It was Cold! (A Story for Summer’s End) A True Story

It was Cold!, Spirit_Lake_two_years_post-eruption 

Mount Saint Helens at Spirit Lake

As we reach the end of summer and officially move into fall in just a few days, I wanted to share one more story of summer.  The story took place 45 years ago, and, yes, it really happened!

It was early June.  We were the first group that summer.  A week of camping on the shores of Spirit Lake would be the high point of the season for this little troop of Boy Scouts.  Our planning began the previous fall.  Each weekly meeting increased our anticipation.  The first Friday in June was the last day of school.  Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, we were setting up tents, inflating mattresses, and envisioning the adventures before us.  It was a boy’s dreams come true.

The first order of business was the “Swim Test.”  Clad in swim trunks with towels at our feet, we stood on a floating dock a mere two feet above the surface of the lake.  It was a warm, sunny day, but still late spring, especially in the mountains.  I took in the scenery; majestic Mount Saint Helens, deep forests rolling down to the water’s edge, and the heavy limbs of Douglas Fir hanging over the lake.

My heart stopped.  I saw a sight that made me shudder.  At the shore line, in the shadows of the trees, protected from sunlight, was a large patch of packed snow.  Gentle waves, generated by a spring breeze, bumped against the snow so that it was impossible to tell where the snow stopped and the lake began.  In an instant, I realized what was about to happen.

The blast of a whistle broke my thought.  “Who is the lead scout of this troop?” barked the Life Guard.

My hand shot up, “I am, sir.”

“Are all your troops here,” he continued with military precision.

Looking down the thin line of boys between the ages of 11 and 14, I gave the proper response, “Yes, sir.”

The Life Guard’s voice took the tone of a Master Sargent, “Are you ready for your swim test?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied without thought.  Looking back, I know it was an out-and-out lie.

Eyeing me, the lead scout, he pointed to the lake with a clear directive, “Lead the way.”

Mark Twain had great insight and wisdom as he wrote these words, “When one must swallow a frog, it is best not to think about it.”  That was my strategy on that spring morning as I stood on the floating dock about two feet above the surface of the water that filled Spirit Lake.

I looked to my troops for support.  They looked as fearful as I felt.  A word of courage would not be enough.  They needed to witness valor in action.  A daring deed was my duty as their leader.  I did not take time to calculate or consider.  I just ran across the wooden dock and leapt into the icy water with the determination of a soldier storming the beaches of Normandy.

The water hit me, and I plunged under its cold, unforgiving surface.  Shock was instant.  It was as if a hand gripped my chest, pushed the breath from my lungs, and held me in place.  I was too cold to scream, but too determined to quit.

The flight from the dock had propelled my freezing form through the water.  At least the daring deed was in the right direction.  Arms flailed and legs thrashed.  I knew I had to gain control before panic conquered me.  “You can do this,” whispered my inner voice.  Focus returned.  I pressed on.

The requirement was to swim from the dock to the buoy that marked the end of the swimming area.  My eye targeted the metal marker floating in the frigid water.  Swim strokes moved into rhythm and I was on my way.

When I reached the goal, the orange buoy, the thought formed in my mind, “this is only half-way.  I’ve got to swim back to the dock.”  I actually feared that the cold could kill me.  Again, the inner voice encouraged me, “You can do this.”  I pressed on.

At last, I reached the safety of the dock.  In one movement, I lifted myself out of the water, rolled across the wooden planks and landed under my towel.

I peered out from beneath the towel.  My troops were peering back at me.  I was their leader.  They needed a good word from me.  I gave them my true and best response, “You can do it; just do it quick.”

Later that afternoon, the Life Guard announced that I received the highest swimming level.  I had earned the right to free range swimming anywhere and anytime.

I did not thank the Life Guard.  And, for the remainder of the week, I did not put one part of my body, not even one toe, in the cruel water’s of Spirit Lake.

There is a sequel to this story.  Twenty years later, on a Sunday morning in late May, I felt the trimmer of an earthquake that shuddered under the valley.  Within an hour, I learned that it was not an earthquake but a volcanic eruption.  Mount St. Helens had blown fiery ash and anger into the sky.

At the bottom of the mountain was a small lake, Spirit Lake.  I heard the newscast that delivered the report:  The volcanic blast swept the water and the lake into oblivion.  I caught myself in an uncontrollable smile.


Copyright © Richard Leslie Parrott, Ph.D.

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