and went on to swim competitively. I, on the other hand, sputtered and flailed through the preliminary badge levels. Pint-sized and short on muscle, I did not fare well in the frigid waters of the unheated pools. I hated putting my face in the water and was unable to stop my body from shaking violently in the cold. Self-conscious and prone to tears, swimming lessons were my personal hell.
Despite the odds, I finally made it to the maroon level class and found myself standing half-naked poolside with a group of mostly military kids. The only familiar face in the group was Wes Campbell. Wes had arrived just two weeks before the end of the school year. His mother introduced him at the door to our 5th-grade classroom.
“This is Wesley,” she said. “We’ve just transferred from CFB Comox.”
“Come on in, Wes,” said Mr. Tupper cheerfully, as if getting a new student during locker clean-out season was totally normal.
“No, it’s Wesley,” his mother corrected, “Wes-LEY. He’s allergic to bees and milk.”
I guess she wanted to be absolutely sure Wes got started off on the wrong foot.
As I readied myself for yet another cruel summer of swimming lessons, it became clear that Wes was as uncomfortable in his skin as I was. Gripping his towel tightly, he looked like an inmate about to take his first prison shower. Our instructor, Kurt, seemed excited to guide a new batch of swimmers to their coveted maroon badges. He stood on the pool deck holding a clipboard and whistle.
“I know everyone thinks maroon is a tough level,” he said, “but I’ve got a great feeling about this group!”
Kurt’s confidence was completely misplaced.
One of the skills required to earn a maroon badge was mastery of the HELP position: Heat Escape Lessening Posture. It’s a life-saving technique which involves drawing the limbs toward the body to prevent the loss of heat from your armpits and groin. So, should you fall off your yacht during a summer cocktail party, you won’t freeze to death while waiting for the coast guard to rescue you. Badge hopefuls were required to maintain this position (with the aid of a personal floatation device) in the deep end for 60 seconds.
Wes’s body had an uncontrollable tendency to roll forward when curled, making it difficult to stay in HELP position without ingesting 10 litres of water. A kid named Scott suggested it was happening because Wes was front heavy, and called him Tubbs for the rest of the course. The day a seagull dropped a poop missile on Scott’s head was the first time I ever saw Wes smile.
I struggled with the survival skill as well. That summer my mother had suggested that wearing a sweatshirt in the pool might keep me warmer. The wet fabric made me about eight times heavier, so moving my arms and staying afloat was a bona fide challenge.
The two names I heard most often in class were Wes’s and mine. Kurt would call to me enthusiastically as I struggled to stay conscious in the pool. “Move your arms,” he’d holler. “BOTH OF THEM!” Or, “Wes! WES! Hang on to the flutter board. HANG ON TO THE BOARD!”
Though we had never spoken a word to one another (or anyone else for that matter), I found Wes’s presence reassuring.
One day I heard Scott yell, “Coach! Wes is threatening to kill me!”
This seemed unlikely given Wes’s knack for mutism. “Wes!” Kurt yelled. “Don’t threaten! Just do it!”
That was the first time I heard Wes laugh.
Somehow Kurt remained optimistic in the face of adversity — Wes and I were really testing his grit as an instructor. I couldn’t seem to use my arms and legs at the same time in the front crawl, resulting in an arrhythmical flapping as I made way up and down the length of the pool. Unable to gauge the force required for a flip turn, Wes resembled a breaching whale as his body lurched up and over the water surface during laps. And diving? Well, getting a timid child to go into anything head first is an uphill battle. Undeterred, Kurt trained us with the heart and tenacity you might expect to see in an ABC Afterschool Special.
It was during the final class before our badge evaluations that I found myself treading water alone in the centre of the pool. I could hear Kurt giving pointers to the other kids as they clung to the deck, but couldn’t motivate my body to join them. I was exhausted from a dozen unsuccessful dive attempts and an hour of freestyle thrashing. My arms and legs felt like jello, and I could hardly keep my head above water. I began to feel a little panicked and a lot sick.
I guess I had ingested a lot of air that morning because a sound came forth from my cramping belly like nothing I’d ever heard before. Time is irrelevant in the Seventh Circle of Hell but if I had to guess? I’d say my body expelled the cries of anguished souls for about 30 seconds. The gut-wrenching hellsound emitted from my mouth echoed across the entire aquatic centre, reverberating off the dank concrete and tiles. And then, only silence. Everyone was staring at me. I was mortified.
I heard a voice from behind me. “Uh, Kurt?”
“Just a second!” Kurt was fixated on the tears pooling in my eyes.
“Kurt?” It was Wes. It was the first time I’d heard his voice. Somehow he was right beside me.
“Hang on, bud!” Kurt was trying to figure out how to manage the situation. I could hear snickers from the other kids and then watched as Scott’s hand lifted to point at me. He began to shout, “Holy cra—“
“What? WHAT IS IT WES?” Kurt threw his arms up into the air.
“My scab just fell off in the pool.”
God bless that boy. Nothing diverts attention and evacuates a pool faster than a floating skin crust. Piercing shrieks filled the air. Kids scrambled out of the pool, elbowing each other as they clawed their way onto the pool deck. I spun my body around as quickly as one can when weighed down by ten pounds of wet sweatshirt, and looked at Wes. He grinned, and slowly swam toward the edge of the pool.
Two summers later, Wes and I finally earned our maroon badges; it was Kurt’s last year of teaching. We’d heard he was leaving for law school, but Kurt insisted that the success of Tubbs and Princess von Burpen were his “drowning achievement,” so it seemed like as good time as any to move on.