wading the horizon
BY LAWRENCE LENHART
horizon (n.)- from Greek horizein- “bound, limit, divide, separate”
By the third of week of that summer, Brett—who was a high school math teacher the other nine months of the year—carefully explained the trigonometry of horizons to me. When I sat on the lifeguard stand with good posture, the horizon—that point where the sky meets the Atlantic—was about four miles away. From the sand, it was only three miles. After eight hours a day of “scanning my water,” there was nothing more seductive than the horizon, that which was not my water.
At 9:15 a.m., I led my section of rookie lifeguards to the beach in front of the Henlopen Hotel. I dolphin-dived through the breakers, and the rookies followed, their oversized orange buoys dragging behind them. Like an extra appendage, they were required to take the buoys with them everywhere they went. The current washed us toward the Olive Avenue jetty. Further southward, Rehoboth becomes Dewey. The rookies looked at me expectantly, assuming I would lead them on a routine swim, a quarter-mile with the current (south) or against it (north), as part of their morning physical training. They waited and waded until I faced east. I felt them face east too. In the ocean, a person’s height is measured in the negative direction. How many feet from toe to bottom? With all of our eyes just a few inches above the wavelets, the horizon was just a mile away. “Horizon swim,” I said.
After ninety minutes of swimming, passing the line of sea scum and pods of blowhole-puffing dolphins, way past the one-mile buoy and proceeding through the initial horizon line, our rotator cuffs inflamed, we about-faced. No longer able to see the beach, the dunes, the arcade, or bandstand, there was only the eight-floor Henlopen Hotel, which seemed to rise out of an ocean sandbar. The tide had switched or was nonexistent in the deeper water. I couldn’t tell. The rookies tried to swim back—harried, hungry, some hungover—but they made little progress. Suddenly, the Henlopen Hotel looked more like the condominiums between Rehoboth and Dewey. Who knew how far we had drifted? The rookies clung to their lucky buoys. I tried to swim toward one, to latch on and share, but the ocean was dividing us, scattering us.
“Blow your whistles!” I yelled to the rookies, unsure if they could hear my voice. We knew all too well that a whistle could only be heard for up to a half mile. But if five of us blew simultaneously, would it span two-and-a-half? The thing about swimming “to” the horizon is that it is an illusion created by the curve of the earth. After one mile is traversed, another lays itself out, then another, and so on until the Atlantic is exhausted, and you find yourself backstroking the Strait of Gibraltar, deciding between Spain or Morocco, Europe or Africa, just a few more horizons to go.
To hear my own voice bellow for “Help!” in a medium as wide as air, knowing full well no one could hear—and those who just might were equally imperiled—is the closest I have ever come to death. The closest death has ever come to me. How many more minutes until muscle cramps would have sunk me? Saltwater spilled into my esophagus. I was dehydrating myself. I gave my last breaths to my whistle, three blasts into the cavity, an emergency ellipsis. I could feel the pea rattling over territorial waters. Nearly a corpse with a whistle necklace, I suddenly tasted the gasoline wake of the ad-cum-rescue boat.
A boatman reached from the hull and gripped my hand.