When I was about the age my youngest child is now, we were on one of many trips to Lake Ouachita near Hot Springs, Arkansas. My father had been recently posted there by the FAA. One of many moves all over the mid-section of this country.
My dad grew up on and around Galveston, Texas. I think once you’ve experienced life on an island there is something in you, something very Tom Sawyer-like, which always yearns for an island of your own. So when my father learned from new friends that you could camp on an island in the lake for pocket change per day, he loaded up his wife, his daughter, and his son and headed off into the beautiful scenery of Ouachita country.
I remember the boat. It was mustard yellow fiberglass. My father, a barrel-chested young man, relatively fresh out of the Navy, would command it from the boat ramp out into the lake until we arrived our on our very own private island.
On this particular trip we had a handful of black rubber inner-tubes in which to float. My brother and I, always outfitted in life-saving orange vests, were allowed free range of the shoreline. I was older at about 4, so Christopher must have been just about 3.
I sat on the edge of one of these black rubber tubes, scorching my thighs. I remember crying from the burns, the group on shore yelling for me to splash the tube with lake water to cool it off. My attempts failed and I slipped into the center of the tube. With my lifejacket on, I was stuck. I was in the center, unable to duck underneath the black rubber wall, unable to see the shoreline.
I was floating further and further away from the island.
Funny I remember this so clearly. My son, who as I’m writing this is about the same age I was at the time, is in a lifejacket not 20 feet away from me in the exact same lake and I have an odd assumption that he won’t remember being here.
So I’m floating and floating further away from shore. I can’t see anything but a small circle of blue above me. I can’t duck under the tube because of the lifejacket and I’m crying for help. But the acoustics of such a small space make it seem that my pleas won’t make it far.
Suddenly my father’s strong forearm sling over the top of the inner-tube assuring me I was safe, then paddling us both back to shore.
As a side note, my father has a thing for watches. Just so it doesn’t seem odd that I’d note the fact that this arm, reaching out to save his oldest child, is adorned with a rather ordinary Seiko, most likely purchased while on leave in Japan. It’s funny that I associate a gleaming watch on my father’s arm as such a symbolic thing…this strong man.
My father, who sometimes I wonder if he loves me as I am, the creative child who wanders off here and there from time to time…here is his strong arm, very certainly there to save me. Raised by a generation who absolutely loved him, but was taught some rather odd ideals about raising children, he (a single father in the south with a daughter to raise) has absolutely done his very best with the awkward tools he’s been given. There is no doubt, looking back, that he always meant to love me, protect me, and make sure I am OK. Often letting me test my boundaries until I realized I really needed help.
Just like the day he stood on the shore, the only one realizing I was gone and needed him. Such a tough guy, but always slyly soft just underneath.
It’s a little bit late for Father’s Day, but I understand that he always loves me, and that he’ll always save me when I really need saving, which is not always when I first panic for help. He has always made sure I’ve had a moment to catch myself and realize I really am stronger than I think I am before diving in to rescue me.