Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Bubblegum Mermaid

I was always small for my age. As if I was born late and forever rushing to catch up. Being a skinny knees and elbows wisp, you get nicknamed unimpressive things like Elf Ears. When I was 10, the final straw broke at our neighborhood pool. It was this wide affair with a 20 foot deep end. The kind that you have to pop your ears twice to reach the bottom.

Every afternoon, the 2 lifeguards would round everyone up in summer camp for a friendly game of Marco Polo. Marco was an inescapable trap for a kid who could barely hold their breath and strokes looked more like a turtle flapping its limbs flipped on their back than any actual speed. Desperate not to get caught, I spent the whole summer practicing my breast stroke.

Nothing worked. Deep breaths. Hyperventilating. I'd get about 5 feet under water and maybe 2 strokes and the silvery top would call my name. Lungs bursting, I'd hit the surface. There seemed no solution in site and I was desperately destined to remain the first person eliminated every day after lunch.

But luck has a funny way of changing. Our babysitter happened to show us Splash and I became obsessed with the idea of being able to breath underwater. I'd hold my breath and start counting with the idea that at some point like Tom Hanks I'd suddenly be able to do it. The highest I ever got to was 22. Or my magical merman counterpart would show up at the beach and hold my hand. This being the real world, no mermaid arrived or magic underwater breathing ability.

After a week of waiting, 5 whole days, I had to conclude that I was not stellar mermaid material. Tuesday dawned and our babysitter once again had us watching a beloved Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13. Did I mention she had a huge crush on him? The astronauts all survive by rebreathing their own air as long as the oxygen levels stay above a certain point. "Ah ha I thought! This is perfect." My allowance was $2 a week and stumbling down to the corner drug store, the only thing I could find that would work on my budget with any promise was the 25 cent packs of gum. I had just learned to blow bubbles the week before.

Clutching my prize in my tiny hands, I made off for a friend's backyard pool to experiment mad scientist style. One stick of Wriggley's Bubble gum failed miserably. I cautiously tried two. This worked somewhat if I blew a bubble and eased into the pool, but it did not hold up to any movement. Three, now, that did the trick. Trying to contain my excitement, I plunged to sit on the bottom of the pool (it was only 5 feet deep) and blew a bubble. To my surprise, it formed a very small bubble, but after some experimenting it seemed to work and allow me to draw a second breath at the bottom of the pool.

Two more days of hurried testing and I was ready for camp on Monday.

"Marco" dawned that afternoon and I plunged unto the pool chewing my gum. Two strokes in, I blew my bubble. Three strokes and I was starting to gain speed. Like a shot, I plunged across the pool as my drag was reduced. Because below 4-5 feet you can go a lot farther, a lot faster with less drag I instantly found out. Any person who has been on a summer swim team can tell you this odd fact, but at 10 I had no idea. Instead of the extra 4 or 5 feet I was expecting, I found myself breathless on the other side of the pool.

It was as if seeking a small improvement, I had unlocked a magic door. No one caught me again that summer. Or any summer after that. Though, I did buy a lot of gum. And if anyone asked me my secret, I just smiled and blew a bubble.