Marolt: Treading water in camouflage and combat boots
May 19, 2017
"Do you want to quit?" the drill instructor hollered.
"No, sir," I gasped as my vision faded to a hypoxic blur.
The test was to tread water in a flight suit and combat boots.
"Not that this has anything to do with real life," our drill instructor chuckled evilly. "When you crash into the ocean, chances are you'll die on impact or the sharks will get you. It's not even worth struggling."
We had to do it for an hour to stay in the program; some part of the body above water at all times. The program was Aviation Officer Candidate School, the Navy program that the movie "Officer and a Gentleman" made famous, and attractive to unemployed recent college graduates looking for purpose or, better yet, a job. The deleterious influence of Hollywood on the developing mind is as bad as dope.
My classmates encouraged me as I struggled. The drill instructor yelled for them to keep away. It's not safe to be within arm's reach of a drowning person. The larger the vacant expanse around me grew, the more I panicked. My legs were losing function. My arms felt useless. I doggedly paddled toward the edge.
I hadn't noticed the long wooden pole the drill instructor had armed himself with until it torpedoed me in the ribs. Instinctively I grabbed it to save my life. That's when another one cracked me across my arms, forcing me to let go.
"You'll regret giving up as you live, scumbag," he screamed. I prayed that I'd get the opportunity.
The pole came again and again and again. I couldn't help trying to reach safety. The adrenaline-fueled survival instinct was all I had left, until it occurred to me that I was actually going to drown. Then there was peace. The thought of death gave me more comfort than the side of the pool, because it was closer at hand.
The next thing I knew I was laying at the side of the pool. Everyone had been cleared out and two or three divers were kneeling next to me as I puked and coughed out water in astonishing quantities.
No sooner had I regained minimal consciousness than the drill instructor spat down, "You're through, maggot." He turned and walked away.
The next morning I had to answer to the lieutenant. I told him that I didn't float. He said that had better be true. He marched me back to the pool and told me to take a deep breath and jump in. I went straight to the bottom and stood there at attention until I couldn't hold my breath any longer and then swam back up.
"Congratulations," he said. "You're still in the Navy."
They relaxed the rule about staying above water so I could complete the treading water test. I would take in full lungs of air before beginning my slow fall through the deep water. When it got dark and my eardrums began to ache, I would propel myself to the surface for a quick breath and repeat the cycle until the hour had passed.
It was only better than the previous attempt by a margin thin enough to sloppily redefine "success" in sailors' slang. The muscles cramped, the lungs ached, my mind wandered around thoughts of death. They had to pull me out of the pool again, but not until one second after an hour had passed.
I ended up finishing the entire program, but when we took our flight physicals before accepting our commissions, they informed me my eyesight wasn't good enough for a Navy pilot.
So, they gave me an honorable discharge and assured me that I had served my country faithfully, after they'd tried to convince me to stay in and do something besides fly jets by calling me a scum-sucking freak who would never amount to anything. It almost worked. Instead I slunk away to what was the loneliest time of my life. The country was in deep recession and I in deeper depression; nothing to do, nowhere to do it and nobody to do it with.
But, many years later, I show off the scars and you can see that I talk about this episode of my life with almost a sense of pride — a tough guy; a survivor, of sorts, of a very dangerous and bizarre experience.
I bring it up because what I feel now living in the United States under the guidance of the fool we elected president is very much like during those dour gray days sequestered at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola without hope of staying afloat. Don't worry, my fellow buoyancy-challenged seamen, the divers are hiding just out of sight, waiting to jump in and rescue us. … I'm pretty sure.
Roger Marolt doesn't know if it's possible to sweat under water. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.