Monday, March 31, 2008

The Boy Who Went Swimming

The boy was six or seven years old. His eyes were open. He was staring at me. His arms were outstretched and bent at the elbows. It was as if he was going to shout boo to try and scare me, the way you did to your little brother or sister. But he did not say boo. He did not say anything thing. He was underwater.

The call came in as drowning in Station 7’s territory out on the west side of town. Rescue 1 was the only unit with dive gear, divers and the rescue boat. I was the only diver on the truck that day I would have to go into the water.

I jumped into the back of the to dress out as we pulled out of the station. I was tossed from side to side as I tried to get out of my uniform and into swim trunks and the dive gear. It was summer and with no air conditioning in the back of the truck, I was soon dripping sweat in the oppressive Florida summer heat. I struggled into the air tanks shoulder straps, pulled on the weight belt and grabbed my fins and mask. I was ready, but we were still minutes away from the scene. I sat down on the bench seat in the back of the rescue. All I could do now was to wait until we reached the scene.

Engine 7 was already on the scene when we arrived. The lake more correctly an overgrown pond was back in the woods behind some houses. The kind of pond that kids in poor neighborhoods find to cool off on a sweltering Florida summer day.

When I opened the back door to finally get a look at what we had, all I saw were small single story concrete block homes that make up so much of Florida’s poorer neighborhoods. Someone yelled “this way” so I followed them between the homes. I trotted past lawn chairs and chain link fences to reach a well-worn path that lead into the woods behind the houses. The weight of the tank and weight belt began to take its toll as I struggled to keep up the firefighter leading the way.

When we reached the pond we found the guys off Engine 7 were already in the water free diving. I yelled where should I start as I pulled on my fins and mask. They told me somewhere near the middle of the pond. I pulled on my mask and began to swim toward the center of the lake. The water was bathtub warm and the green of most the small lakes in Florida. The visibility was not bad; I could see ten to fifteen feet, for a body of water fed by rainwater runoff that was good. I had been in the water no more than thirty seconds when out of the greenish water those eyes appeared.

I had heard from other guy’s stories of bumping into drowning victims underwater. The face emerging from the gloom and taking them by surprise even though they were looking for them. Those open eyes were so startling. While he did not say boo, he certainly scared me. I grabbed his arm and started swimming toward the shore.

I pulled my mouthpiece out long enough to yell.

“I got him.”

They guys off the engine began to swim to shore with me.

As I swam through the water pulling him behind me I kept thinking of those open eyes. I kept thinking that he looked surprised that I had found him.

I got him to the shore of the shore of the little pond. The guys from Station 7’s rescue were waiting for me. The pulled him out and began to work on him. I pulled off my mask and flippers and stood up. He looked like any other kid in the summer in Florida. All he had on were some shorts. He was in the skinny little boy phase when they are all energy and no muscles yet.

Then I saw his leg. Before I realized what it was. I thought an alligator must have gotten him. One leg was comprised of only his skin over his femur (thigh bone), no muscles, just skin over bone. There was nothing below where his knee should have been. His other legs and arms were normal. Then I realized the skin was intact over the bone, but there were no muscles.

How had a one legged boy gotten to this tiny pond to drown? What string of actions and circumstances had occurred that led someone so obviously incapable of swimming to go swimming? There were no other boys on the scene. In fact we were the only people around. Why did this death have to happen? Did other boys goad him into swimming? Was he trying to prove something to himself or others? I watched as the Engine and Rescue crews worked feverishly over the boy with little success. I walked back to the truck through the peaceful little piece of pinewoods into someone’s back yard. I was tired. I wondered why he had to die. Like so many of the people I worked on, the why was never part of my experience. He was pronounced at the hospital. I never heard the story of why he was in the pond.

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