“You kids be careful,” my aunt called to us as we raced out the door. “I’ll be down in a minute after I finish…”
My guess was that she was going to say, “After I finish taking the last tray of cookies out of the oven.” But my brother and I were too excited to go swimming to find out. Too fired up, even, to wait for a warm, melty, chocolate chip cookie to sink our teeth into. Nope. The lake awaited.
“Race ya!” Eric called.
He was already three strides ahead of me, plus three years older. Still, I wasn’t going to give up that easily. “I’m right behind ya!” I called.
He glanced over his shoulder and taunted. “You’ll never catch me.”
The race was on.
I have to admit I stayed close as we ran down the path and onto the dock. Our bare feet pounded across the wooden boards, thump, thump, thump.
At the end, Eric stopped. “Beat ya!”
“Not by much!” I panted, coming up behind him. Although he did. By a good ten feet or so. I punched him in the arm. Kind of good-naturedly, kind of not.
“Ow,” he said, grinning, and rubbing his muscle pretending like it hurt. He grabbed me around the neck and held me tight while mussing up my buzz cut. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re a wimp, ya’ wimp.”
“Let go!” I yelled.
He did and we stood and looked at each other. Do we fight or not? It could go either way, but just then a motor boat sped by not a hundred feet from the dock distracting us. Believe me, our attention span was like that of a gnat on a good day. Forgetting our standoff, we watched the boat. It had two men in it with fishing poles poking out over the side.
Eric pointed. “Going fishing, ya’ think?”
“Duh,” I said. “See the poles?” I pointed. “Doesn’t take a genius.”
Eric laughed. “Surprised you figured it out.”
My brother and I had a relationship, I suppose, like most brothers. Sometimes I liked him; sometimes I hated him. Like the time five years ago when he’d been bugging me so much, I’d thrown a glass of orange juice at him. He’d ducked and the glass had slammed into the wall shattering into a million pieces. He ran out the door to escape the wrath of our father. Me? I was a wimpy five-year-old. I sat unable to move from my chair, frozen in place by the incredible insanity of what I had done.
Dad ran in, took one look at the glass on the floor and juice running down the wall, and marched me downstairs to the basement. I got ten lashes from his belt for my punishment and couldn’t sit down the rest of the day.
But generally, we got along well, and today we were pretty excited. Normally, growing up, we celebrated the Fourth of July by going to a firework show down along the Minnesota River at the Hidden Valley Golf Course, twenty-five miles southwest of where we lived in Minneapolis. I guess Mom and Dad had friends who were members there. Anyway, it was a huge display culminating with thundering rocket explosions and showers of brilliant red and green and golden cascades of falling sparks. From the point of view of Eric and I, it was not only exciting, but defined the holiday, if not our entire summer.
However, this summer in 1958 when I was ten and Eric was thirteen, we didn’t go to that huge display. My aunt had invited us up to spend a month at her home on a lake in northern Minnesota. I think Mom thought it’d be a good idea to get away so we did. Dad had started working extra hours and was gone a lot, but when he was home the two of them weren’t always getting along that well.
Frankly, I was looking forward to taking a break from all the bickering and fighting even though I was going to miss my best friend, Randy. We’d built a tree house in an old oak tree in his parent’s backyard and it had become sort of a clubhouse for us and our other friends, Al and Jason. We’d nailed boards to the truck to use to climb and we’d go up there and read comic books, eat candy, play cards and generally stay away from adults. It was very cool.
Randy and I would never say things like, “I’ll miss you,” or mushy stuff like, “You’re my best buddy in the whole wide world.” But we did seal our friendship before I left by using our pocket knives to slice our thumbs and press them together becoming blood brothers. So that was something.
“See you in a month, four eyes,” I told him the last day we were together. He wore glasses.
“Later alligator,” he responded. Then he gave me a stick of Juicy Fruit gum which I broke in half and shared with him. He was a pretty good guy.
The next day we left. Mom drove the Oldsmobile and we talked her into having the top down all the way to the lake. It was fun! She even stopped at a drive-in along the way for burgers and malts which I swear to you was the best food I’d ever tasted.
As Mom drove, she had the radio on and we sang along to songs by Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, and I have to say, by the time we got to Aunt Ellen’s house, all thoughts of missing my friend Randy were gone. Not to mention my dad. We piled out of the car, carried our suitcases inside, put them in the spare bedroom like my aunt directed us to do, and ran down to the dock. Already, I felt like this was going to be a great adventure.
Aunt Ellen was my mom’s mom’s sister. She was in her late fifties and a secretary for an insurance agent in town. She was taking time off to be with us. As she put it to my mom, “My boss owes me. I hardly ever take vacation time.”
So that was good because I really liked Aunt Ellen. She was a sturdily build woman about as tall as Eric. She had long brown hair she kept rolled up in a bun and pined to her head. I honestly don’t recall ever seeing her wear it down. Anyway, she was what mom called “no-nonsense” which meant we had to mind our manners and watch what we said or did around her. We couldn’t slam the screen door. We had to take our shoes off before going inside. When we were inside, we had to keep our voices down. We couldn’t argue and fight. Stuff like that. “Rules of the house” is what she called them. We liked that we knew exactly what we could and couldn’t do.
