Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Feat of Strength & the Swimming Hole: Champaign 1988

This was late in the summer, after I'd been working the concrete construction job for a while. It was a hot summer--days in a row over 100 degrees--with little rain. There was a bad drought that year. Anyway, we--Doug, Kurt, Leroy and I--had been working east of town, maybe around Danville. We did a lot of basements, using huge aluminum forms to make faux-brick walls, then the floors (as well as footings, drives, the occasional sidewalk) and by August the work was getting long and dreary. So after a long day, I was surprised when Doug--who was our foreman--ask if we wanted to go swimming.
It turned out there was a small chain of private lakes in the area and Doug had a membership in this "club". (The midwest has a lot of strange little areas, places where a section of river or small lake can be a large venue for sport, fishing or entertainment.) So he drove and some of us followed in another vehicle and there was this wooded area with a small road that had an electronic gate. Doug swiped a card--or punched numbers, I don't recall exactly--and in we went to this area which was a series of small lakes, man-made from some stream, where people could fish or picnic or swim or whatever. Some lakes were of good size and stocked with bass, perch, walleye or pike (I guess), others were tiny and secluded. We went to a tiny secluded one. We'd picked up some beer and so, after a long hot day of concrete work, we parked in the shade of trees, took off our work boots, socks and shirts (we were wearing shorts, usually cut-off jeans) and jumped into the water.
Man that felt good.
The day's sweat, the heat in our bodies, the tired muscles, all washed away . . . The water really wasn't much as far as water goes. It was muddy, midwest, indecipherable water--the kind I find difficult to swim in anymore or at least hesitate to wade into. I'd been used to the clear salty Gulf of Mexico water by then, to the invisible clean fresh water of natural springs. But it'd been 100 degrees and I didn't hesitate to jump in that day . . . And the tiny lake was surprisingly deep. Just a little ways out from the embankment we could no longer touch bottom.
We goofed around, drank beer, told jokes, insulted each other in a friendly way. Kurt was my best pal that summer. He was kind of a wild guy personally (he did a lot of drugs--the kinds I would never ever even think of doing) but was also a curious man, had the mind of an intellectual at times yet could never quite focus it on one subject for very long, though it made him interesting and he was openly a nice, good-hearted person. Doug was a good guy also, but he was our boss (but not the big boss, who was David and who was rarely around and was a pain most of the time when he was), so Doug had to keep some separation from us lowly laborers. Then there was Leroy. Leroy was a kid: young, enthusiastic, wire-muscled, laughing. I don't think he was even twenty one at the time. He had a girlfriend who lived in the same building as Kurt and Kurt could hear them through the thin walls when they fought, made up and made love (which evidently was often). Though by then Leroy and his girl broke up and he moved to a trailer where he had a pet iguana and a pit bull named Nitro.
Anyway, anyway, anyway...
So we swam and drank innocuous beers and then began to dunk each other in the lake. I remember I dunked Leroy with ease quite a few times. Then he tried to dunk me, rising up in the deep water, splaying his hand upon the top of my head and pushing down hard. But I wouldn't go under. I mean, I was ready to be dunked, thought I'd go under, but I also treaded water with my arms and legs to prevent it. And it worked. So Leroy tried again, pushing hard, but I still wouldn't go under. I was surprised and I laughed. So he tried again, with two hands and I put up no defense other than churning my legs and arms and again he could not dunk my head below the surface. Man, he got frustrated, a little angry. I laughed. I was dumbfounded. I wasn't touching bottom or anything, just had enough power to keep my head above water no matter how hard he tried to put me under. And I could dunk him at will. I don't know if it was just him--he was not a small or weak person by any means--or if the others could have dunked me (they didn't try), but that day I was not to be dunked. It's a good feeling.
It's a good feeling to be strong, to surprise yourself with it. A strange strength to have in circumstances like that, in the water where one often feels more vulnerable. I've always been physical, though not in a body-builder, obsessive way. One thing I liked about labor--when I had jobs like construction or landscaping--was that it kept me powerful, it let me use my strength. But those jobs also wear a person out. Now that I'm older, I've seen it. I know people who've worked construction all their lives, or played too hard at sports for too long, and they often have broken-down bodies. I don't know where the cut-off point is, where years of labor go from building you up to suddenly being detrimental to you physically. It's an odd thing, really: something that's good for you, that builds you and can enhance your chance for survival becomes the thing that disables you, harms you and can lead to a painful life.
I haven't worked a physical job in many many years. Sometimes I miss it, but not so much. I used to watch football and never thought for a second about the players getting hit and tackled, running and falling and smashing into each other. No big deal. Now, when I watch, I'm like, good god, how can they stand it? I don't even see how someone can run full speed and fall onto the hard grassy earth and not feel pain, let alone being hit sideways by a flying human being. But who knows, I'm still kind of strong, maybe I could still do it, take the punishment--at least until my back went out and I'd be crippled for life.

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