I was twelve years old and summer was quickly approaching. I had to pass the town-mandated swimming test; my tween social life depended on it. Kids who did got an orange patch rimmed in green to pin to their bathing suits, much like a Girl Scout’s badge. The patch meant you were a savvy swimmer and could go to the beach without your parents. It was the gold medal of summer. Patch wearers could also go sailing or canoeing — they could roam the lake or beach until dinner time. They could even walk home in coed packs down The Boulevard, which ran the length of our tiny town. I wanted so badly to be among them.
I remember when Jennifer, my sister’s bestie, got her patch. She donned a string bikini, slathered Wesson Oil on her limbs and sizzled with the help of an aluminum foil-covered Led Zeppelin album. She was hardcore. I just wanted my patch status, that next level of middle school cool. Swimming was not particularly my sport, but I practiced weekly at the YMCA’s indoor pool. As Memorial Day weekend neared, I yearned to go to the beach with friends to eat melting Marathon Bars and sunbathe on Bay City Rollers towels.
Island Beach was the place to be during summer. You got to help high schoolers dole out ice cream at the snack bar with the Bee Gees blaring in the background. And flirt with boys by the bike racks. That life was within reach.
My weekly pool practices turned into daily sessions. I perfected both my freestyle and backstroke and reeked of chlorine for close to a month. But at night, I’d worry about the test and think about Chris, my friend who didn’t pass. I wondered if the same fate would befall me.
“I failed, I can’t believe it. I’m such a loser, like those baby 5th graders who have to stay at the beach with their mommies. I might as well just spend the summer in my room. The popular kids will never talk to me now,” Chris had said through broken sobs.
“Ask the lifeguards if you can try again, I bet they’d let you. C’mon Chris, it’s gonna be okay,” I said, trying to reassure her, and myself, in the process.
Anxious, but determined, I then visualized a triumphant swim and prayed I was patch-worthy.
Test day arrived and my mother drove me to the beach. I was shaky, sporting a royal blue one-piece and nose plug necklace, my brown hair loosely gathered with an olive green elastic. I wore my weathered rope bracelet for good luck.
“You're here for the swimming test, right?” said Jeff, the teen lifeguard with red trunks that hit mid-thigh and blonde feathered hair, parted down the middle. He was beyond cute – the epitome of 70’s cool, sporting a leather choker necklace centered with one turquoise bead. I had to quell stomach butterflies.
“Yup, is it my turn?” I asked, nervous, but game.
“Follow me,” Jeff said. “Swim freestyle until you reach the dock and tread water when you hear the second whistle. Then backstroke to shore.”
Shuffling on the lukewarm sand, I said a silent Hail Mary. I even stretched for good measure. Jeff blew his whistle and I sprinted briskly into the brownish lake until it was deep enough to dive. I splashed into my freestyle, breathing and kicking in time. I glimpsed the white wooden dock in the distance.
The whistle sounded a second time, signifying the start of Phase Two — treading water. I doggy-paddled for an eternity, panting but at the same time strong, steady. The whistle's third blow jarred my focus, spurring my paced kicks to a stop. I turned abruptly and lunged into a strong backstroke the likes of which Mark Spitz would have envied. I swam with fervor for that orange patch. When reaching shallow waters, I faced forward and walked to the lifeguard chair, shivering in the late May air.
Jeff fumbled through a faded denim bag before speaking. I stood squinting, with one hand on my hip, my rapid heart beat slowing. The world was still. He pulled out a First Aid Kit and popped opened its plastic latch, letting bandages and the like spill out. No patch was in sight. He fished through his bag again, this time with focus, as if for a Cracker Jack prize. I was weak with anticipation.
“You passed, here's your patch. Wear it at all times,” Jeff said, nonchalantly.
His words were Gatorade to my soul, reviving my tired bones. The patch was mine. I ran and hugged my mom, momentarily abandoning my adolescent insecurities.
“You did it!” she said, wrapping a towel cape-like around me – her hero, regardless.