Sunday, May 10, 2015

Winter, Water, and Whisky

Isn’t it funny how sometimes the most stupid thing you’ve ever done always turns out to be a really good story?

So, after the heaviness of my last story about my uncle and my dad, I’ve been wanting to share a funny story. This one has been bugging me to get out for several months. I have a lot of stories wanting out, and when time allows and my writing muse is present, I’ll share them here, with you.

Everyone has a story. I seem to have a lot. When I think about it, sometimes I feel like I’ve lived a thousand lifetimes. And oddly enough, I’ve always taken it all in stride. It just seemed normal, to me.

Apparently, my experiences are, in a word, unique. I’ve seen and done things that for the most part people are always surprised to learn about. If life is intended to be lived to its fullest, I can honestly say that’s how I approach it.

Always. Sometimes without even knowing.

So, about those stories. Here’s a funny one. I’ve done some pretty stupid things in my life, but this one is in the top 5. I affectionately refer to it as the night I learned a lesson the hard way, about leaving the past in the past, the outcome of which was a new appreciation for drinking whisky…neat.

It was February 9, 1986. I am 28 years old, single and recently moved back to Lewiston, Idaho after spending four years living in Sacramento, California. In making that move, I walked away from a well paying position as a full-charge bookkeeper for Legal Aid of Northern California; not the smartest decision financially, but emotionally I needed to come home. It was time to put miles, a lot of miles--hundreds of them--between myself and Sacramento.

The choice to return home had its share of good and bad. The bad being that I took a 40% cut in pay. The good being that I am home with family. To make ends meet I was holding down two part-time night shift jobs, one in Moscow, Idaho as a cocktail waitress and the other working for a friend, Linda, at her family owned pizza restaurant in Pullman, Washington. On this day in February I’d been out pounding the pavement, seeking full-time work in Lewiston. It’s been a rough week and I’m heading out with Linda for some dinner. But first she needs to stop by her parents home.

Nights in this part of Idaho during February dip below the freezing level. The same holds true for the days. So I am dressed appropriately, in a three piece corduroy suit and a goose down knee length coat. I’m feeling restless that night, and second guessing my decision to return home to Idaho. My mind is preoccupied and absorbed  in several pieces of my life; I’ve been in a reflective mood of late. Burdened with the weight of worry on my shoulders, I’m feeling a distant pull and unable to focus on Linda’s conversation with Betty, her mother as we sit at the dining room table. Their talking about family matters, specifically Linda’s manic depressive brother John who she is trying to set me up with, but I’m not interested. He isn’t my type--and he’s a narcissist--the last thing I need. The two women are talking him up, but their efforts are akin to throwing a coat of the wrong color of paint on a house that isn’t even in the right neighborhood for the buyer. Doesn’t matter what color you paint it, it’s not the right house.

This kind of talk leaves me feeling jumbled up inside, and even more stressed. Unable to take any more of the hen talk, I excuse myself to step outside the back door for a cigarette. The night air is brisk and reawakens my sense of peace. I stop, close my eyes and take in a slow, deep breath before reaching into my leather shoulder bag for a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.

Off to my left is an in-ground swimming pool and seeing it brings back many, many fond memories. I spent most of my childhood in sunny southern California, and we had an in-ground swimming pool much like this one with a springy diving board. Cigarette in hand, I walk around the pool, ending at the deep end. Standing next to the diving board, remembering all the dives I once did. In my minds eye I see each one. Swan dives, jack knives, back flips, forward flips and a little something my sisters and I called the ‘watermelon.’

In the darkness I can see the water level is lower than normal, not quite full, and the water doesn‘t appear to be very clean. Smiling as the memories of a dozen summers flow through my mind, I step up on the diving board and look out over the pool. Lost in the moment, I took one giant step forward, reliving the same steps I took on hot summer days in that one instant. Another step this time with a little jump up…because after all, what could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, apparently.

Every diving board I have ever been on, without exception, is always attached to a stand. Always. And I fully expected this diving board to behave like every other diving board I’ve stepped onto. If you bounce a little, it bounces a little too.

Except this one.

What happened next took me completely and totally by surprise. Even today I can’t believe it happened. Instead of bouncing back, this diving board went out from under me and I landed into the freezing cold water with a very loud sudden splash.

That’s about the time panic set in.

I sank, fast. As Bob Segar would say, like a rock. At first the shock of the water immobilized my body. Except my mouth, it’s wide open and I take my first gulp of pool water. Gawd, what is that I’m tasting?  Swim, Dona, swim…dammit! I’m sinking. But before I reached the bottom, I willed myself to swim. The weight of all my clothing and the down coat kept pulling me down, I felt like I had concrete tied to my feet and I touched the bottom briefly. Then my survivor instinct kicked in. Without thinking, I squated and with one deep knee push, propelled myself toward the surface, reaching and pushing my cupped hands first frantically, then with a swimmers rhythm, through the water until I finally felt my face break the surface and the cold night air brush my skin. Short of breath, coughing and gasping for air, I desperately reached my hand out for the side of the pool. I’m freezing and when my left hand slams down on the concrete lip of the pool, I feel a sense of relief. Momentarily. The sodden weight of my clothes keeps pulling me down.

