September 29, 2013
A young woman jogger, clad in a pink top and black spandex shorts, passed me on the River Road trail this morning. I glanced at her bottom—to make sure her muscles were working properly, and they were, I am happy to report. She had fine and sharp shoulder blades, and her blonde hair was braided into pigtails which swished back and forth like a pendulum across her back.
A Saturday afternoon, 1964. My family attends a Methodist church. It has a youth leader, Chad. He and his wife own a country house with a lake. There’s a large wooden diving raft out in the middle of the murky water. The boys and girls swim and dive, and I don’t know if the girls look, but the boys do, the girls wearing two piece bathing suits more modest than what women college volleyball players wear today.
Chad has strict rules. He blows a whistle every thirty minutes, and you had better get out of the water fast, or swimming is over for you. We all have buddies and hold up our hands when called. My buddy is a kid named Armstrong. We call him “Underarm-stink- strong.”
I am already a cunning linguist but shy as wallpaper, so I stand on the raft and watch girl after girl, bending knees, closing to a vee shape and diving. When they climb up the ladder, they make adjustments to their clingy suits and glisten with beaded, holy water.
One girl in particular—we’ll call her Lacy—has my eye. She is slender and has mysterious bumps on her chest and affords a marvelous rear view. Her swimsuit is lime green. She has blonde pigtails. I don’t believe we have ever spoken a word to each other. We wouldn’t have spoken this day had Lacy not had an accident.
Chad blows the whistle. The rafters dive in the scummy water and swim furiously for the shore, 75 feet away. Lacy and I are the last to jump, my “buddy” having forgotten me. She is a nervous girl; the whistle seems to spook her. She leaps front forward and horizontally, landing in an awkward smack of a belly flop, then she sinks below the water, an image fading, disappearing.
I take a deep breath and dive into the ten-foot-deep water and grope around because there is zero visibility. I kick something below me, a shoulder, and reach down and touch a pigtail. I grab both pigtails and gently tug, Lacy’s body slowly rising, passed out and limp against me, bubbles streaming from her mouth. We surface.
I wrap my left arm around Lacy’s chest. She chokes and sputters, and now people on the shore are screaming and pointing. I paddle with my right arm toward shore, but I’m acutely aware my left arm is on fire. Pleasant fire, pleasing fire. Chad throws a rope but I eschew the thing and keep going—slowing down even, to make the moment last . . . until Lacy whispers, “You can let go now. I’m standing in the mud.” I withdraw my left arm, and never was there a sadder boy than Gene Baldwin.
“You saved my life,” Lacy says. And then the girls gather around her, crying and laughing hysterically, and move her towards the house. The boys are slapping me on my sunburned back, me protecting my girl bump-imprinted left arm from any human contact.
Chad huddles the boys together and we pray fervently—for a life saved, for a brave boy (yeah, right), for forgiveness for buddies who break the rules (Underarm-stink-strong wails like a kitten), for this blessed day. I pray silently that I will feel more Lacy bumps—sorry, Jesus.
“You saved my life.”
Quid pro quo; she changed my life. She awakened me.
The woman jogger faded in the west; the old man walked furiously, seeing the years pass fast like gnat clouds and billowy cloud clouds and whirring grasshoppers. Bikers passed and waved. Acquaintances smiled and waved.
By the time he reached Genehouse, the old man was smiling. He felt his left arm, recently numb from an accident, remembering young Lacy’s chest in the crook of his arm. One may go “through a glass darkly,” or “through the looking glass,” separate or simultaneous. On a warm autumn day, when shadows are leaf paint, when acorns rain, when goldenrod blazes, when the wind tunnels up the bluffs and fens, and hollowed limestone whistles, when excited mourning doves sing songs of love, when the soaring hawk air force shrieks, when a man counts his blessings and knows he is rich beyond imagination, the journey is
“through the looking glass.”