Waiting for the Next

The YMCA locker room smelled like tile, wood and chlorine. My dad and I getting naked together wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence for me — but, at five years old, I had enough experience in the world to know that the only way to go from being dressed normally to being dressed in a bathing suit was to be totally undressed in between. And my dad was already down to his boxers.

Wow but he had giant feet. They looked to me like things I could bobsled down.

I slipped off my underpants, and tried not to lunge at my swimsuit. I’d seen Man From U.N.C.L.E.; I was down with James Bond. I knew it was all about being as cool as … well, my dad. Who, bathing suit on, was already walking away from me.

“C’mon, son. Grab your towel.”

While padding quickly behind him I tossed my white towel over my shoulder, the way he was carrying his. Turns out you needed shoulders for that. By the time I’d plucked my towel from the floor my dad had disappeared around the corner of a line of lockers. I hurriedly caught up with him just as we passed from the locker area into a room the size of an airplane hanger that had mostly water where its floor should be.

“And here’s the pool!” said my dad.

I’d seen above-ground pools before; and I’d once seen the ocean. This was very definitely neither of those.

I kept very near my dad as we walked on the cold cement alongside the vast shimmering blue plane of water. When we reached a trio of green plastic chairs my dad draped his towel over the back of one of them. He then strolled over to the edge of the pool.

“Put your towel down and come over here.” He held out his hand to me. “C’mon. You’re not gonna get hurt.”

A year or so before I had been up on my dad’s shoulders as he ran along the front of some brick flats in Atlanta, where we lived. My dad being six-feet, four-inches tall made sitting on his shoulders as he ran about the most dangerously thrilling ride in the world; I was hanging so hard onto his forehead it’s amazing he didn’t pass out. Perhaps I was blocking his vision; perhaps that’s why he failed to see ahead of us the small paned window, exactly as high as my head, slowly being cranked open from inside someone’s house. The window wasn’t perpendicular to the building for one second before my face and shoulders crashed into it.

Another time, after that, my father stood on the ground beneath me as I swung higher on a swing set than I’d ever dared to before.

“Jump!” he said. “I’ll catch you!”

Every instinct I had — and especially every instinct in my face — was screaming at me not to do it.

But I was also mightily attracted to the idea of flying, for however brief a time.

Besides, how could my dad not catch me? The guy was huge. He could catch a falling Volkswagen.

He could, that is, unless, just as the Volkswagen was beginning its plummet downward toward him, he looked toward my sister when she suddenly screamed “Dad!” Then that poor, stupid car would be on its own.

When my dad pulled me up from the tanbark at his feet, I had so many little red splinters in my face it looked like I had grown a beard.

I had always wanted a beard. But not that way. Talk about itchy.

Somewhere between the Pane of Pain and Operation Face Plant, I walked onto an innocuous looking dirt mound, and immediately sunk into the ground up to my chest. I had fallen into a colony of red fire ants. I screamed so loudly I may have misaligned the sun. My dad came bolting out of our house, grabbed the back of my shirt, yanked me from the earth, and ran to get a garden hose. Soon, instead of being eaten alive by ants, I was being blasted with freezing cold water.

What I found after being practically fire-hosed was that I could not, for the life of me, stop shaking. Somewhere in the back of my literally rattled brain I knew I’d eventually be dry again, but it was pretty clearly I’d have to vibrate my way through at least high school.

My dad’s idea of spraying me with water to make the ants stop eating me was a good one. Much less good was his idea of getting me to stop shaking by picking me up, depositing me on the seat of my bicycle, and then giving the bicycle a push. He must have thought that by steering and pedaling the bike I’d regain control of my body. And that plan might have worked, too, if only that hadn’t been the third time I’d ever been on a bike.

I was freezing to death, sprouting welts, still being eaten by the many ants beneath my clothes that hadn’t been washed away — and was now also suddenly trying my damnedest not to crash my brand new bike.

“Come over here,” said my dad. “It’s just a pool. Whad’aya afraid of?”

“Hey, ya’ Norm! Is that your boy?”

