The summer before I turned nine, my sister Teri worked as a lifeguard for the city of Harlingen, and in accordance with her usual lot in life, she took me with her to work every day. Enthroned on their lofty tower-chairs, and armed with megaphones and long hooks like shepherds’ crooks, Teri and her lifeguard friends were all paragons of coolness and sophistication in my young eyes, alternately bantering with each other, teasing me in a friendly surrogate-elder-sibling way, and fishing half-drowned kids out of the pool so casually that I never actually noticed any of them doing it.
Those were idyllic weeks for me, accompanied in my memory by a soundtrack of the seventies music that always seemed to be playing on someone’s radio. I came out of the water only long enough to eat lunch and air-dry before resubmerging. Time ran together in a languid stream, with one day pretty much like the day before—except for that day.
I don’t know what it was that went wrong deep in the bowels of whatever mechanism regulated the pool chemicals. There was no spectacular sound, no bright light or mushroom cloud—just a sudden flood of lung-burning, noxious chlorine fumes poisoning the air.
A press of panicked humanity, self included, stampeded its way out of the pool, as well as people can stampede in waist-high water. Sharp pain stabbed my lungs, and a horrid chemical odor filled my nostrils. As people swirled around me in noisy confusion, I quietly crept off to a private spot beside a wall. I found a T-shirt, held it to my nose, and breathed through it in a futile effort to filter out the smell and the pain. Here one of Teri’s friends found me once the chaos began to subside. “Oh, no,” she said. “Not you, too.”
Teri drove me to the hospital. After an interminable wait in the admitting room, with every drawn breath a torment, we were told that the hospital staff could do nothing for me. My parents were in Mexico for the day and could not be reached to give consent for treatment, and the authority of a sixteen-year-old sister was not considered sufficient. (This was WAY before cell phones. In those days, if your parents were in Mexico when you inhaled chlorine gas, you were out of luck.) I like to think they would have treated me if they’d thought my life was in imminent danger, but apparently I didn’t look like that big an emergency to them. My chlorine-seared lungs were left to heal themselves.
And they did, with remarkable quickness. And then I returned to the pool. Good times.