Crap! I’m going to drown out here and no one will ever know until it’s too late!

Oh, no! Hell no!

With a fighters fury, I kick my legs and reach out for the edge of the pool again, landing and this time holding on to the concrete lip with everything I have. My arms feel as if they are tied to my side and I struggle to get my entire left arm up out of the water, impeded by my down coat and the three piece suit. Now I’m second guessing my decision to not change into something more comfortable before agreeing to accompany Linda on her visit. Hanging onto the edge, I access the situation. I could lift myself out of the water, something I’ve done hundreds of times before. Not so easy this time, since the water level on the pool is at least a half foot below normal and I‘m not exactly dressed in a lightweight swimming suit. Clinging to the edge, I look around for a pool ladder. Nope. I cast a glance at the shallow end, knowing there are steps out of the pool over there. Too far. I’m too cold. I’m freezing and my fingers are starting to get numb. My only option is to lift myself up and out of the water onto the deck. It’s the only way.

I press both my feet against the wall of the pool, and PUSH! Come on Dona! You can do this! You have to. No one is here to help you now. P-U-S-H with everything you’ve got! Straining under the weight, out of breath, I thrust my left arm up and bend my elbow, then lay my arm flat on the pool deck, heaving myself up. Pushing with my legs, pulling with my arm, until my shoulders clear the pool edge. Okay. Breather…pant…pant! My leather shoulder bag is still on my shoulder, acting like a counter weight and not contributing to my plan. I pull it off my right shoulder and fling it onto the pool deck. There! That helped, immensely. Why didn’t I do that sooner?

Okay. Push! Up. Up. With one final thrust, I set my right hand down on the pool edge while wiggling and pulling my water logged body up out of the icy cold water, banging my left shin on the concrete as I kick to gain forward momentum. It takes every bit of strength I have, but finally, I’m clear. With a grunt of exhaustion I land on my stomach, panting and groaning. Water is pooling around me, my feet are dangling out over the water. But, I’m out of the pool! Safe! Thank God! I lift myself up to my hands and knees, coughing and choking from the water and filth I swallowed during those first few seconds of submersion. And now I’m shivering. I need to get inside, where it’s warm. I stagger to my feet, grab my shoulder bag and walk back toward the house.

Shit! How am I going to explain this? I ask myself, squeezing water out of my coat sleeve. I’m drenched! Water runs like a river off the fabric, down to the cuff and then drains down to the concrete. Water logged penny loafers squish with every step I take.

They’ll never believe me. Well, okay, they will when they see me. I mean, they are going to know I went swimming. I stop and turn around, taking one more look at the pool. Seeing the diving board floating upside down like a silent sentinel on the water of the deep end, I am suddenly struck by the magnitude of what could have happened. Somehow that diving board, which probably weights at least 100 pounds, missed hitting me on the head. I shutter with the thought of how this could have played out if it had…

Shaking off that thought with an affirmation of ‘Well, it didn‘t happen and you‘re okay,’ I turn back to the house. The pool water amplifies the intensity of the cold night air. I’ve reached the back door, tentatively reach out my hand and knock. I hear female voices inside, must be in the kitchen, then Linda’s voice and her foot steps.

Here we go.

There’s a phrase in use these days, I hear it all the time. It’s gained a lot of popularity recently and perfectly describes the look on Linda’s face when she opened the door and saw me standing in front of her, looking every bit like a drowned rat. For just an instant, I literally saw her trying to wrap her brain around what her eyes were seeing. Her head tilted ever so slightly to the side before she spoke.

With furrowed brows, she asked me, “What are you doing out there?” tinged with a hint of panic in her voice. “Get in here!” She widens the door and steps aside.

“But, I’m soaking wet!” I protested.

In a rush, she stepped toward me and grabbed my arm. Water gushed out of the sleeve and onto her hand before dribbling to the ground. I heard her mother’s voice in the back ground. “Who cares,” Linda scolds me. “You’ll catch the death of pneumonia out here,” she asserted as she dragged me over the threshold.

Under my squishy shoes was beautiful slate grey Italian tile, and a few feet beyond deep pile carpeting.

Her mother, Betty, appeared in the breakfast nook with a exclamation of first shock and then concern. “Oh my! What happened?” she asked.

