by A.R. Bender
I’d never paid much attention to Mad magazine, even when I noticed it on the shelves next to the comics in the local variety store, until Ted, a friend who lived across town, showed me an issue earlier in the year. I liked it so much that Ted loaned me a stack of back issues the next time we visited his family.
I was stretched out on my bed reading one of the issues while chomping on the creamy goodness of a Milky Way bar. “Take Good Care of My Baby,” sung by Bobby Vee, played on the top-forty station on my transistor radio. I set the magazine down and gazed out the window, getting restless to go outside, but knowing that I couldn’t because the doctor said I should stay home until the end of the week—another day to go. At the time, I couldn’t understand why he wanted me to rest for a few days because of what happened in Seward Park, but as soon as I got home, I realized why. I didn’t have a fever or anything but felt off and didn’t want to go out at all.
I hoped that this wasn’t going to ruin my summer—what was left of it. It was already the first week of August, meaning I was going to start my first year in junior high school in a month. I didn’t want to think about that and picked up another copy of Mad: the March 1961 issue, with a horizontally split cover. In the middle of the cover, a subtitle read: The First Upside-Down Year since 1881. When you flipped the magazine over, the year 1961 still showed, but with another subtitle below it: The Last Upside-Down Year Until 6009. On both halves, another text block read: No Matter How You Look At It—It’s Gonna Be A MAD Year.
I was reading a ‘Spy vs Spy’ script when I heard a knock on the front door, and the voices of some of my neighborhood friends. When I opened the door, Johnny and Davie, Craig, Scott, Kevin, and Mary Jo greeted me with wide smiles.
“Hey, Bert,” Craig said. “Can we come in?”
“Is your mom home?” Johnny asked.
“Not for an hour or so.”
“Got any cookies?” Scott asked.
“Might be some Oreos left.”
“We were getting worried about you,” Mary Jo said. “Because of what Kevin said happened to you at Seward Park.”
This was one of the first times I’d seen Mary Jo since we went to Ravenna Park together the week before and kissed each other in that giant old hollowed-out tree trunk we discovered. I tried not to stare at her too much
“It was no big deal.”
“No big deal?” Scott said as he plopped the half-full bag of Oreos on the table. “Kevin said you almost drowned!”
“I got a little tired, that’s all.”
“Shoot,” Kevin said, as he munched on the cookie. “I saw you go underwater and not come up. So I yelled for the lifeguard.”
“I woulda made it back okay. I think.”
“Not from what I saw,” Kevin said. “And you were way out there.”
“I’m glad you did, I guess.”
“I felt bad after we left you alone on the raft,” Kevin said. “Kind of a dirty trick. But it was Chuck’s idea. Anyway, I watched you swimming back and could tell something was wrong because you went crooked and away from the shore. And then you stopped and raised your hand. And went under. Whew. I was so glad when you popped up and the lifeguard raced to you.”
“Good thing Kev saw you,” Davie said.
“You’re right,” I said. “Thanks, Kev.”
“We came by to see if you wanted to come out with us,” Johnny said.
“I don’t know. The doctor said I should stay home another day.”
“Oh, come on,” Craig said. “You’ve stayed in long enough.”
“Where you going?”
“To Green Lake,” Scott said. “A nice day for a swim.”
Just then, something hit me. Something cold and numbing. My throat tightened up a little.
“I’d like to,” I said, trying to cover up my apprehension. “But I don’t want my mom to get mad at me. Maybe next weekend.”
“Okay,” Craig said, as he stood up. “See ya later.”
The others followed Craig to the door.
“Glad you’re feeling better, Bert” Mary Jo said, with a half-smile.
After they left, I tried to read the Mad issue, but set it down because I couldn’t help thinking about what happened to me.
We were all in the YMCA day camp bus heading to another recreational area, this time to Seward Park. I liked it there because the park had lots of woods and trails to explore, but the beach was usually crowded on hot days like this. We poured out of the bus and gathered around our counselors. They decided to have us play around the baseball diamonds in the morning and go swimming after lunch.