One thing we couldn’t do was go swimming without supervision. So why we decided that day to swim from our dock to the next dock over, about one-hundred yards away, is still beyond me.
But we did.
After the fishing boat went by, we watched as it motored out into the big part of the lake. I glanced down the shore to the house next to Aunties. They were the Jorgenson’s, a retired couple who were off visiting their son in Seattle for the Fourth of July holiday weekend. I was a little pissed I’d lost the footrace with Eric and was wondering how I could get back at him.
Without thinking the entire idea out too clearly, I pointed to their dock and said, “Okay, big shot. How about this? How about we race to Jorgenson’s.” I was a pretty good swimmer. “I’ll clean your clock.”
Only one problem. Mom had driven into town for some last-minute groceries, so it was just Aunt Ellen and her rule…no swimming without supervision.
Eric glanced back at the house. It was about one hundred feet from the shore, maybe a hundred and fifty feet away total from where we were standing. I knew what he was thinking. Should we wait for Aunt Ellen or not?
I jabbed him in the arm. “Come on,” I said. “Ya chicken?”
Now between the two of us, I am by far and away the most cautious. Here’s the way I’ll compare us, Eric is kind of a jock and likes sports and thinks nothing of jumping off the roof of our house in the winter into a snowbank after a snowfall. Me? I’m into music and like to read. No jumping off anything. Anytime. Get the picture?
So, I’m sure that me bringing up a swimming race was shocking to my older brother. For a moment, maybe. He might even have thought to himself, you know, we really should wait until Aunt Ellen comes down like she wants us to do. I never asked because the question got lost in what happened next.
“No, I’m not chicken!” he said, pushing me aside and diving in. “You’re on!”
Damn! “No fair!” I yelled, diving in after him. “You cheated.”
Up ahead of me, he laughed, “Tough!” Then turned toward the Jorgenson’s dock and began doing the crawl, swimming for all he was worth.
God, sometimes he made me so mad!
“I’m coming for ya!” I yelled and started swimming after him. I soon found my rhythm and evened out my strokes and my kicking. As I said, I was a pretty good swimmer. I liked being in the water. My brother and I rode our bikes down to Lake Harriet in the city about a mile from our house and swam there as much as we could.
But Eric was bigger, taller, stronger than me, and as good a swimmer as I was. Still, I was pissed and full of adrenaline. After cutting through the water for a minute, I realized that I was gaining on him. Yea!! Maybe I could catch him. I focused on the task at hand and settled in to chase him down. I was doing the crawl, my best stroke. Head in the water. Stroke, stoke, stroke. Head out of the water. Take a breath. Head in the water. Stroke, stroke, stroke. Head out of the water. Take a breath. Head in the water. Stroke, stroke, stroke…As I swam furiously, I kept an eye on Eric. I was gaining! Head in the water. Stroke, stroke, stroke. Head out of the water. Take a breath. Head in the water. Stroke, stroke, stroke.
A minute later, I was close behind him; close enough to catch. I dug in and swam with my last ounce of strength. Stroke, stroke, stroke. But I must have gotten too close. Eric’s kicking and splashing was causing massive turbulence, and as I turned my head to breathe, I took in a big mouthful of water instead of air. No problem, I thought to myself. I’d swallowed more than my fair share of lake water in my time and felt I had the situation under control.
Wrong! I had taken in more water than I thought. I tried to swallow but couldn’t get it down. I choked and started coughing. Then I tried to breathe, but couldn’t. I choked again and started coughing some more. And with each cough, I sucked in more water while Eric kept swimming, getting further and further away from me, oblivious to what was happening behind him.
Panicking, I stopped swimming and started treading water, coughing, and trying to clear my throat. It was then that things got really bad. I had stopped over a submerged weed bed and they started entwining themselves around my legs. I swear those weeds must have had a mind of their own because they started pulling me down. I went below the surface to try and pull them off but there were too many of them. When I tried to swim to the top I couldn’t. The weeds held me tight. I was trapped underwater and in my panicky state of mind, I coughed again and sucked in a ton of water. I was drowning!
Do you know how they say your whole life passes before your eyes when you are dying? Well, I’m not sure about that. Maybe I hadn’t lived long enough for anything important to have happened. All I remember was struggling, fighting the weeds and the water, and choking to death. A massive amount of bubbles escaped from my lungs. I began to pass out as everything went black. My final thought was this: I’m too young to die!
But I didn’t. Thank God for Eric.
I was losing consciousness, when, like in a dream, I felt his strong hands grab me tightly under my arms. Before I knew what was happening, he yanked hard and in one strong motion pulled me free of the weeds. A moment later my head broke above the surface and I gasped for air. I coughed and gagged and coughed some more. In my terror, I struggled with Eric, too, not understanding what was happening.
But his strong arms held me, keeping my head above the water, and all I remember was his calm voice saying, “It’s okay, Ben. I’ve got you. It’s okay.”
