Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Drowning Boy

Talk Her Down - Starsailor (mp3)
Everybody Out of the Water - The Wallflowers (mp3)

The following is a true story. There’s a lesson in here somewhere.

On an afternoon in late June, I receive a phone call from a friend’s wife. “Did a boy drown in your school’s lake?” she asks. We call it a lake. It’s not really a lake. It’s an over-large glorified round pool, the kind of overcompensation that makes masculinity and testosterone continue producing at the proper levels for future generations.

“Come again?” I say.

“Like, recently? Did a boy or some kid drown in your lake? Or something like that? I’m just calling you because you’d know if that was true, right?”

She isn’t completely panicked, but she’s definitely fighting fear of a possible truth.

“Um, no. No child or adult has died in or near our lake at any time that I can recall. Certainly not recently,” I say.

“Well that’s what I figured,” she says, clearly relieved. “But Mac got in the car today and told me this story, and I just had to call you to make sure.”

“What story was that?”

“Well, he said that at camp today -- he started robotics camp over there today -- one of the counselors was standing with them before they took their swim tests, and Mac said the counselor told them that the reason they have swim tests is because a boy drowned in the lake.”

My face scrunches up with a mix of disbelief and contemplation, but she can’t see that because I don’t have those new iPhones. “That’s weird,” I say. What I don’t say is that I have trouble accepting the veracity of this entire story. Their son is quite creative. Any part of it could have been generated from his noggin like Simon with his magic chalk.

This theory was encouraged when she went further with stories about shark teeth that had fallen off necklaces and gathered a magic life of their own, biting kids who went in the wrong areas of the pool. Having to convince another adult that shark teeth simply cannot bite without mandibles and muscles and the like often helps chart the appropriate absurdity to a conversation.

“Well, that’s all,” she says. But she’s clearly hanging on for something, some additional comfort or piece of information from me.

“Listen, I’ll ask around just to be sure, but trust me that it’s not true... about the drowning thing, not the shark teeth.”

The next morning, I’m sitting in my office, and my coworker comes in. His son is at a camp here, too, and he’s talking to me about his son swimming yesterday, which immediately gets me thinking about the phone call.

So I tell him my amusing Tale of the Frightened Mom and The Drowning Boy. And something not good happens. He stops me before I’m finished and says, “My son actually said something similar last week.”

“Come again?” I claim that’s what I say because it sounds a lot more professional and mature than “You’re shitting me.”

“He said one of the counselors told him that a kid had drowned in the lake. I just ignored it at the time, because I figured it was one of those spooky stories counselors tell kids to get them to obey rules.”

At this point, what was clearly a fluke, the product of one boy’s flighty imagination, mutated into something more disturbing. Two different campers. Two different camps. Likely two different counselors, both telling tales of children drowning to impressionable minds (and future admission prospects).

So I sent an email relaying precisely this to the head of our camps. Accusing no one of anything. Merely laying out what I had heard as I had heard it. Including the shark teeth. But certainly expressing concern about the potential for serious headaches if the story proved out.

The director, in turn, passed it to three different camp directors and the teacher in charge of our lifeguards. The fire of panic spread quickly from there, with nervous detective work on the part of several people hitting overdrive the next day. By the end of that following day, barely 24 hours after the ruckus first stirred up, it was relayed to me the Closer-To-Real story: Mac, the original firestarter, had overheard two of the adults -- not counselors -- talking in the lunch hall -- not at the lake -- about a boy who had recently drowned in Lake Chickamauga -- not our school’s “lake.”

Just over 36 hours after my first hearing of Mac’s drowning tale, I was writing an email apologizing to all parties involved for stirring up what proved to be a fairly pointless panic.

A month or so later, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m still not sure how I should have done things differently. But I’m also feeling that I didn’t do things quite right, either.

Maybe it’s inevitable to feel that way with false alarms.

But dammit, maybe not.

Thus, I’ve occasionally spent my space-out summertime fiddling with that little Rubik’s Cube of a dilemma.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Isn’t there...?


Sara C said...

Though your "real" explanation seems plausible, I am not convinced that the counselors would not tell their campers that some kid drowned. It sounds exactly like something a teenager would say to a kid just to scare him into submission. More evidence of teenagers not thinking: the first camp counselors were "joking" with 6-year-olds about the kids pooping in their pants - something less funny and more terrifying to a child who has only fairly recently mastered avoiding such an act.

And for the record, I don't think you did anything wrong. Even if it was the counselor, it's only a public relations nightmare because people are stupid enough to take teenagers and their loose tongues seriously. You just have a job that requires you take the parental stupidity seriously as well.

One final question: what difference would it make to these parents if someone HAD drowned in the lake? It wouldn't make the lake less safe.

troutking said...

The lesson is we shouldn't call our pool a lake.

Anonymous said...

I am 90-95% sure that the counselors told the campers that somebody drowned in the lake. When do campers eat with adults at lunch?

Billy said...

@Sara -- Alas, the wacky way our minds work has little to do with logic or reality. Folks hear about a shark attack, and they're suddenly afraid of all bodies of water. They hear about a house break-in, and they start locking all their doors.

I'm almost positive that, not once in its history has anyone found their demise in our little body of water. Considering the thousands going in and out of that thing every year, decade after decade... it's quite amazing.

@Anon -- "Mac" actually confirmed the corrected account. He was nagging one of the adults in question and had walked up to them in the middle of their conversation about Chickamauga Lake. That said, it's possible that a "counselor drowning story" was spreading... always possible... but without more to go on, we didn't have enough to make a bigger deal of this possibility.

Besides, I suspect when the various directors all went hunting and interrogating to make sure it wasn't true, counselors got the message. Most of 'em are fairly sharp.

Bob said...

Favorite Blair Witch moment (since you're pictured it):

--Where's the map?

--I threw it in the river. It was useless anyway.

Rebecca Nelson Edwards said...

I'm fairly certain that, had anyone ever drowned in the Lake, I would have found out in reseraching my hard-hitting-investigative-journalism piece during the centennial year. Had the iron steps stayed up longer the odds would be higher. I could be wrong, though - have you checked with the F.M.I.C.O.L. emeritus??

jed said...

but isn't there a shark under the tower? i always heard that at mc****** camp.