“Oh no,” Ronnie said, as we hiked down to the beach. “Look at all the kids.”
“It’s not too bad around the rafts,” Chuck said. “Let’s swim out there.”
I waded into the water with Kevin, Chuck, Ronnie, and two other kids, and dove in. In a couple of minutes, we were at the raft. We took turns jumping off the diving board. After a while, more swimmers came on it.
“Hey, let’s go out to the far raft,” Chuck said.
“But the counselors said we aren’t supposed to go there without permission,” I said.
“They won’t know,” Chuck said. “If we don’t stay too long on it.”
“Sounds like fun,” Ronnie said. “We’ve never done that before.”
“Let’s race to it!” Kevin said.
We all lined up on the raft, and on Chuck’s count of three, we dove in. I was pretty tired when we arrived because I’d been swimming so fast.
“That wasn’t so hard,” Chuck said after we clambered on the raft.
I’d never been this far out. The beach seemed so much farther away. At least I could rest on the other raft on the way back, I thought.
I stretched out on the raft, using my hands as a pillow. Amid the chatter of my friends, I closed my eyes and let my mind drift without a care in the world, thinking how perfect everything was now, and wishing that time could stop so I’d always live in summers like this: swimming in lakes and rivers, hiking and fishing in the mountains, and playing pickup baseball games. A couple of times I gazed up and noticed the others huddled in the corner, talking quietly to themselves. I closed my eyes again, half-dreaming about a hike to Pratt Lake in the Cascades I took with the YMCA two weeks before.
Sometime later, everything became darker. I squinted open my eyes: a small cloud covered the sun, the only one in the sky. I looked around and sat up with a jolt. I was alone! Did they leave without me? I shielded my eyes from the sun, gazed out toward the beach, and recognized Chuck and Ronnie next to the YMCA counselors. The whole group seemed as if they were packing up their towels and clothes and heading toward the bus to leave—but without me!
I dove off the raft in a huff, keeping my head tucked into the water and rising up only when needing air, which made me go faster. After a few minutes of rapid swimming, I slowed down, hoping to spot the other raft close by. Instead, both that raft and the beach were still a long distance away. Now I realized that I must have veered off course when keeping my head down when swimming. I started to swim again but my legs felt heavy. I flopped over on my back but after a few strokes took in a mouthful of water, causing my stomach to cramp up. A panic set in, and hard. I wasn’t going to make it. I raised my arm and yelled for help. No one heard me. I yelled and screamed again. And then went under.
I tried pushing up but kept on sinking farther into the cold and murky depths, as if something was holding my legs and pulling me down. I kicked my legs and pushed my arms harder. Kicking. Pushing. Kicking. Vaguely sensing that I was coming back up. But also running out of air.
I broke the surface, took in a huge gulp of air, and screamed for help. I was about to go under again until I saw the lifeguard rowing fast toward me. I used my last reserves of strength thrashing to stay afloat. In what seemed like both an instant and an eternity, the back of the boat was right in front of me.
“Can you hold on?” the lifeguard hollered.
I nodded and grabbed the end of the boat with both hands. I kept a steel grip on it as he rowed away.
A large crowd stood on the beach when we arrived. I barely recognized a few of the kids and counselors, but no one else. The lifeguard helped me out of the water, but after a few steps I doubled up in a spasm, coughing up water. He eased me down to the ground and pushed on my chest. I coughed up more water and began shivering uncontrollably. So many faces staring down, some talking, but I couldn’t make out the words. Someone put a blanket over me, and then another, but I still felt cold and numb.
Cold and numb. Just the way I felt for an instant before my friends left. Now I knew the reason why I got the sudden chill. I draped the couch blanket over my shoulders and turned on the TV to watch American Bandstand. After a few minutes, I noticed a girl on the dance floor that looked like Mary Jo.
After the song ended, I wished that I had gone with them to the lake. It was something I had to do, and soon. For one thing, I didn’t want to be called a chicken and have what happened ruin my summer. But even worse, I hated that awful feeling I had—like now—whenever I thought about going swimming. No, I had to force myself and go. It was the only way to get rid of it.