It was the squeal of school bus brakes that brought me back into reality. Yesterday morning I was slowly drifting on an air mattress in the shallow end of Barton Springs pool – my favorite place in the entire world. I could just see the top of five of those big yellow mastodons as they spilled out a tribe of anxious kids into the parking lot. It wasn’t unusual. It’s one of the reasons I try to get to the pool early.
In case you’ve never been there, Barton Springs is located in the heart of Austin Texas. It’s over an eighth of a mile long and 60 (?) feet wide. Crystal clear water pushes out of the Edwards Aquifer which hides below most of central Texas. At 67 degrees, year-round, it’s a jolt to the senses when you first enter the water, especially in the heat of the summer. But there’s no place I’d rather be.
I tried to relax. I closed my eyes again and felt the breeze push me into a weightless spiral, but I knew it wouldn’t take long for those kids to arrive full of excitement and screaming. I would have to move to the deep end once they arrived in force, but I do love to watch the show when they first hit the water. Barton Springs baptisms are always the same.
Like a herd of gazelles about to navigate a crocodile infested river they all huddle around the stairs that leading in, creating a bottleneck at the waters edge. It’s the dance that makes me smile.
There are several different dance styles for entering the springs. My favorite is the flat hand, slow dip torture. Once the water meets the knees an odd grimace comes across their face. They stiffen and gasp, their neck muscles tighten, and their jaws clinch in delusions of agony. Hands are palms down, pushing flat against an invisible force field six inches above the water. Even as they slowly, torturously, painfully, move deeper into the water, the hands continue in the same position with a six inch clearance. Fearful of actually touching the water, they pat at the force field as if the heat generated from the friction will ward off the cold. It’s kind of a reverse Pee-Wee Herman dance.
One of the great mysteries of the Springs is why the slow dippers are unable to understand why they are a target. A splash across the back is to ease the viewer’s frustration from watching slow dipper slowly torture themselves. Take it like a man, you wimpy little snot. In response the splash invariably sends the slow dipper into a spastic dance which I love to watch. Rising to their tip toes and sucking in air like a big mouth bass, the hands continue pushing against the imaginary force field as they do a underwater tip-toe pirouette and turn to face the assailant. Harsh emotions fill their oversized noggins. If they were literate they’d say, “Damn you! Damn you all to hell for splashing me with that cold water! I won’t forget this!” Ten minutes later it never happened.
And then there are the screams. Heartfelt screams. The kind of scream that comes from the gut after your best friend grabs you by the waist and drags you from 102 into 67 degrees. Schadenfreude is a dish best served cold.
So, I floated. It’s easy to get lost in the springs with your eyes closed. If the breeze pushes you too close to the diving board, the spring vents will likely push you back toward the shallow end. Native Americans revered it as a holy place. I think they were right. It’s all good when you float the Barton.
All those kids would be arriving soon, so I redoubled my efforts into relaxing. I told myself I didn’t need to open my eyes. I’d hear those kids long before they arrived. After about ten minutes they were back in my head. They should of been here by now. I chastised myself for not living in the moment. I remember thinking, why am I wasting my time thinking about those kids?
I tried to relax as I splashed cool water onto my nearly dry chest. Another few minutes went by and those kids wouldn’t leave my thoughts. I began to feel the shaking of the water as if someone was in the shallow end with me, but I couldn’t hear anyone. I finally concluded it was probably one of those lap swimmers. That must be it.
I tried to shake off the feeling when water began to lap up against my air mattress. I could feel them. Every one of my other senses was telling me that there was someone near me. Curiosity started to gnaw at my soul, compelling me to open my eyes, but I couldn’t give in. I couldn’t look.
It quickly became a test of willpower. Surely I could figure this out without surrendering to my curiosity. If I opened my eyes I would be admitting failure. This had to make some kind of logical sense. But then I heard it. The sound of feet, running up and down on the cement walkway. Slapping sounds. Pushing and shoving sounds. Children, and lots of them. They were all around me. I could hear them, but without the screams or yells of any kind. No taunts. No double dares. What the hell was going on?!? Still, I refused to open my eyes.
The water became choppy enought so that my head started to bob against the vinyl pillow. One recognizable sound caught my attention. It was that barely audible intake of air when they first test the water. But then, nothing. I heard a huge splash nearly ten feet away. Someone jumped in, but after that, again, nothing. I felt like ten or twenty kids were surrounding me. How could they not be screaming? What vortex of the damned have I floated into? I wouldn’t open my eyes. My brain was screaming at me. I should be able to figure this out. What the hell was I hearing?!?
And then I heard that slapping sound again. Like someone was playing patty-cake or slapping each other on the back. Pushing and shoving maybe. For the tenth time my brain convulsed to find a reason for what I wasn’t hearing. My mind began reaching for explanations as if it had leaned too far back in a chair.
“Am I having a tumor removed right now? That must be it. I could be on an operating table right now and floating the Barton is part of some hallucination as the doctors are poking around in my brain. That’s just stupid. Damn it! What the hell is going on? An aneurism. That’s it. It’s an aneurism and I’ve lost the ability to hear the background soundtrack to my life. Naw, that’s even stupider.”
I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to look. I opened my eyes and there they were. At least a hundred kids. All, pushing their way into the pool, bottlenecking at the stairs and splashing one another just like I predicted. Not a sound out of any of them.
They were all from the deaf school.