In Deep Water

The building echoed with whispers and wet laps. Every sound in the cavernous concrete room was accentuated a thousand times. Water chuckled behind me and the row of children, and I could smell damp concrete in the air. We stood in a tight row, our backs arched at attention, paying attention to our instructor.

“. . . and this is how you equalize your eardrums,” the instructor was a young strict looking woman. She was thin, dressed neck to ankle in some form fitting long sleeved outfit I did not recognize. I thought it was a bathing suit. She held her nose and pretended to blow, keeping her mouth shut while she raised one hand, pointing her index finger at the ceiling hidden by the glare from the metal coned steel housings hanging there. Then she stopped, dropping her hands, both from the finger and the nose.

“You’ll feel it going down,” she warned, looking at us kindly. “It’ll start hurting in your ears. When it does I want you to stop and do this.” She stopped to repeat the gesture, holding her nose, but keeping her other arm down. Her face changed from kind to stern in an instant. “And then you keep down down. Until you reach them.” She pointed at the dark bars lying on the floor. Each was about a foot long, and they had magnetic ends, color coded so you would know which was which, north end from south. We were supposed to build something with them; that or retrieve them from the bottom of the pool. I could feel my insides squirming with gleeful anticipation. This is going to be fun, I kept reminding myself, taking nervous glances over my bared shoulder at the pool. The water was dark at the bottom . . . they had warned us it would be deep. I just hoped I could hold enough air to carry out the mission.

Several adults – some of them G.I.’s, I suppose, stood around in relaxed poses. They were wearing black trunks, and alternated between studying us with what seemed a deep curiosity and looking at the water. I threw them nervous glances. They had been whispering behind cupped hands, and in some strange way I knew they were talking about us. “Us” was a small group of kids – about six or eight of us, not more. We were standing in front of the female instructor; behind us was “the pool”. This was on a base not long after we had arrived – both this base and this location in Germany. We moved around a lot.

This wasn’t the first pool we had went swimming in nor would it be the last – but it was by far the deepest and indoors. Because I have trouble believing what my memory tells me – I can’t believe how deep it felt – I tell myself: “Oh, it couldn’t have been more than sixteen feet deep.” But the truth of it was – I think it was a lot deeper. A whole lot deeper.

I know the water got a darker as you went down. A lot darker. So dark that you couldn’t hardly see those bars laying on the blue bottom; so dark that all of the colors had drained away – you could only tell the white end because it was gray (white was the ‘North’ side) and the red because it was a little bit darker. While as an adult I have trouble believing it, it felt more like thirty feet, the pressure was so bad. You could feel your chest crushing in. Of course we were kids; our ribs were thin – but still. It hurt to be down there a long time. And we were trained to hold our breath over a minute – hyperventilating until you were silly from dizziness before diving in . Twenty-four seems to a number I recall hearing, though the German measurements were based on meters. I think it might have been something the G.I.’s said, or we might have asked our instructor. I do know it was deep enough that despite the overhead lights the water got dark and I had to stop at least three or four times to equalize my ears against the growing pressure.

“Okay, everyone turn and face the pool!” As I recall, this class was an equal opportunity instruction – I seem to recall one, if not two or three girls in my class. Everyone, if I recall, wore black or dark colored swimsuits – the girls one piece ones that went from the crotch all the way to their shoulders. I think my mom had enrolled me in this class, though how she’d ever managed to find one on a base over there – one where I could be attending without the interruptions of school and moving – is beyond me. However, she knew my love of swimming – oddly enough, my brother was never there – and she was quite determined that I do it well. (I later went on to earn my Red Cross Advanced Life Saving Certificate, but that’s quite another story for another time.)

I turned; everyone turned, as if on a pivot, the way we’d trained to be.i We were near the far corner of the pool, away from the shallow end. You could hear the soft patter of bare feet as we shuffled on the wet cold concrete floor. It was rough. We weren’t shoulder to shoulder, but close enough you could reach out and grab someone. Everyone was pale, milk white from lack of sun. We almost glowed under those lights, except the little girls who stood at the very end. They had those tight fitting bathing suits on, strict little things fitting like skin covering their thin bodies. No one was fat in there. I hadn’t even gained the weight I would soon be packing on. I often glanced curiously at them as they made their way single file into the girl’s locker room, wondering what went on in there. What their pale little bodies looked like. If they were as pale as mine. I remembered my cousin Julie; how brown her body had been. I wished that I could be friends with them – anyone! – but in this group I knew not a single one. We were all kids thrust together at our parent’s whim, joined on an Army base by a Government order and whimsical fate.

None of our parents came to watch us, not that I recall. None of the kids parents were there. Maybe they were but I don’t remember it. The room was almost always empty except a few men standing around the pool when I walked in. It seems to me my mom dropped me off the very first time to show me where it was. From there I was on my own. She would tell me when it was time to go and that was it. Later I would just know when it was time to go – a little bit after dinner – grabbing my bathing suit and a warm towel. I guess she figured I was pretty good at finding my way around. That, and on the military bases it was pretty much safe. Of course if you want to take the ‘other side’ – it was preparatory to some training. (or at least that is my thought here.).

