Temporary Lifeguard

Chagres River, but much wider closer to the ocean

While traipsing through the jungle with my BAR did have some occasional charms, these were insufficient to keep me in the infantry.  I looked around to see if there might not be some other opportunity available, and one did come up.  It took the form of becoming a member of the Fort Davis swimming team.  I had doubts about my ability to make the team, although I did swim competitively in high school and at Brooklyn College, but I had not been a stand-out competitor.  However, in this case, I volunteered to swim the butterfly.  I knew that I wasn’t particularly fast, but in the butterfly, most of the trick was being able to last the necessary two hundred meters.  So, I joined the swimming team and had myself a great time.

The team had its own barracks, and stayed together much of the time.  Each day began with swimming a leisurely thirty freestyle laps of the fifty meter pool, provided that no lap took more than one minute.  I have vague recollections of thirty second laps, but that has to be wrong, as I can’t imagine myself doing that.  The rest of the day, about six hours, were also spent at the pool, swimming laps in breaststroke, butterfly, backstroke or freestyle, and practicing racing dives and kickoff flips.  It was all extremely organized, enjoyable, and I made rapid progress, even winning some of my events, in the 200 meter butterfly, the medley relays and the freestyle relays.  I was now a full blown jock, a swimmer, something that was very good to be in the peacetime Army, particularly in Panama, where it was always too hot and humid.

However, the swimming season did eventually end, and I had to return to my original outfit and its training program, with some modifications.  I now had some skills which were thought useful.

In one of our training sessions the men were supposed to cross the Chagres River by means of a zip line, a single strand of rope attached to a tree on either side of the river.  It seems that the year before, in a similar exercise, three Marines carrying all their gear, had somehow dropped into the river never to be seen again, a regrettable accident.  This year as the men zipped overhead, I was assigned to a 30 foot power boat with its own crew, to patrol underneath as a lifeguard, should one be needed.  The day was quite chilly, with a cold breeze blowing in from the Pacific Ocean.  As the little boat crossed the river again and again, and I developed Goosebumps while standing in my swim suit, I noticed that there was a soldier just standing in the boat’s prow, rifle at the ready, with several armor-piercing bullets in front of him.  Naturally, I asked him what he was doing there, and he was only too glad to tell me that he was my protection.  It was thought by the folks in command of this exercise that when a soldier fell into the river, and I jumped into the river to rescue him, the sharks and the barracudas would come after me.  It was the soldier’s job to shoot those nasties before they got to me.  No soldier dropped into the river that day, and so I never found out if the protection scheme worked.

About AlexLevy

Dr. Alex Levy is a retired English teacher who survived World War II and the "Final Solution" by hiding in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Belgium for several years.
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