I almost drowned when I was six. We were staying at the King’s Motel, a 20-room motel in a small South Texas town with a terrain that was flat and lifeless for as far as the eye could see. It was one of those establishments that was located on the outskirts of town, almost like an afterthought. Twenty orange doors with black numbers were lined up in a neat row behind an on-site diner and small rectangular swimming pool.
Mama had insisted we visit for a couple of weeks, since my father had been temporarily transferred several hours away from home. Every day before dawn, my father and six other men left in a double-cab truck, outfitted with fuel tanks, mysterious tools and a bright yellow cylinder-shaped ice chest with a red lid and the word “Igloo” written in red on the side. There was a spigot on the ice chest, which made it easier to access the ice water inside. My siblings and I loved to drink from the spigot, or to help ourselves to the sodas stored in the other rectangular ice chest in the truck. During the day, my father and his co-workers used a drilling rig to drill holes deep into the earth, so that another crew could test the soil for oil. The men returned in the evening covered in dirt and smelling like petroleum, sweat, and cigarettes.
The rooms at King’s Inn were simple but clean. We spent the day watching television or playing in the motel pool. Our food was kept in a large ice chest, which ensured the milk and bologna didn’t spoil. Our menu was simple; we ate cereal (usually cornflakes) for breakfast and bologna sandwiches with cheese slices and Kraft Sandwich Spread. Many times we ate sandwiches again for dinner, sometimes we were fortunate enough to get a burger at the nearby diner. Our father ate every evening at the diner. Mama said he needed a hot meal since he worked all day. Sometimes, we sat at the table in the diner and watched him eat, having already eaten our sandwiches in the room.
One afternoon, my siblings and I decided to go to the pool while my mother napped. My sister, Norma Jean, who was about fourteen at the time, was in charge of supervising me and my brother. I had not yet learned to swim, but loved the water. I would play in the shallow end with my siblings and watch all the other swimmers. On this afternoon, there were other girls about my sister’s age at the pool. We had met the other girls several days before, and they didn’t like us. They used “bad” words and talked about things I didn’t understand, but I knew our parents wouldn’t approve of if they heard. They teased my sister and seemed to resent the attention she received from the boys at the pool. Their eyes watched her long, athletic, sun-bronzed legs as she strode around the pool in her swimsuit. It didn’t help that my sister had turned down their offers to “party with the boys” in an empty motel room.
“Oh, well look who’s here,” said the oldest girl. She was pulling herself out of the water using the ladder in the deep-end of the pool. She joined two other girls at one of the two round, white plastic tables on the cracked concrete patio surrounding the pool. “Miss Goody-Two Shoes.”
My sister scowled. “What’s your problem?” she asked. She strolled over to the table, in an attempt to make peace. It didn’t work. I could hear the girls banter back and forth with my sister, and I was more interested in getting into that water. It was so hot, the air almost burned. I was glad for my pink and orange bikini and was anxious to get into the water. My brother was already waiting at the shallow end. I was forced to wait for Norma Jean. I really wished I could swim.
I quickly lost interest in the argument. I peered into the deep end of the pool. I thought I saw a swim ring in the bottom, so I squatted down on the side of the pool near the black words stamped on the concrete: “8 feet”. One of the younger girls appeared at my side. I glanced at her brown curly hair and quickly looked away.
“You can’t swim?” she scoffed.
I didn’t take my eyes off of the water. I shook my head no, and almost simultaneously felt the force of her shove as she pushed me into the water. I gasped and found myself submerged in the water. Suddenly, I could no longer hear the argument, only the rushing silence of an underwater world. I found myself moving downward and finally felt the concrete floor under my feet. I pushed up as hard as I could, and found myself near the top of the water, only to move downward again. My lungs were burning. My eyes wide, I stared at the top of the water, as I again felt the rough concrete under my feet. I launched upward, my hands lifted, hoping to be seen. I ascended more quickly and this time my hand broke through to the top of the water. I heard my sister’s voice, but plummeted downward once more. It seemed like days had passed. I kicked off of the concrete, and was beginning to feel weak. I could see my sister’s hands in the water, and could hear her muffled voice as I drew closer. Her hands were moving wildly in the water, reaching and I could hear her muffled voice calling my name.
“Karen! Grab my hand!” she was shouting. I could hear her clearly, as she suddenly grabbed my hand and wrenched me from the water. I found myself on the side of the pool, choking and coughing up chlorinated pool water. Norma Jean wrapped a white bath towel around my shoulders and held me. She was furious. “Are you okay? Wait until I tell Daddy. These girls will be sorry.” She was shaking.
“I’m okay,” I assured her. “Can we still swim?” The other girls had scattered, and we were alone at the pool.
“No, I’m telling Mama. You could have drowned!” We marched back to the motel room and spent the rest of the afternoon watching reruns of Tom and Jerry. I really couldn’t stand those girls.
My near-drowning experience did not change the love I had for the water, but it did motivate me. By summer’s end I had taught myself to swim, just by watching my brother and some of the other children. I vowed to never feel as helpless as I did those long moments in the water, Even today, when I feel I am “drowning” in life, I revert to the lessons learned that summer. When I am overcome, I simply keep looking up.