Linda wasn’t stopping to allow any answers as she dragged me through the house, regardless of my protestations. Mom would never have allowed me to drip like this on our carpet. Okay, I’m not dripping, I’m gushing! Just around the corner was a bathroom and we reached it in a matter of seconds. Linda’s mom grabbed my purse, still filled with water, and with a look of shocked bewilderment, set it inside the sink. Linda turned on the shower and both women helped me peel the clothes off my body. Once, when I glanced up and looked in the mirror, I noticed a string of green algae hanging from my hair. Oh great! Wonder how much of that I swallowed? Bleh! Just as I was reaching up to pick the offensive green slime off my head, Linda noticed it too and deftly plucked it between her thumb and forefinger before flicking it into the trash. All the while, Linda was shaking her head and her mother was clucking her concern over the state of my being.

If I had an qualms about being naked in front of these two women, this was no time to worry about such modesty. They were far too consumed with concern about getting my body warmed back to normal. Their constant observations about my ice cold skin prompted a heightened sense of rush in their movements.

Questions hung in the air like a child’s mobile hanging from the ceiling. I’m sure they both wanted to know what happened, but that answer would have to wait. In a flurry of activity they got all my clothes off, then ordered me into the hot shower. I stepped into the steamy wonderful warmth of the hot water just as Linda’s mom scooped up my soggy clothes to deal with drying them out. I heard the bathroom door shut and all was quiet. My leg hurt where I smacked it, my fingers and toes ached from the cold, but the heated water began to bring the blood back. I turned the hot water up just a little more and parked my shivering body under comforting flow of heat. Hot water never felt so very good. I closed my eyes and let the water flow all over me before setting about to clean myself of a winters share of gunk, slime and dirty pool water.

Within minutes I had washed my hair, watching with horror as the bits of green slime dropped to my feet and then down the drain. Ugh. That’s just nasty! I finished up my shower, and dried off. Linda had left  a white terry cloth robe to wear and I wrapped it snuggly around me. About that time I started to worry if anything had fallen out of my shoulder bag while I was in the pool. Stepping over to the sink to check the contents, I noticed it was still full of water. When I grabbed the bottom to tip it over, more green slime spilled out into the sink. Gawd, it’s everywhere! My stomach started to roll. Yeah, no doubt I have plenty of that in me right now. I wrinkled my face in disgust. Ewww.

What was I thinking? Why did I do that?

Having verified that all personal items belonging in the purse were in fact still in the purse, and satisfied that there was nothing left to do but face the music, I opened the door and stepped out of the bathroom. The house smelled homey, with the warmth of cinnamon and apple. I heard voices in the breakfast nook just past the foyer, and I guiltily joined Linda, her mother and her father, Gene, at their wooden table. I had met Gene many times at all three of the family owned restaurants. He was a typical middle-aged Italian man; large frame rather wide in the middle, salt and pepper hair set over a rather plump face with thick bushy eyebrows. Dark olive tone skin and dark brown eyes.

Without a word, Gene stood up, walked around me and stepped into the kitchen. I was staring at the wood grain tabletop and my hands, feeling both embarrassment and gratitude. That was a close call. I could have drowned. What would I tell them? And how did that diving board get loose?

My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a rocks glass being set firmly down in front of me, followed by a large hairy masculine hand holding a fifth of Crown Royal. Another large hairy hand appears and removed the cap, then I watched the faceted glass bottle tip as it’s golden contents slowly poured into said glass.

“What’s this for,” I ask quietly.

“For you. Drink it!” a gruff voice commanded as he walked past me, recapping the bottle. “It will warm you up from the inside.”

Timidly, I looked up from the glass and into his deep set brown eyes. “Can I have a little ice and some 7-up in it?” I ask.

Crown Royal in hand, he stopped on his heels and whirled around to face me. “No! You’ll drink it just as it is. The ice will make you cold and you don’t need no 7-up!” he growled, setting the fifth heavily down on the table with a wooden THUD!

Okay, fine. He’s a big Italian guy, so I’m not going to argue with him.

I never liked straight whisky, and I always drank it over ice with either 7-up or coke. Mom once gave me a sip of her scotch when I was a teenager and the taste just didn’t agree with my palate at the time. One sip then was all I wanted. Tentatively, I brought the glass to my lips and took a small sip, half expecting the whiskey to bite me back. It didn’t. I let the golden liquor linger in my mouth, savoring the slight tang before allowing it to slide down my throat. Wow! That was pretty good. And it felt good. This isn’t so bad without the ice or 7-up after all.

Languishing in the electric buzz caused by the whisky, I felt the weight of three pairs of eyes on me. Coyly, I glanced up from the glass. I smiled slightly. I felt like I was sitting in front of an interrogation squad. Linda and her parents were seated together at one end of the oval table, and I was seated alone at the other.

About the time I was thinking I would have loved to been a fly on the wall in this room while I was in the shower, Linda broke the silence. “What happened?” she asked as she folded her hands together on the table.

