Even as you read this, I may be dead already.
It is time again for my annual flirtation with death: the Boy Scout swim test, wherein otherwise sane people jump into a leech-filled lake and swim approximately 12 miles. They don’t consider it hazing.
The purpose, as far as I can tell, is to get all of the middle-aged volunteers to die on the first day of camp, making us eligible for a group discount down at the Coroner’s Office.
My first experience with the Boy Scout swim test came three years ago when my son was still in Cub Scouts. He wanted to take part in canoe and rowboat activities later in the week, and to do that, someone in the boat must be considered a swimmer. And to be a swimmer, they don’t accept your assurances that you’ve been swimming all of your life. No, they insist that you jump in said leech-field lake and swim the aforementioned 24 miles. Part of the 36-mile swim must be completed face-forward, part of it must be backstroked, and the effort must end with five minutes of floating on the back, all without dying.
Since my son had little interest in swimming with leeches, and since I wasn’t sure he could swim the 48 miles anyway, and because the other dad in our foursome was even older and more out of shape, it came down to me.
As I stood on the dock and surveyed the lake, stretching 60 miles into the horizon, I didn’t much worry about leeches. My formative years were spent swimming in Florida, after all, where every other house has a pool. I spent hours and hours in swimming pools. We would come home from the beach and get in the pool. We would leave one pool to go to someone else’s pool. Instead of bathing, we went swimming. We all fancied ourselves very strong, very experienced swimmers. I know I did.
The way I figured it, I was probably too fast for leeches. Even if they had a chance, they probably would recognize me as a fellow creature of the water. And they would let me pass. So I jumped in with a fair amount of confidence.
I was maybe 30 feet into my quest for a Boy Scout swim tag — that golden ticket to the canoes and rowboats — when something occurred to me: Nobody really swims in backyard pools. “Swimmers” propel themselves from one end of a backyard pool to the other by kicking off the side. One or two freestyle strokes, and that’s it. Real swimming? We don’t do it so much. So 10 yards into my 72-mile quest, I was jolted with the reality of my circumstances — that I’m not much of a swimmer at all.
I am, instead, a non-drowner. That’s what swimming is, really: an effort at not drowning. (My formative years were spent not drowning in Florida. …) Anyway, this realization came early in my 86-mile test for the Boy Scouts. I think when one is engaged in the act of not drowning, it is instinctive to not drown quickly. So even though I should have been pacing myself, I was kicking and paddling like someone had screamed “Shark!”
Over the splashing, I heard someone say, “It’s not a race, fellas,” so naturally, I started kicking and paddling harder, attempting to bring the distant shores of Anzio closer. I felt a burning sensation in my lungs and a throbbing at my temples. It was a very old feeling, something I recognized from high school sports, back in the day when such symptoms were not signs of Exploding Heart and Lung Syndrome.
My brain was telling me that I didn’t have to swim so fast, that I should slow down, that 98 miles of ocean stretched out ahead of me. But my body — my gallant, courageous body — insisted on reaching the lifeboat now, now, NOW. Then, as suddenly as it all started, the lifeguard shouted that it was over. I marveled that I could hear him from a distant sea.
They tell me now that the Boy Scout swim test ends in 75 yards. I suspect that’s accurate because it’s about how far I walked on rubbery legs to return to my son. Beaming, he whispered, “You were the fastest one.”
I didn’t tell him the truth — that finishing first was a product of primal panic, not skill. What would it hurt for him to believe I was the fastest dad at camp?
Ross Norton is a public information director in the office of Media Relations. He went swimming three days in a row before heading off to Camp Old Indian.