Bad things start small. Even something as innocuous as not paying attention for a minute can spell doom. Maybe it's the humidity here in the MATC pool, but I just spaced out during our lifesaving instructor's first - and then second - description of the Passive Submerged Victim Rescue Deep Water.
The Red Cross is anal about assigning precise, uninterrupted steps to each course of action. The method to their madness is understanding that, in an emergency situation, a rescuer is likely to forget a step. Additional steps provide a fluid failsafe. There are nearly as many rescue steps as there are rescue acronyms. A fellow could drown in the acronyms.
None of this is an excuse for not paying attention. But dang, a day at work capped off by four hours of water rescues is a long stretch for this ol' boy. The novelty of being the only student in the class over the age of 21 wore off about 10 minutes into CPR on the first night. Fact is, my old-guy self-consciousness prevents me from asking Jenny the instructor to repeat herself a third time on the PSVR Deep Water. I decide I'll wing that one when exam time comes.
Lifeguards have the training to save your ass, yet they make about as much per hour as the guy who washes your car. You'd never guess it looking up at the buff, relaxed dude in the poolside chair, but his job came at the considerable expense of his own time and money.
First-time lifeguards go through 35 hours of training, practice and exams before getting licensed. The certification is good for three years, with a yearly requirement of CPR refreshers. Those of us who have been certified are required to renew with about 20 hours every three years. The course costs a hundred dollars. I've never heard of an employer who covered this.
The basic swim test for guards - not the rescue exam but the "how well can you swim" part - is actually much easier than you'd expect. Easier for some than others, I suppose. My chlorinated testosterone gets cranked when Jenny heaves a heavy rubber brick into the deep end.
We each have 90 seconds to swim the length of the pool, surface dive to the 12-foot bottom, grab the brick, and return it to the shallow end while swimming on our back. A girl with beautiful bleached-white teeth goes first.
Standing in swimsuits on a pool deck with strangers is an exercise in looking sideways. While the first rubber brick swimmer splashes toward her target, the rest of us steal glances at one another and wait our turn. When I take stock of my classmates - the Red Cross would call this "Patron Surveillance" - my suspicions are confirmed. I'm the only student whose body has been cruelly resloped by gravity.
The boys in the class watch the girl swim home with the brick. You can see in the way they lean toward the pool that they're ready to kick ass on this little beat-the-clock thing. Me, too. In fact, my insecurity over being the oldest, ugliest student is now offset by my confidence that I can smoke these guys. Gimme the brick.
Beautiful Teeth makes it back just in just under 80 seconds. The next girl takes two surface dives to bring up the prize, but she has a massive frog kick and motorboats back in 70 seconds.
The first guy up horses the goods back in an even minute. He puffs sprays of mist with each heavy breath and shows me his red face with an expression that says, "Beat that, Grandpa."
Ah, but while I may have the worst shape in the class, I realize I may be in the best shape, because I swim almost every day. Not a ton, but enough to grind this deal out.
Forty-five seconds later, I lay the brick up on the tiles. The surprise factor of gray-haired blubber boy coasting through the dreaded brick retrieve is a lucky bonding break for me. I needed something to fit in, and this was the thing.
In addition to my finish time, there was one other post-brick difference between myself and my young classmates. The odd contortions of the exercise caused my neck to lock in place so that I had to face southwest the whole next day at work. Sliding my monitor six inches to the left helped.
You don't spend 20 hours with people, especially if putting your hands on them, and not get on some form of friendly terms. The last night of instruction is a marathon of final rescue tests. By this time the go-for-gold prowess I displayed back in the brick swim is ancient history. I've returned to harmless-old-chump status. Losing the only shred of coolness I had increases the tension as Jenny assigns partners to test out of the Passive Submerged Victim Rescue Deep Water.
The more complicated the rescue, the more laying on of hands is required. This rescue is one of the toughest. When Jenny points out two-by-twos, you can hear the Zen-like mental chants reverberating inside everyone's heads.
"Give me a girl-give me a girl-give me a girl," go the voices in the boys' heads. "Not the old guy-not the old guy-anybody but the old guy," go the voices in the girls' heads. "Let it be a guy-let it be a guy-let it be a guy," goes my mantra.
Had I been a single 20-year-old, I wouldn't have been able to stifle a loud cheer when Jenny paired me with she-of-the-bleached- teeth. Instead, I shot her an apologetic look as the other girls squared up with their buff boy counterparts.
Goggles aren't allowed in rescue tests. I see my partner floating like a ghost just off the bottom. "Please forgive me," I think as I anchor my hand firmly under her bare armpit. My forearm crushes across the tops of both buoyant breasts.
I've been underwater for about 15 seconds and I'm kicking myself for not asking for that third explanation of this technique. The pressure fills my ears, and I struggle just out of reach of answers to questions racing through my mind. "Where's the towline go? Is there a neck injury? Is this a back-board exit?"
The next question snaps open a capsule of clarity. I'm thinking it's the exact question the Red Cross wants students to ask themselves in the final minutes of 20 hours of training. I no longer care about the awkward feel of my hands on a young girl's body when the question sounds in my head as loud as an alarm bell.
What if this was for real?