The Trained Seal


I was one of two chosen that summer, when the mist was lifting off the lake. Our new German neighbor had selected her son, Hans, and me to be the new heirs to her swimming legacy. Before the sun came up, when the water was warmer than the air, she had us practicing strokes and studying lifesaving techniques. She followed us in a rowboat across the lake for that final mile swim. On the other side we were not allowed to touch off on the raft. Rather, about face! And swim the whole way back. The one remaining snapshot shows our arrival, and how much we looked like sleak trained seals. When we took the Red Cross written exam, she supervised with egg timer. Not one minute more to finish after the bell sounded. I have to thank her for the drills and discipline. I worked a good part of my way through college setting up my own swim camps on that Minnesota lake that now has precious few public access points. I helped supervise pools and spent hours — days or months — in total just staring at swimmers, guarding them from being swallowed beneath the surface tension of water. My Finnish supervisor taught me proper concentration and advanced techniques that all those years I had never had to put into action. Then, a few summers ago, we went to Devil’s Lake at Baraboo, Wisconsin. We would grab a table, fold out a couple chairs, and sit down by the spring-fed lake with our thermos of “grape juice” enjoying the view between the cliffs. I was debating whether or not to brave the cold water — why not sit and sip first to build up a little courage. And then, “I think she’s going under,” my wife said. “What?” “Look, look!” Nah, they must be playing, I thought. And then all the instincts, the German and Scandinavian training — along with a shot of adenalin — kicked in. Toss the wine, run to the shore. I bypass and ignore the mother who is yelling for help. Protect yourself while saving the other. It was drilled into me as I was in the process of getting there. As soon as I saw her face I knew that this one was for real. Her panic was no match for my etermination. I turned her round, talked her back, and delivered her to shore. After all those years, this would be my first and only time. A couples years later, I found my Finnish coach’s number on the internet. He had done well with real estate in the Sanibel Islands. I told him my story, and the first thing he asked was: “Did the mother say ‘Thank you’?” Strange first question. And I told him, come to think of it, no. But it did not matter. The whole thing was between me, the girl, and the devil in that lake — and knowing that all those years of practicing, sitting, and waiting could lead to this. Don’t get me wrong. Even if that sandbar had extended just a bit further and she had not lost touch of the bottom, and I were still sitting there sipping on that wine, I would have no regrets about early years spent clapping my fins and barking for fish.

(October 2003)