Gotta Serve Somebody

On the last day of our trip to Seattle to visit our children, Clare and David, their friend Austin graciously took us out for a day on his motorboat. We started in Union Bay, where he rents a slip, and headed out at a no-wake pace past Gas Works Park and the University of Washington campus, under the Montlake Bridge and through the Cut, and then at higher speed into the more open waters of Lake Washington. Our cruise brought us to Andrews Bay, offshore from Seward Park, where we set anchor. Here we stayed for many hours, into a late afternoon so brilliant that Mt. Rainer, hidden by gray on most days, a ghostly flicker on others, was prominent throughout.

Austin at first anchored close to shore but, noting the thick weeds, moved into deeper water. The water was solid and dark and I couldn’t see beyond the surface. Nevertheless, I was eager to swim, and dove headfirst off the back of the boat without a flicker of concern.

The entry was fine, more than fine—it was a euphoric moment, piercing the water and then rising to the surface. When your very blood is hot, there’s nothing so bracing as a dive into a cold lake. I swam freely around the boat and then ventured farther out, where larger boats had anchored and a few people were sunning on flotation devices. Clare and Austin inflated two tubes and launched them. At the bow, David sat reading Wild. Eventually Richard jumped in feet first, wearing his shorts and shirt.

In and out of the lake we moved throughout the afternoon. I dove off the boat four or five times and never considered whether it was prudent. Swimming, floating—it was glorious. Above us a bald eagle drifted on the rising currents of air, and a juvenile eagle perched on the topmost branch of a fir, notching its head right and left to survey the lake as if it were the floor of history.

Eventually sirens broke our tranquility. On the opposite shore lay Denny Blaine Park, where a group of boaters like ours dotted the nearshore waters. Three or four fire engines, including a ladder truck, converged on the park. We were too far away to make out clearly what had happened, but from our anchorage we followed developments, passing around a pair of binoculars. The ladder truck raised its ladder, and a firefighter ascended to scout in the manner of the eagle. An ambulance arrived next and then two police boats, weaving at high speed around the anchored craft and plowing to a stop. A police helicopter and another from KOMO-TV burred up and hovered strategically. After the hours of calm, the racket was awful, and our young eagle, which had moved from tree to tree, launched from the fir and departed for good.

For about fifteen minutes, maybe more, we passed the binoculars among us, training them on the expanding scene. We searched our phones for a news flash, but to no avail. A stretcher was wheeled down to the water’s edge; Austin thought perhaps a body lay on top. None of us had seen a person pulled from the lake.

We lifted anchor and cruised back west. Soon after, the ambulance sped off, sirens going, and now I found a post on the Seattle Times blog: a thirty-two-year-old man, located by a dive team, had been pulled from Lake Washington and was being transported to Harborview Medical Center. Soon there was a fuller account: he had been underwater for ten to twenty minutes about thirty feet offshore.

Clare and Austin are both nurses. Clare works at Harborview, a Level 1 trauma center serving five states. A few days before our boating trip, she had shown us the landing pad for helicopters at Harborview. Austin said that the man would be put on a ventilator and his lungs cleared. But after fifteen minutes underwater, he was likely brain dead. Later updates described his condition as critical.

In another news update there was speculation that, diving in, the drowning victim had struck his head on a rock or some other submerged object. I realized how lucky I was. I was strangely pained that I should be spared and this young man was not.

On the Seattle Times blog I read about a string of recent swimming deaths—all involving males. Why males? Was the answer too obvious? That males are more reckless, more likely to take chances, not to perceive danger? Without a hint of caution, I had gone headfirst into water I didn’t know. Some would say my behavior was rash, and I now agree. Many drownings involve alcohol. Swimmers underestimate the power of a current, the effects of cold water, and don’t care what lies below the surface. Alcohol certainly clouds judgment, but there are other causes for carelessness, and I mused on my own.

We continued on with our day as planned. I tubed for the first time, even though I harbored twinges of anxiety now; we trolled past Bill Gates’ sprawling display of daring and good fortune, docked at Kirkland, shared a final farewell dinner of Thai food at Thin Pan, and made our slow way back to Austin’s slip as the sun set. The skyline of Seattle was aglow with magic. In the harbor we slipped quietly past pale boats that gleamed in the dark like milk, and I pondered admiringly all the people who had responded to the call for help for the young man in the lake.

**

The day after our return to Michigan, I visited the pool where I swim, and saw a young disabled man, without the use of his arms and legs, lowered into the water by means of a chair. He wore goggles and a nose plug, a white T-shirt, and a flotation device on each arm. A woman about my age positioned him on his back, keeping his head out of the water and guiding him evenly down the lane. Three boys who had arrived with him also entered the pool and swam alongside like a pod. The boys and the woman bantered with the young man, full of pleasure and enjoyment. They were having a really good time, the picture of easy camaraderie and joviality. I found myself smiling at their water parade, and everything seemed right in the world. Of course, all wasn’t right in the world, for the young man was without the use of his arms and legs, and that’s why he had to be buffered and supervised. Yet in comparison to the man and his retinue, the other swimmers looked positively grim, ticking off their laps. He was experiencing the euphoria and release that water gives, like my joy in piercing the water’s depths and rising to its surface. And he was surrounded, supported; many hands did the work of bearing him. It was not an onerous task. These boys and this woman made their service appear as light as the play of sun upon the water.

As I watched, Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” from his gospel album Slow Train Coming, came to mind. The song avows that we must serve the Lord or the Devil. John Lennon hated the religion that, in his opinion, infected Dylan’s music of this period, saying the lyrics were “just embarrassing.” I disagree. I believe that one can understand Dylan’s two necessary masters in different ways. But I must serve someone other than myself—the emphasis falls on serving and what it means. For me it means the opposite of self-serving; it means doing something, it doesn’t much matter what, beyond myself, and for someone else. Maybe it means hearing someone’s cry for help and responding, maybe it means floating someone in a bed of water. Maybe it’s bringing something out of yourself to bear upon another—offering a towel, a hand, a dish, a word—putting yourself at the service of another. And in Dylan’s words: you gotta do it.