After that first visit we would walk to the pool on our own. It seemed I always went in the evening, and that I went two weeks, every day, for two or three hours a day, starting at twilight. I seem to remember seeing stars in the sky, walking – but I don’t trust every last detail of this memory, not for certain. And I’m almost certain it was in the late fall. The air of these memories (for there is another one about a young lover I found who found a friend in me) – is always cold; crisp and cold, generally with the wind blowing. Cold and windy days – those gray ones promising rain, snow, or thunder. And the shortening of days as the days go marching on until the next thing you know you are eating breakfast in the dark and supper in the dark. Five o’clock – that’s what time we had to be home for eating supper. Dinner was served at five-thirty – that’s when my dad would come home, though on the bases he would sometimes arrive for lunch or at odd times to either pick up some gear or drop something off. In those northern climes due to global tilt and angle, and especially during those cloudy days when the clouds would all stand still and pile up, five thirty becomes the twilight zone. At least seems that way. All the colors drain away into the shadows; ghosts haunt buildings, shining their light into your faces – until you turn around and realize it’s just the reflection of some streetlight ‘yonder’ – far off, in other words . . .

wandering those bases at night was a trip sometimes.ii

“Okay, you know what to do.” The woman walked to the edge of the pool. Her suit came down to her ankles. She had a load of those bars in her arms. “Everyone get in.”

She started throwing the bars in – half to a quarter of the way across, and about fifteen or twenty feet from the end – where it was the deepest (as I was about to learn). This was kind of a “final”. The bars made dull splashes. We had learned to swim starting ‘on shore’ – everyone laying on their belly on these little stools and feathering their feet, making swimming motions with their arms. We were also taught to dive from a high place – and speed dive. Surface dives were rough – we barely had enough legs to shove us under the surface, much less give us any acceleration to go down like the big men did – for they got in around us.

We all jumped in – freestyle, laughing out loud, preparing for a good time, but the water was cold, almost freezing. I know I was overjoyed to be in it– it seemed a natural environment, and I could hold my breath for over a minute. But that was without hyperventilating. I don’t know how long I could hold it hyperventilating. They never told us how long we were ‘down there’.

The G.I.’s – at least two or three of them (and I don’t think there were any more) jumped in with us as we paddled out to the middle of the deep end where the woman had thrown the bars. One or two of them went down and did some thing – or some things. And then we started diving.

As I said, the water was cold, but our bodies soon warmed to the task. It was hard work – diving down – and down and on down deeper – holding our noses and blowing from time to time. I learned to keep mine in check – blowing as I went down instead of stopping like some were – swimming on forward, kicking with desperate feet, trying to reach that dim bottom. From there it got even trickier. The G.I.’s had built structures out of these things – small pyramids and boxes for the most part. And in every one they would place a bar, usually at an angle, with one end hanging out. You would have to go and pull out the bar without disturbing the structure. It was harder than it sounds.

For one thing, you had those magnets going against you. Get too close to the structure and it would fall down, or the magnetic forces would go tearing it apart. I remember on my first one – a cube, I’m pretty sure – the end of the bar got too close to another magnet – it ‘sucked’ the end down – and I was left with this disentegrating box, a rod in one hand – those divers growing closer and me imagining that they were getting angry – as I desperately tried to rebuild the box on the bottom and retrieve the bar like I was supposed to do. Instead I ended up making a mess – the bars were scattered all over as I finally gave up my try and went surging from the bottom – running out of air and hoping I would make it in time to the surface.

That’s where I learned about diving – free lung, any style. You don’t want to wait until the last minute. You’ve got to learn just when to turn around – go up towards the surface. Otherwise you’re gonna run out of air on the way there. This was something they had warned us about – and not all the kids seemed to take it to heart. I recall the G.I.’s having to rescue several of them. “They” (the G.I.’s) would keep jumping in, always keeping someone near the bottom, keeping an eye on us. The woman never went in – she stayed on top, on the concrete, directing us.

“Time to go down again!” she would call to the class. “You, you, and you! I want you to go down there and do (fill in the blank).” And she would describe the task to us. And then we’d go diving down – bending, folding, thrusting our legs up – using their weight to drive us down – and we’d swim like dark fish, lemmings – swirling shadows on the edge of my vision as I used my arms and legs to pull myself down. All the while the water would be growing darker, duskier until it was almost night – and then you’d see that bottom swimming up. From there I’d go desperately darting in a serpentine pattern, keeping a distance from the other swimmers until the bars – sometimes scattered – came into view. From there it would be a matter of ‘diving’ down to them, and hoping you had enough air to ‘complete your mission’ – whether that was disassembling something, assembling something, or simply bringing the bars up one by one. (For some reason you weren’t allowed to bring up two – one in each hand.)