Oh, this should be interesting. “Well,” I began, “I was outside smoking--”

“We know that!” her father interrupted. This emitted two narrow eyed stares from two female faces that effectively shut him up. He shrugged it off.

The women both looked at me as if to say…go on. I gathered up my courage. “I was walking around the pool, thinking back to when I had a pool.”

Three faces waited. How in the world am I going to explain this?

Gene asked, “So did you fall in?” His wife cast him a disapproving look and shook her head.

“Not exactly,” I slowly replied. Oh gawd, this is just too embarrassing.

It was Linda’s turn now. “Did you trip over something?” she asked.

I shook my head and replied meekly, “No.”



“Well! What the hell happened?” Gene demanded as he sat back in his chair, crossing his large hairy arms in front of his chest. His eyes were alight with an intensity that told me if I didn’t answer and soon, I would regret it.

“I was on the diving board--”

This time it was Betty who interrupted me. “Diving board?” she asked. Puzzled, she looked at her husband, then back at me. “The diving board was out there?”

This didn’t make sense…of course it’s out there. It goes with the pool. “Yes,” I confirmed. Why is she asking that? “Anyway, I was thinking back to when I used to do all kinds of dives and I stood up on the diving board. I took a couple of steps toward the end, then next thing I know I’m in the pool!"

This elicited a deep sigh from Gene, who looked his wife straight in the eye and asked, “You said John came by today and put the diving board in the garage.”

Now they’ve lost me. Diving board, in the garage? Wha---?

Seeing the bewilderment on my face, Linda chimed in. “John came by today and Dad asked him to put the diving board in the garage for the rest of the winter,” she explained. “We take it off the base every winter for safety reasons, to make sure no one gets hurt.”

Well, that was probably a great plan, until I came along.

“Oh,” I nodded. “I see. Didn’t know people did that.” Sipping the whisky, I’m running everything that happened back through my mind. They must think I’m a fool. Who else in their right mind would get up on a diving board and bounce around on it? On a cold winter night.

That would be me.

I cast a furtive glance at Gene, and I see a measure of worry on his face. He’s struggling with something, and I know what it is.

Leaning toward him, I made eye contact. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to sue you. It’s my own damn fault for what happened,” I assured him.

With that, he released a deep sigh. Oh society, you’ve made us all so leery of everything, what with all the ambulance chasers looking for any excuse to throw the burden of culpability on to the innocent rather than holding people responsible for their own choices and subsequent actions. Clearly, this was my fault. I wasn’t hurt or maimed in any way. And I had learned a very valuable lesson. Winter in Idaho is not an ideal time for outdoor swimming. And stay off the flipping diving boards.

The heaviness that followed me into the house slowly vanished and our conversation turned to lighter topics as Gene plied me with a little more whisky. Every now and then, I joked about the diving board, Gene cussed under his breath at his son’s absence of helpfulness and every one breathed a collective sigh of relief.

My clothes were soon dried, but the goose down coat was another matter and required dry cleaning. I returned to the bathroom to dry my hair, Betty loaned me a heavy coat for the drive home and we took our leave. Stepping outside Linda and I both stopped momentarily. The sodden path I had taken from the pool loomed at our feet, casting a dark reminder of what had just transpired only an hour before.

Linda broke the silence. “What were you thinking?” she asked as we walked toward her car.

Still feeling embarrassed, I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know. I was just reliving some moments from my past. Thinking back to better times,” I replied with a wistful tone.

“Well, I hope you learned your lesson. Still, this never would have happened if John did what he was supposed to do. Luckily, you didn‘t get seriously hurt,” she observed.

True. Somewhat. I survived the ordeal with a little bump on my right shin, but when I slammed my left hand onto the pool edge, I injured my index finger somehow. By the next day, the finger swelled and I couldn’t bend it at all; any movement proved painful. I spent the next couple of months driving around town, with that finger extended above the steering wheel. People must have thought I was telling everyone I am number one because I couldn’t wrap that finger around the steering wheel to drive; it literally stuck straight up in the air. And when softball season started, I batted with that finger still extended straight up, which really bothered the umpires. But the rule books said nothing about a player having to have all ten fingers wrapped around the bat so I was left alone. It would take weeks of physical therapy to finally get that finger to move and bend. To this day I still can’t completely curl it down like my other fingers, too much scar tissue developed on the knuckle.

I have to admit, anytime I see a pool with a diving board, I do smile. For all the memories and dives I’ve made off those boards and into many pools…planned and otherwise. That’s the thing about life. There will be days when you dive in head first just as you planned it. And there will be days when you take a step forward only to find the solid footing beneath you disappear.

And sometimes, you just got to laugh at yourself. For those who can laugh at themselves are the ones who can give of themselves freely with an open heart and mind. There’s a true sense of freedom in that.

They understand everything, better than anyone.


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