I hadn’t noticed the four middle-aged men sitting on the steps in the other end of the pool. I’d rarely seen grown men without their shirts on—much less wet grown men without their shirts on. I tried not to stare at their shiny, freakish fat.

“Nah, just some waif I found in the parking lot,” called my dad. He looked down at me. “Ya’ ready?” Before I had a chance to share with him some of my reflections on the matter, he picked me up — and hey howdy I was hanging by my left wrist and ankle.

My dad swung me through the air away from the pool.

“One!” he said, and then I was over the pool — but then flying fast back the other way.

“Two!” he said. There was the water again. I did not feel positively about the way things were developing.

“Three!” And there I was, airborne again.

I hit the shockingly cold water butt first, and immediately began sinking like the complete non-swimmer I was. Except for the one time on Mount Ant, I’d never sunk anywhere at all before. Staying had really always been more my style.

Through the water I saw that the roof of the pool room was mainly an opaque skylight. Its glowing creamy light looked like a window into heaven.

With my arms held out, I floated downward, away from the light. I closed my eyes. I waited for whatever was next.

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  • JG

    You are such a good writer.

  • Well, thanks JG. That’s awfully kind of you.

  • denver

    OK I did not have fire ant horror or pane of pain type experiences, but the water thing? Oh yeah, your dad and mine could have been pals. My father, probably stoned off his ass, drunk, or both (I was too young to know the difference; he was always f**ked up on something or another) took us to the beach and asked me if I wanted to “go swimming” in the ocean with him. I was about three or four at the time. He told me to hang on to his back, and he would swim, and I’d get a ride, right? Well, inebriated father failed to think about the fact that he can only swim under water – for some reason paddling near the top isn’t his style. So, with toddler me on his back, with no mention of anything like “hold your breath”, he dove. As I was breathing in. He surfaced in time for me to cough up a little ocean, and dove again. And again, and again… you get the idea. At least I hope he was inebriated because otherwise he was trying to kill me. I finally got wind once and screamed my bloody head off. He went back to shore (drowning me the whole way) and acted like, “what?” when we got on the beach, I coughed up a lung, and ran crying to mom. Thereafter I was *terrified* of water, and neither of my parents seemed to realize why. My mother twice forced swimming lessons upon me, despite me telling her I didn’t want to go and being noticeably petrified, and when I panicked big time after being made to dive into the deep end and refused to return, she got pissed and refused to ever let me take a class for any activity ever again, because she thought I’d quit (I wasn’t phobic of dance lessons!).

    It wasn’t until I was an adult and when they were asking me why I ever got a fear of water, and I reminded them of the beach incident, that they both said, “Really?!” And she just gave my father the look and said the same exact thing she had said the day it happened: “Ray!” And that’s all the admonishment he got.

    In our house, us kids knew that asking dad for permission to do something didn’t count, because he was more of a kid than we were, and didn’t think things through. 😉

  • Heartbreaking. Thank you for your vulnerability, John. It emboldens.

  • I am stifling the urge to scream.

    Every time you post one of these I wonder if you write this stuff without breaking down in tears? And if you can, HOW? Despite the beauty of your writing and the clarity with which you recount your “childhood” – and I put it in quotes because I don’t think you were ever actually allowed to be a child — despite those gifts, I have a hard time reading these recollections. I just want to kick something or someone – preferably your father, and right in the nutsack.

  • Your writing is brilliant, John. All of your childhood posts make me sad, but inspired too because of the man you are today.

    I didn’t have the best childhood, it was by no means the worst either. More than anything, it was lots of emotional abuse. However, my sister and I feel that we would not have been the people we are today had our life not gone the way it did.

    Again, you are brilliant and I love your writing.

  • Mary G

    Ok, I’m reminding myself here that YOU wrote this, so you obviously survived, but…. SHEESH! I’m with Barnmaven on the trajectory of the kick to your father’s anatomy.

  • Mindy

    Ooooh, with Barnmaven here! Brilliant, brilliant writing – I did actually laugh out loud and maybe even snort, but damn!! If I met your dad, I’d smack him in the noggin with a cast-iron skillet. You continue to amaze me.

  • Thanks, Mindy. I appreciate these kind words.

