In the early fall of this year we traveled to a city in the hills next to a lake that looked across the farmland towards the plains. In the lake were water plants, long and soft, dark in the morning light, and the water was grey and dark, still in the October morning.
Crowds went by and down the road to the water. And the noise around them did not stir them, each man alone with each other together. And it was a fine thing looking out over the water by one's self in that crowd.
The day had been cool before the sun, and we gathered by groups. Men in groups. Women in groups. Groups by age, the largest by far being men between 35 and 45. All these men with half a life behind and maybe less than half before, and lots of money between them; yet, all preparing to plunge in the lake and swim away from shore.
Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another. To all these men, it seemed a noble thing to swim that morning. We don't kill our food to survive any more. We don't run with the tribe until the antelope falls from exhaustion. We of the suburbs do not even hunt for fun. We don't shoot big game anymore. We don't battle game fish.
Even war is not the same. My enemy and I will never see each other's eyes. I from my country will try to kill him from afar on a screen. Only when pressed will we send our youth to be boots on the ground while leader and leading class dine in safety. He from his will prefer to kill everyone except my soldiers--relief workers, journalists, secretaries in office buildings. He will immolate himself (or persuade his weak contemporary to do so) because believes this will hurt me above all else. Acting as we do, are we, then, men at all? Where the "grace under pressure?" In modern war . . . you will die like a dog for no good reason.
But we are men. We were not made for lives of safety and comfort and electrons entertaining us with the struggle of others on a Sunday afternoon. We were not made to be fearful or still. Our excess makes us that way--excess money carried in our garages and homes, excess food carried around our bellies, excess status carried between our ears. Fear of death increases in exact proportion to increase in wealth. We were made for struggle, and ambition, for striving, for the fight, for the arena. If life does not provide it, we will create it for ourselves.
Hesitation increases in relation to risk in equal proportion to age. Reaching the middle of our years, we start to fear the arena is past. Then we search for grace under pressure and we'll reach almost anywhere looking to see it in ourselves. We try to be the heroes in our own narrative, for as you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.
And it was so necessary that we stood with hundreds of our fellows, long before our sleeping, half-living friends stirred in bed. The dark was still upon us as we formed our ranks and our battalions. Commands rang out from the loudspeakers. The flag was saluted, the anthems sung. The dawn began and clouds took up the colors of from gray to pale purple to peach and then to gold. The hills looked out over the mirror lake and file upon file of hills beyond it. Group by group we took our place and came to the water, following the order to swim.
And once more we took to the struggle in the water, hundreds of men with perhaps less than half their lives before them. I moved forward in the surge while the man on the speakers shouted at us. The water was dark, soft and warm to the touch, and the air around our heads fresh and cool. Plants in the water brushed and grabbed my legs and the mud sucked me ankle deep.
I swam out hard and strong, head up at first and then pushing my face into the lake. At first, the air and water were good, smooth, and full. I breathed and blew and all was well. I swam with the group of men until I ran into one, tried to swim around, clocked another, and drank the brown, silty water. About 200 meters in, my shoulder ached from the unaccustomed wetsuit and I was just sick of the whole thing.
I choked, looked up and tried to keep myself on course. The far corner of the course seemed no closer, and I took a couple of breast strokes, as if there was something to be done other than swimming on. I don't enjoy swimming, and I am always looking to abbreviate the experience. But stopping would feel good temporarily. It does not solve the problem. Cycling is only allowed if you complete the swim. The more you half-ass it an complain to yourself, the longer it will take.
So, I looked for some way to swim that would account for the stress on my shoulders. I kept my head down for longer in order to make progress, and swam some off course. Lifting my head more often, I stayed on course, but swam slower. There is nothing heroic about a man swimming, except the finishing of the thing itself. So, nothing to do but keep going. Hercules or not, the manure in the Aegean stables still needs shoveling.
And shovel I did. Made the first turn far too slowly but glided around and swam for turn two. By now, faster swimmers from the wave behind had caught us up and I gave up more time trying to move outside to let them through. Again, trying to make distance between citing and a gimp shoulder made me swim like a drunken sailor. Correcting course, I finally made turn three.
The waves at this race had some "slower" waves ahead and some "faster" waves behind, with a good alternation between male and female waves. By some freak of physics or combination of bell curves, I swam into a gathering of faster and slower swimmers all arriving around turn two at the same time, like bigger and smaller pieces of flotsam caught in an eddy. Again, I felt in the way, but could see the final buoys and the swim exit some 500 meters off. I pushed my face again into the lake, pulled hard, glided when I could, cited often, and tried to make this last bit count.
As the end came closer, it also came faster. No watch was on my wrist nor was one seen by me. I am what I am in the water. And I am not what I cannot be. Though always tempted to quit, finisher I will ever be, and finisher I was. Because man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.
**I don't know what kind of literary dweeb thinks of Hemingway while waiting for a swim to start, but I did. So, I tried to write it down.**