Touching the DeadOctober 12, 2006
To get you in the mood for Halloween, here is the spookiest story I know; while I believe the story to be absolutely true, I must confess that this is my father’s story, and as such may have certain details completely made up, a hallmark of his tales if ever there was one.
As a lifelong swimmer and member of the varsity swim team, it was only natural that my dad helped pay his way through college as a lifeguard. This was in the mid 1950’s, in Iowa. Now, they say it’s very common for competent people to fear failure of their competency more than the average person – like the pilot who fears engine trouble, or the race car driver who fears a collision. In my father’s case, he’s had a lifelong fear of drowning, and despite swimming nearly every day of his life, very rarely went in the ocean, preferring pools, with no rip tides, and shallow lanes where he could stand securely on the floor.
One day, back in Iowa he got a call to come down to the lake, which served as the local swimming hole. It was from the volunteer fire & rescue, looking to help search the lake for a missing swimmer. I’ve only swum in a lake once, in Missouri, and the entire time I stared at the rocks that slightly overhung the shore, and I imagined the sharp toothed creatures that lived just under them, waiting to bite my soft belly when I tried to exit the lake. Lakes may be good for boating, but in my opinion they are fucking creepy for swimming in. The primary issue with the lake is that it’s murky, like the ocean, only you can’t touch the bottom, which you usually can when you’re playing among the waves. Murky, and deep.
So after quite a while of swimming in the lake, my father abruptly found the missing swimmer. The paramedics later figured that he had accidentally wedged his foot between two rocks near the bottom of the water while diving too deep, and yet the water was just shallow enough that he could almost reach the feet of the people swimming above. But down at his depth, it was pitch dark, only a little light from above as he drowned, watching the other kids playing above him, oblivious to his fate. I don’t know quite what creeps me out more about this story, the thought of the poor kid drowning within (his) view of laughing, playing children, or the thought of my dad, the best swimmer I ever met, terrified of drowning, brushing up against a corpse in the pitch dark of the bottom of a lake, and only the touch of the lifeless body to tell him what he’d found.