Free Fall

Looking out the car window I could see a single dark gray cloud marring the intense blue of the sky. That one cloud worried me. Whatever rain it held precariously in its depths it could just keep holding as far as I was concerned. Jerry was taking us to the pool in Ft. Smith and rain could end the adventure before it even began.

Brian and I sat in the back seat of the mint green Subaru with our bath towels on our laps and our flip flops on our feet. Both of us were used to lake swimming. There was a lot to be said for swimming at the lake, too. The trees that grew along the shoreline, smells reminiscent of camping even when you weren’t camping, and the picnic food all bore witness to good times in the water. Where we were headed today was just as fun, but in a completely different way.

She pulled into the parking lot and we grabbed our towels and got out of the car. The hot sun beat down on us in the parking lot and we followed her into the pool area. We separated as Brian entered through the men’s side and Jerry and I went through the women’s entrance. The shower stalls in pool areas were interesting. The curtains never seemed to fully close so if you leaned a certain direction you could see inside, and the people inside could see out. I often wondered why no one else seemed as bothered by this as I was. Perhaps they were too busy getting ready to swim or too tired from swimming to give it the thought I had.

We left the dressing area and headed poolside. Brian met back up with us and we followed Jerry to a deck chair. She would use most of the time at the pool tanning. We sat our things down and took off. The pool was large with a shallower end and a deep end with diving boards on the side and two high dives at the very end. The clear blue expanse called to us. The smell of chlorine mixed with tanning lotion and sunscreen held its own magical appeal. It was a magic unique to summer.

We went to the shallow end. We both knew how to swim and didn’t require constant adult supervision. This meant we could basically do what we wanted at the pool. There were a couple different ways you could get in the water. Starting slowly and easing in as your body acclimated was one way. I had done that a few times. My preferred method was to just jump in. If the water felt cold, it was a shock to the system. The quick immersion made the shock wear off much more quickly than when I eased in, prolonging the process.

Looking at each other, Brian and I grinned and simultaneously leapt from the side of the pool out into the water. In the four-foot end of the pool I hit the bottom quickly with my feet and pushed up. My head popped up, breaking the surface of the water. I wiped the water off my face and looked around for Brian. He was about six feet over doing the same. We grinned.

We carefully navigated around others in the pool, having a grand time. We raced each other from side to side, when it looked like we had a clear shot to do it. We took turns copying various forms of jumping into the water. Cannonballs were fun but the water could smack your butt pretty hard.  After a while in the shallow end, Brian started to eye the deeper end. “Have you ever jumped off a diving board?” he asked me. “No, I never have” I replied.

“We should do it” he suggested. I looked down at the diving boards on both sides. The blue plank hung out long over the top of the water. Its edge hovered not far from the surface. I thought maybe. Maybe. After a moment, I agreed, “Okay, let’s give it a try!” We heaved our way up the ladder to climb out of the water. The heaviness of my body was always a shock after the weightlessness of floating in the pool.

We walked down to the deep end and got in the line to jump off the diving board. The line was comprised of a variety of folks. There were older kids executing fancy dives, and little kids with life jackets. I thought to myself, if those little kids can jump, surely I can jump too. I gave myself an internal pep talk as I tried to quiet the butterflies dancing in my belly. There were lifeguards so if I started to drown, they’d probably save me. Brian was ahead of me in line. “It was my idea. I want to go first!” he insisted. He stepped up onto the board. Before I knew what was happening, he ran down the length and sailed into the water, cannon ball style. His entrance made a grand splash. I watched the water for long moments until I finally saw his head pop back up. He caught my eye and flashed a thumbs up in my direction. The lifeguard blew his whistle in a short blast and yelled “Swim to the side so the next person can go!” Brian grinned an impish grin and swam over.

I stepped up onto the board and did exactly what I had just seen Brian do. I ran and leapt off the end, sailing out over the water. At the last minute, I remembered to hold my nose closed. I splashed down into the water. I was momentarily disoriented since I never touched the bottom. I swam up to the top, busting through the water and taking in a big gulp of air. I looked around to see where I needed to swim to get out of the way.

