The Sidney Sun-Telegraph - Serving proudly since 1873 as the beautiful Nebraska Panhandle's first newspaper

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By Mike Sunderland
Thoughts from a Grey-haired Point of View 

Scared? Who? Me!

 

February 23, 2022 | View PDF

Warning! This is a true story of a Navy boot camp experience. The language has been toned down to protect the guilty.

I stood looking Fear in the face. Fear with a capitol F–E–A-R, complete with a body and personality all it’s horrible own. The name of that particular fear is Water. Looking at it makes me want to run under a hot shower and stay there for the rest of my life. That tower at the deep end of the pool – how high did they say it is? 50 feet? 50 infinite feet above 18 deadly feet of ice blue water and I’m supposed to climb that tower and jump into that water? I dunno Chief, I’ll give it a shot, but I dunno if I can do it.

It’s the fall of 1968 and I’ve entered the adult world in a big way with no way out. Drafted to serve in the military of my county, I chose to do that service in Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club, the Navy.

Only one problem with that choice: I had forgotten an experience in my not so distant past. Growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska there were few opportunities to go swimming. As a Boy Scout I went to swimming classes a couple of times. Then came the fateful, almost fatal event at Boy Scout Camp at Lost Lake.

Camp was held late July while the weather was relatively mild. Lost Lake, nestled in the mountains, was spring fed. Snowmelt also provided water for the lake. The water temperature was a barely tolerable 55 to 60 degrees above zero. It felt more like 10 to 20 degrees below zero. I was in the water every day as I prepped for my mile swim badge.

The day before my attempt at the mile swim, I was swimming off the main dock when for no apparent reason I could no longer stay afloat and found myself sinking to the bottom. Where I was the water varied from 6 to 18 feet and I was in the deepest part. No sooner did I hit bottom than I kicked off and flailed my way to the surface to grab a lungful of air before heading down again. I lost all sense of direction and panicked. With the help of a buddy who saw my plight he helped me get out and on the dock. I had the shakes so bad I couldn’t stand. I lay a long time covered with blankets until I stopped shivering and shaking. Thoughts kept going through my mind, “I could have died. I almost drowned.” I lay there and shook in abject fear of the water. For my remaining years in Alaska I did not go swimming.

Time passed in youthful bliss with that memory safely tucked away. Now I stand at the edge of a cold ice blue pool wearing a sopping wet life jacket, cold as ice and weighing at least 50 pounds. Shivering in fear, I’m trying my best to hide behind a façade of bravado. “Keeriiimmannee! This jacket’s cold! Don’t they ever dry ‘em out?”

We keep our eyes on the CPO in charge of administering the swimming test; a boson’s mate with 20 years in service and tougher than armor plate. There is no way I am going let him know how scared I am. Swearing like an old salt, I join the line of other swearing, shivering, blue skinned men at the bottom of the tower. At its top is an Olympic-sized diving board.

In a deep no-nonsense tone he says, “After yah get to the top, step to the end of the board and wait. Do nuthin ‘til I give ya the word. Yawl’ cross ya arms over ya chest and grabs the tops of ya jackets and ya do nuthing.

When I sees ya doin’ it right, I’ll coun’ ta three. On three, steps off’n the board. Stay vertical. Make one lap ‘roun the pool and climb out. Alright, ya go first.” He points to Ranger, our recruit company petty officer, a make believe rank giving no authority, but plenty of opportunity of being the first guinea pig in every experience.

Ranger executes his orders with military precision, makes half a lap and the Chief has the next man begin the climb. One by one, the tower of doom creeps closer. Still shivering, I swear vehemently at this piece of ice life jacket.

Words bluer than my trembling lips chatter out between my teeth. The man before me vanishes from view as he climbs the tower from Hell. All I can do is grip the cold wet steel side rails as I prepare to start my climb to meet Fear and Fate.

My turn comes and the Chief taps me. Time stretches to infinity as I climb the tower and take my place at the end of the board. “So far, so good,” I think. Shivering with cold and fear so hard that I almost missed his bellowed “GO!” Stepping off the end of the board I plunge to my watery doom. Most of those who bravely met their fate before me shouted macho slogans, like “Geronimo!” and “damn the torpedoes!”

As for me, it was “soon oof aaa biii…” blub, glub and I’m under water, sinking fast to the bottom. The memory of almost drowning at Lost Lake floods back, all but paralyzing me. As soon as I hit the bottom of the pool, I kick upward with all my strength with a determination born of desperation. Dang if I’m not gonna make it around this mother of a pool. My face breaks the surface. Grab a fast breath. Sink. Kick off, surface, breathe, sink again. How far is it around this watery Hell?

Bamboo poles beat on my head and shoulders as the lifeguards try to get me to take hold so they can pull me out of the pool. No way! I’m not going to get out until I complete the test, or drown trying. My endurance and strength is fading, but the end of the lap is just ahead.

Hands grab me by the armpits and pull me out of the icy water as I hit the end of the lap. Lt. Fine, our company commander stands before me with anger and relief alternating on his face. “Dammit, Sunderland, what the bloody blue hell was that all about?”

“S-s-ir, I-i-m not g-g-ona take s-s-wiming les-s-ons. T-to m-m-uch to do, s-s-ir,” I manage to push between chattering teeth. In a few words I make it clear that there was no way I was going to fail this test.

Evidently the C.O. was impressed by my determination, if not my idiocy, “Hit the showers sailor. You passed,” he said. Shivering uncontrollably, I snap a salute. Holding my head high I step under the flow of wonderful, beautiful, blessed warm water. Scared of water? Never again.

So no matter what you face, stand tall and strong. Don’t let fear rule you. Especially in these trying days when those who disagree with you try to make you fearful. If I was able to do it, you can too. Remember the future of our children and nation depends on you and I taking a stand and defeating the fear our enemies want us to feel.

 

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