When I completed Basic Training and Airborne School, I immediately was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina to begin my training for Special Forces. This was in the beginning of 2003, and at that time the training course had a lot of down time available while waiting for a particular phase to begin. Our very first phase was a conditioning course, but even before that began, we had about 30 days to wait. So our group of new Army trainees, probably anywhere from 40-60 of us, did a lot of aimless tasks to keep us busy until the course began. One thing we did a lot of was Physical Fitness Training, or PT. Our instructor was a Green Beret named Rolf, and his specialty, besides running for days on end without stopping, was swimming. So every other day for thirty days we were left to the mercy of “The Wizard” to what amounted to about 2-3 hours each session. I had been in the Army for all of about 4 hours, and the hardest training I had ever done and would ever do again, were these swim sessions. If you ever want to be in the best shape of your life, just go through these swimming sessions with one of the greatest Green Beret Scuba divers in history, a man who won 2, yes 2, Best Ranger competitions. Not to mention that we ran the couple miles to the pool as well as immediately running back the couple miles to the barracks upon completion of the training. Sometimes it was in shorts and a T-shirt and running shoes; other times it was in full BDU and boots. All times it sucked.
“The Wizard” as he was so aptly called, was literally a Wizard in the pool. He would sit at the bottom of the pool beneath us, with no breathing apparatus, for what seemed like hours, as we tread water and passed weights around over our heads from one trainee to another. Occasionally he would reach up and drag one of us down to the bottom with him while we held the weight, teaching us about the importance of air conservation and not panicking. Ever create a whirlpool in full combat gear and then immediately try to turn into it? If you were the unlucky sap at the corner where the current was strongest, there was no force on earth that was going to prevent you from getting swept under and thrown to the deep end. While you toss and tumble under the water trying to right yourself with all your crap on, most the time your thought was “Man I wish I would have created a will so everyone knows who gets my Xbox.” We’d spend hours in the lap pool doing side strokes with full battle rattle on. We would be forced to swim under water from one side to the other without coming up for air. If you made it to one side in one breath, then you were “encouraged” to keep going as far as you could back without coming up for air. In a word it was: exhausting. But if I could use a few more words I would say this: It was the single best training I ever had to prepare me for what was to come. It sucked, it hurt, and it made you throw up. And we loved it. We knew the pain was going to come but we, as young troops off the street preparing for something we could not comprehend quite yet, relished in the attempts to make us feeble. We embraced the crapiness of the situation to turn it into our favor, making it a bonding experience and a test to see just how strong we really were. Not how strong we thought we were, but how strong we could physically and mentally become. I honestly feel that without this training before the real Special Forces training began, I would not have endured through it all.
What does all this have to do with being a Stay-At-Home Dad? Or a Dad in general? A lot. Our daughter is 22 months old. And right now she is going through her own personal hell of being forced into a pool, taken out of her comfort zone, and doing things she would rather not be doing. For two weeks she cries when I put her into her swim diaper and swimming suit. Her lips quiver as I put her into her car seat. And she literally starts shaking when we reach the Club where the lessons are held. When we get to the pool area and I take off her little Minnie Mouse robe, the fear is evident and the anguish startlingly apparent when she is passed off to her instructor, a 16 year old girl named Emma. As a parent, it goes against every instinct to protect your child when you see the type of distress she is in upon entering the pool with a girl she hardly knows. She clutches her toy figurine of Elsa as tight as humanly possible. Good luck prying that thing away from her. It is her comfort though, so I am not going to make her give it up. She must be aloud to keep just one thing from the outside world while she is swimming, so she knows she has some sort of control during this endeavor.
Just like the hell of Wizard Pool Training that I received, Liv endures. She perseveres. She does it all. There are surely tears along the way, and even loud cries for Momma and Dadda. Yet she never stops doing it and above that, she does it as well as she knows how. She becomes stronger each day that she is there, and somewhere inside her, I think she knows this. She is aware of the situations at hand and is cognizant of the fact that as soon as the instructor lets go of her, she needs to immediately find safety. Her tiny arms and hands reach out for the edge of the pool and she grabs for it, successfully pulling her head up and out of the water to safety. When Emma dunks her under water, she quickly takes a breath and closes her mouth to prevent water from choking her. I know she is doing it correctly when she reappears and nary a cough or choke to be heard. She brushes the water out of her eyes and prepares to do it again. It is exhausting for her when she has to climb out of the pool with minimal aid, only to be forced to turn around and jump right back in. Then she does it again. She will rest her head on Emma’s shoulder, a clear sign of how tired she is becoming. But accidents are most likely to occur when you are tired or complacent, and one must be prepared for them, even when they are 22 months old. We have a pool at home. She must be ready to deal with any unfortunate accidents that can occur for whatever reason. So even though she is visibly tired and near the point of exhaustion, she continues on. She could easily make a break for it when she climbs out of the pool and come run to daddy, but she doesn’t. She pushes on. Maybe it’s the instinct of every child to do that. I don’t really know because she is the only one I got. But what I see is a determined child who will push herself as hard as she can because that is what is inside her.
For 25 minutes each day Olivia goes through her swim lessons. When I watch her go through it, my heart doesn’t ache for the pain she may be feeling. My brain feels elated at the things she is learning and the survival instincts she is accumulating. I could not live with myself if something happened in the pool when we were not around and I hadn’t done everything possible to prepare her. The crying, the shivering, the exhausting, is all worth it when I know that she is being better prepared for what is ahead of her. And as I see her kick the crap out of it, I think back to the Wizard and realize that his training prepared me for these moments here. Because no matter how tough these moments are, no matter how much you wanna quit and just grab her from the pool and make her feel better again, all this training is making her better, and making me better. I can see what she is capable of. She knows what she is capable of. Things are only going to get harder, but it will all seem easier after this. And no matter how hard the training was each day, as we leave, Liv always looks up and waves good bye to her Wizard, Emma. That kid knows what’s up.