When I got to the side of the pool, I climbed out. Jumping off the diving board was more work than just jumping off the side. I walked over to Brian. “Wasn’t that AWESOME?!” he said. I had to admit, it was exciting. We immediately got back in line to do it again. This time there were no butterflies. Over and over we jumped off the board before going back to the shallow end to mess around some more.

After some time passed, I looked at Brian and said, “What about the high dive?” He looked down at the far end of the pool. “I don’t know. You do it first!” he said. Never one to pass up a challenge, I said “I think I will.” Incredulously, he looked at me. “You’re really going to do it?” he asked. “It can’t be that different from the regular diving board, right?” I said. Thinking it over carefully, he said, “I guess not. But you’re still going first.” Grinning, I said, “Okay, I’m going to do it!”

We hoisted ourselves out of the water once again and walked down the concrete length of the pool. The line for the high dive was much smaller, sometimes there was no line at all. As we neared the steps to the platform, we looked up. It seemed a lot higher up close than it had from the shallow end of the pool. Well, here goes nothing, I thought. I started to carefully climb the steps to the top board. Looking back behind me, I saw a teenage boy waiting for me to go so he could go. It was official, I was locked in. There would be no backing out now.

As I reached the top step, I looked at the long blue plank in front of me. Boy oh boy was I high in the air. I could see the roof of the building we had walked through. I was acutely aware of needing to hurry up. I did not want to get the whistle blown at me for holding up the line. Even in intense circumstances, I was apparently still a rule follower. I walked slowly to the edge of the plank. I gave it a quick bounce before simply stepping off the edge.

I fell toward the water while three eternities passed in time. My stomach flip flopped inside me with the wind rushing all around me. It was almost, almost like flying. I finally smacked into the water, feet first. The sting of impact hit the bottom of my feet and traveled all the way up my legs. I went down deep into the water, still never touching the bottom. Finally, as if coming out of a trance, I realized I needed to work actively to get back to the top. For a hot second I was not sure which way was up. Panic set in and I opened my eyes. I saw the light of the top and swam toward it as fast as I could. I felt the burn in my lungs telling me to get a move on.

After another eternity passed with my arms parting the water, pulling me slowly upward.  I finally broke the surface, gasping. I looked for the ladder and swam to it. I remembered thinking that the regular diving board exerted energy, but that was nothing compared to this. I heaved myself up andout of the water. Brian stood off to the side, grinning from ear to ear. “You did it!” he said excitedly, “How was it?” Taking a moment to collect myself, I answered, “It’s a long drop. And you go really far down into the water, so it takes a long time to come back up. Other than that, it was awesome!” He looked over at the board and said, “I’m going to do it!” I was a little worried and I asked him, “Are you sure?” Sometimes the older sister thing kicked in and I felt responsible for him. Never one to be bested he said, “If you can do it, I can do it!” I knew there would be no stopping him. “Okay, I’ll go again after you” I told him.

We went over and got in line. He climbed up and took his first jump off. He came up quicker than I had and swam to the side. “That was FUN!” he said, hurrying over to get in line again. This time when I made my way up the ladder, I was excited. Stepping onto the high blue plank for the second time, I grinned. I ran and leapt off the edge with abandon, arms spread wide. I embraced the free fall. While the sailing through the air lasted only a moment or two, it was a moment of total freedom. At the last minute I shot my feet out in front of me. The impact stung my legs so hard it left red marks on my thighs. I did not descend nearly as deep this time and I broke the surface on my way back up much more quickly.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the high dive. The low diving board had totally lost its appeal. We later wondered why anyone would waste their time on such a device when they could experience the exhilaration of the higher drop. We were genuinely baffled.  

I thought to myself as we drove home at the end of that pool day, that there had been nothing as exhilarating in my entire life as that free fall. A thrill? Oh yeah it was a thrill.  I couldn’t wait to do it again sometime.

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