While holding me close to his chest, he kicked with his legs and got me near enough to shore so that he could stand. He got me on my feet and kept me stabilized and let me catch my breath. By then, Aunt Ellen had heard my screams and run down into the water where she waded in and helped Eric walk me the rest of the way to shore. We all three collapsed next to the lake, me thankful I was alive and Eric and Aunt Ellen panting with the exertion of saving me.
When she caught her breath, Aunt Ellen got to her feet and tore into us like a drill sergeant at a marine boot camp, berating me and Eric for a least five minutes. “What’d I tell you boys about swimming unsupervised? There’re weeds out there! A boat overturned last week and two people drowned!” She went on and on. I have to say, we deserved it. When she was done, she gave us a steely eye. I thought for sure she was going to light into us again, but she didn’t. In fact, she surprised both of us when she said, “Well, anyway, I’m just glad you’re both safe.”
What a nice thing to say. It didn’t escape me that despite breaking one or her cardinal rules, she honestly did care about both of us.
Then she hugged me and Eric together, and I have to say that it felt pretty nice.
“I’m sorry, Auntie,” I told her.
“Me, too,” Eric was quick to add.
We really were. Now that I realized I was going to live to see another day, I not only was happy to be alive, but feeling bad about causing Aunt Ellen to worry so much.
She hugged us again and said, “You boys come up to the house and change before your mother comes home.”
Oh, oh. Mom. For a moment I’d forgotten about her.
Aunt Ellen saw the worried look in our eyes and said, “You boys have a decision to make. I’m not going to tell her about what you did. I’ll leave that up to you. I’ll abide with whatever you decide to do.” She looked at us. “Think about it.” Then she headed up to the house. When she was halfway there, she turned and said, “Don’t stay down here too long. I’ve got a plate full of cookies and some Kool-Aid for you.” Then she left us to our decision.
In the end, we told mom. We really didn’t have any choice. Aunt Ellen would always know what we’d done and that was bad enough. Lying to Mom and not telling her? That would make it even worse. So, we told her. She grounded us from swimming for a few days.
Her exact words were, “I appreciate you boys telling me what happened. But you still broke Aunt Ellen’s rule. Today’s the Fourth of July. I’m going to ground you from swimming for two days. Tomorrow’s the fifth and then there’s the sixth. You can go swimming on the seventh.”
“Aw, Mom!” I said, for some reason thinking I could argue with her. She gave me even a steelier look than Aunt Ellen had given us and that’s all it took. “Okay, Mom. Two days. That’s fair,” I was quick to say. Plus, it suddenly dawned on me that it was way better than if my dad was there. I could envision him drawing his belt slowly through the loops of his trousers in preparation for administering his preferred form of punishment. Especially for me. The thought wasn’t a pretty one.
Later that day, Eric and I were sitting on the dock, our feet dangling in the water, watching sunfish nibble our toes. They tickled. After a minute I looked at Eric and said, “You know, you saved my life. I guess I should thank you.”
He grinned. “Yeah, I did. And you are welcome. You owe me, buddy. Big time.” Then he looked at me. He was wearing one of my uncle’s old fishing hats to keep the sun off his face. “How are you feeling?”
I have to say, after nearly drowning a few hours earlier, I wasn’t feeling too bad. “I’m okay.” I had a baseball cap on for the Milwaukee Braves, my favorite baseball team. I pushed the brim up. “Sorry that we can’t go swimming for a few days.”
We looked out over the lake. Fourth of July activity was starting to pick up. Firecrackers were going off and there were a lot of boats out pulling water skiers. People were starting to get into the celebrating mood.
I watched a boat speed by and suddenly thought about my friend Randy. I wondered what he was doing.
Then I got what I considered a great idea. Maybe Eric and I could become blood brothers like me and Randy. But when I asked Eric about it, he just laughed. “No way, José. No way in hell. It’s bad enough just being brothers, let alone sealing it with blood.”
When he put it that way, he kind of had a point.
Later that night we all sat on the front lawn looking out across the lake. My uncle Al had grilled hamburgers and we had corn on the cob with them and it all tasted great. He’d also bought some sparklers and bottle rockets which we shot off over the water. It wasn’t like the fancy fireworks at the golf club but that was okay. It was Mom, Eric and I and Aunt Ellen and Uncle Al., I have to say, it was pretty memorable. Maybe nearly drowning and surviving had something to do with it.
Later that summer when I got home and told Randy about almost dying, he didn’t believe me. “Almost drowned? You? No, way!”
“Cross my heart,” I told him. “Promise.”
He didn’t believe me until Eric told him. “Yeah, your friend here was going down for the count,” Eric said pointing at me. “Thank goodness his big brother was there to rescue him.”
I knew that he was right, but I wasn’t going to let him get away with it. I made move to slug him in the arm and he dodged out of the way. He took off running and I chased him. Both of us laughing like crazy.
Jim Bates lives in a small town in Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in over 400 online and print publications. His most recent collection of stories “Dreamers” was published in May 2022, by Clarendon House.