Meanwhile those G.I.’s kept an eye on us and pulling out a child from time to time. I can still see them in mind’s eye – hovering there in the dark water at the edge of our vision all the time. They’d take them over to the edge of the concrete pool where they would drag them out and over, pump ’em dry and start over again. They’d sit them down for a few minutes – the kid would choke it out, sometimes vomiting – and then he (or she) would get back in. And do it again. Retrieving some, leaving behind some . . . we got into building ‘structures’ for later on. Those were for the short kidsiii. But it was a short course, only two weeks (I think) though we stayed late into the evening. About nine or ten sometimes. Maybe even later. I remember always being a sleepy head going home. Swimming had wore me out for good reason . . . it was hard sometimes.

(later, sitting in the dark thinking, I try as I’ve tried to envision this place, the building. The lights, I’m sure, were set off to the sides, in the high corners where the wall joined the ceiling. And it was tall! But those lights set like that – I think they caste a shadow off the side of the concrete pool, adding to the impression of dark water. Kind of like in a swimming pool early in the morning – swimming in the shadow of a concrete wall, the water becomes a bit ‘darker’. “Dusky” is a good word for it.

As for this thing’s depth . . . well, the building.

Again we are relying on a faulty memory system; parts and glitches in the system; snapshots and feelings; the impressions of a twelve year old child who was (evidently) having some memory problems – or ‘switching’ – because we can’t remember one move – there’s a lot of holes in this thing. But sitting . . . I kept trying to look at it from the water’s edge – when I was treading water – my lungs giving out, chest sore, panting – going down for one more dive, doing this again and again. I don’t think they gave us one break for more than – well it felt like three hours, but probably was two. And truthfully, some of the kids came near drowning – they would stay down there too long, trying to build something or bring something up – forgetting that rule or pushing to the limit that which dictates how long you can stay down. And that’s approximately half the air that you breathed getting down there. There wasn’t much room for error, not if you were going to do this thing: go down and ‘fetch them’ – or worse and harder still, build something (typically a square cage) using the magnetic ends.

But I remember – or think I remember – seeing this number painted on one side. The end.


And as I mentally squinted over the choppy water towards the side (trying to force my attention on that and not the other little boys and job I was doing – because I was concentrating on that and not this number I was seeing) – I’m seeing a small “m”.

Which means the depth would have been 11 meters.

That’s quite a deep depth for a little boy to be climbing – up or down, water besides the point. That’s over three stories deep. If my somewhat faulty memory rings true. (And the numbers are painted white; that’s what I noticed right off; usually on a pool they’re black; here they are painted white, with that little serrif on top. And tall ones.)

The building itself – as I kinda remember it – wasn’t in the usual place for that kind of thing. Usually the Army tends to keep things together – amenities all in one section, PX, barber, ‘bought’ things in another – the tools of war and their trade stored in another, the soldiers bunking in some barracks grouped in a cluster – very organized.

This building (again, to the best of my faulty memory, for which you may have to excuse me – and again, to the depth perceptions of a twelve year old child) – sat on a low hill in the ‘industrial’ or ‘utility’ section on that base – not the normal one, which would mean not far from the PX, E-Club, Theater and things. No, this building stood off – and it was a tall one – and you had to climb some steps to get in. And it was echoey and dark inside; the lighting was (I think) perimeter lighting around the pool, nothing hanging over. Which again explains the darkness of the water I was seeing.

But if I’m getting it right – if that number means what I think it’s meaning – then that pool was over thirty foot deep. That would explain the pressure I was feeling. Because it was like a squeezing hand, a squeezing fist – you could feel it. It hurt my chest – for hours afterwards I would feel it. A soreness in the middle of the ribcage, and tender sometimes on the sides.

Eleven meters. Thirty-six feet. I know: I looked it up.

That’s a long way for a child to be diving.

Deep water.

Story of my life sometimes, LOL.

i ~ Oddly enough, this sentence has a DID symbology, though I didn’t realize it when I first wrote it. Might just be a case of seeing coincidences where there are none – but it’s almost as if it’s done quite deliberately. Which it may be. On behalf* or by some ‘part’ in me. *

“Behalf”, I’ve figured out (because it’s a phrase I sometimes use) means “for the ‘all’ of me in some way. “Pivoting” means “turning” – ‘switching’ from one phase/person/persona to another. As in to spin (in mind’s eye I see a flat round smooth brown table slowly turning . . . as if in the wind). From one personality to another in a flash or a turn.

ii ~ And for a child it could get scary. You had to avoid the MP’s in their jeeps – the grownups milling around – dodging around corners and behind bushes . . . making your way ever closer to ‘the system’ . . . usually the supply depot to meet someone, steal some supplies – sometimes for the soldiers out in the woods.

iii~ another odd phrase in my mind. “Short” in military terms means “soon to be transferred”. But it also could mean younger (smaller) children.