  • Thanks, Mary. We’ve ALL survived so much, haven’t we? That’s what it is to be human, basically.

  • Thank you, Ashley. Writing-wise, I care about these sorts of pieces especially, so … thanks. Sorry to hear you had to suffer emotional abuse as a kid.That’s awful.

  • “Right in the Nutsack.”

    I’m so calling a novel I write that very thing.

    Thanks, Bar. (Oh: I don’t cry when I write this stuff because I’ve been thinking about all this sort of thing my whole life. That’s why. It does kind of mess with me, emotionally, though, when I write this stuff.)

  • Thank YOU for saying that very beautiful thing.

  • YOW! Awful.

  • I always wanted a dad who would take me to the pool.

  • Mindakms

    So that whole God is your father image was a

    bit much to bite off I imagine…

  • And with this you step up to full-on genius, Ric Booth.

  • Don Whitt

    Wonderful. Really. Thank you. I could smell the “Y” locker room and the chlorine.

    My Dad was a HS Principal in the early ’60’s. He’d take me to his HS on Saturdays, where he’d work part of the day, and leave me with some unfortunate who would babysit me by taking me to the large, indoor pool. I would get in and paddle around by myself. Needless to say, by the time I was 2 or 3 yrs old, I was quite the swimmer.

    Only problems were those black lane lines on the bottom. I was thoroughly convinced that they were holes which descended all the way to the earth’s core. I would tread over them, looking down, trying to see what creatures lived in those nether regions and pray I would not be sucked down into one and chewed-up. Panic would set-in and I’d race to the pool’s edge. By the time I was 17 I held a state record in freestyle. If only the competition knew what I was racing from…

  • holy shit

  • Kara K

    Reminds me of the time when I was about 8 and we got in the old station wagon to go camping for the weekend near Mt. Rainier. As we drove off it started raining and dad didn’t stop driving until we were at my Grandmother’s house in Kansas City. Not exactly a horror story like yours, but you did have to be pretty darn flexible growing up in my house. Your’s too I expect.

    I love the artistry with which you put fingers to keyboard, my friend. You paint a rich and vivid picture without having to spend a lot on paint.

  • Your comment made me chuckle. Thanks. Amazing post, by the way. I love reading you.

  • John

    Beautiful piece!

  • melanie

    John, I don’t have kids and likely will not ever have them, other than the possibility my partner and I have considered of adopting older kids or even sibling sets someday when finances are more stable. However, I cannot fathom the parenting of which you were a victim. I have a house full of dogs, almost all rescues from various abusive and neglectful situations, and I truly believe I put more time and thought into the care of each one of my dogs in a SINGLE DAY than your father did in your entire childhood. And legally we need a license for a dog in most communities, but people with the emotional IQ and common sense of your father can reproduce willy-nilly. Crazy.

    I’m so sorry for the many things that your child-self experienced and that your adult-self has to remember. However, I am also thankful that you have come through so many trials (and near death experiences, really) to be who you are today. That is the greatest gift a person can offer- their true self, refined by the trials and tribulations of life. Thanks for sharing yourself with us so regularly and so candidly.

  • Don Rappe

    I suppose that’s what makes it good. I wonder how Samuel Clemens was raised?

  • I couldn’t read your account without thinking of MY father, a farmer of second gen staid German upbringing. He was so practical. Killed unwanted farm kittens by throwing them up against the barn wall or that calf that was too weak to survive by clubbing it in the head with a small log as it bawled and I fled to the haymow, or putting an axe to the head of the unwanted pet dog after it wouldn’t die from the .22 bullet. Meanwhile, tho he provided reasonably well for our family physical welfare, I never knew a hug or a word of love from him. Tho he never laid a hand on me, I feared him.

    We never bonded. I gave him due respect, but never loved him. He’s gone now and I never knew him. To this day (I’m 68) I don’t know how to feel about that except the sense of that blank space that I know has had a profound influence on my entire life without knowing exactly how.

    It’s not true that you can’t miss what you never had.

  • Diana A.

    I’m sorry Soulmentor. I can understand why you feared him. In your shoes, I think I would have feared him too.