A Good Barter

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The neighborhood park was crawling with kids. They ran and yelled, teasing each other as they went. Every part of the park was overtaken by children who were looking to spend their first day of summer playing. The sun was barely up and the grass was still damp but this didn’t seem to matter…at least not to the children. The parents that had to accompany them had a slightly different view. To say that they seemed to be upset at waking up so early hardly begins to cover it. It was a Saturday morning and most adults were looking forward to a nice, peaceful day, not the chaotic bomb of bouncing energy that seemed to surround them. This unhappy party included my mom. I had dragged her out of bed without so much as letting her drink her usual cup of coffee. Back then I couldn’t figure out why something so trivial like waking up early seemed so troublesome. Of course, at the age of five life is often lived in blissful oblivion.
The cause of the impending bomb was the beginning of registration for swimming lessons. It was all that anyone under the age of seven had been talking about for the past month. The momentum that had been building towards this day was enormous. I would now even compare this electrifying feeling to the vivacity that most adolescents feel when talking about earning their driver’s license.
As the registration line slowly trickled through the entrance with only five children able to register at once, the atmosphere became even heavier with anticipation and angst. Only fifty children were allowed to enroll during each summer seminar and there were about seventy in line. The unfortunate last few would not only have to wait until next year, they’d also have to endure the year long streaming commentary that would be broadcasted by everyone that was able to sign up. I really wanted to be part of the fortunate group.
So did the boy behind me. He was around my age but it seemed like attending swimming lessons meant more to him than anyone else in line. He was holding his mother’s hand with an iron grip that I would have hardly guessed would have come from a five year old. He constantly fidgeted from side to side and kept count of everyone going in and out. For some reason I really wanted him to be to have the chance to sign up.
I was watching him when they called for the next group of five kids. This group included me. This group also happened to be the last.
The boy behind me went pale and dropped his mother’s hand. He turned and slowly walked away, head hunched.
My mom started walking in and slowly patted my shoulder to steer me inside. I didn’t move. I couldn’t. I asked if I could go talk to the boy. She seemed bewildered by my request but didn’t ask questions.
I ran to catch up with the boy. I don’t know if he noticed my pursuit but he didn’t turn. When I was close enough to match his pace I asked, “Why are you so upset?”
I now realize that asking such a direct question was probably rude but back then it was just a simple question.
“Because I wanted to be like my dad,” he replied while looking straight ahead.
“Your dad knows how to swim? I’m sure he won’t be mad if you wait until next summer. Or maybe he could teach himself,” I said hoping that I could keep him talking.
“My dad isn’t at home anymore”
“Where is he?”
“He died,” he said and for the first time he turned to look me.
For some reason I can’t seem to remember what the boy looked like. All I can remember is the sadness with which he spoke. It had striked me as odd for someone that was five but I only realized why until later. He had spoken not like a child, but like someone who had already lived a long life.
“I’m sorry. How did he die?”
“He drowned saving a man when he was on-call in the National Guard,” he said.
“And you want to be like him?” I asked curious to find out what he thought.
“Yes,” he answered simply.
“Then go sign up. You can have my spot”
I never saw that boy again but I’m pretty sure that he learned how to swim and was probably one of the fastest to learn. I have no regret in giving him my spot. In fact, I never went back. For some reason I find that giving him the option of learning how to swim took away mine. It was a barter, one in which I’m sure I got a good deal.

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