Sink or Swim (A True Story)

by Alfred Sonny Piccoli


In 1958 when I was nine years old my mother took me to where I thought was the most fun place on earth. Olympic Park, (1887-1965) was New Jersey’s largest amusement park that was spread across 40 acres bordering Newark, Irvington and Maplewood NJ. I remember that it had a circus, bumper cars, a carousel, a spooky funhouse, a magnificent merry-go-round, and a penny arcade filled with skillo games and pinball machines. During the summer months, I really enjoyed riding on a vast number of ten-cent rides such as the octopus, the twister, the wild mouse, the caterpillar, a tilt-a-whirl, and the whip to name a few.

The most famous ride was the park’s colossal, wooden roller coaster. Once, I boldly rode in its front seat to experience the most thrilling ride of my young life. I will never forget the clanking sound that I heard, as the coaster car slowly climbed to its highest peak, and then dropped rapidly. My heart nearly stopped beating, as it made several spectacular turns at breathtaking speeds. Several times, I felt like I would be hurled out from my seat, before finally coming to an abrupt stop.

Olympic Park’s crowning jewel was that it boasted a huge pool filled with 4 ½ million gallons of artisan well water enabling it to be proclaimed as the largest pool on the east coast and possibly in the entire USA. I still have vivid memories of my first time walking onto its sandy beach. I marveled staring up at the high diving boards and looking out at the four island platforms positioned in the deepest section of the pool. I imagined the thrill it would be for me to one day, dive off from the tallest diving board, and then swim out to the furthest island. I felt when I could eventually accomplish this feat; it would confirm my status as a skilled swimmer. Even more importantly, somewhere deep down inside of me, I knew it would enhance, not only my self-esteem but my identity as a self-sufficient young boy.

As I walked toward the pool’s edge, the hot summer sun was shining brightly into my eyes. The crystal blue water shimmered and rippled as the sunlight was reflecting off of it. I was bewildered upon discovering that I wasn’t able to determine the depth of the water because everything was sparkling so brightly. Pausing before jumping into the water because I hadn’t yet learned to swim, I remembered my mother cautioning me to always get help from a lifeguard if I had any problems. I noticed close by high up on a chair was a young lifeguard who was talking with a teenage girl. I attempted to ask him if this was the shallow or deep section of the pool, but he didn’t respond. I thought this was because he considered me to be only a little kid who was asking a stupid question. I reasoned that if this actually was the deep section, the lifeguard would have instructed me to go to another area to swim. Consequently, I felt safe believing I was at the shallow water area, along with the added security of a lifeguard nearby.

So in high spirits, I jumped out as far as I could into the water. I quickly sank down deep into the water, knowing I was in serious trouble. I held my breath, as I frantically began kicking my feet. This helped me to rise to the surface. Gasping for a gulp of air, I shouted, “Help” before quickly sinking again. My hopes of seeing the lifeguard who was supposed to be saving me was sinking even faster. I was frightened and keenly aware that I could die. Ironically, memories of my father teaching me not to give up no matter what happens flashed through my mind. In desperation, I kept swinging my arms and kicking my feet to ascend to the surface, even though I kept sinking back down over and over again. Gradually, these flailing motions made it possible for me to maneuver close enough to grab the edge of the pool. Although I was completely out of breath, I felt very happy to be safe and alive. As I pulled myself up out of the water, I saw that the lifeguard was still talking with the girl. To my astonishment, he hadn’t even noticed me drowning.

Although, I was disappointed that the lifeguard didn’t do his job, I wasn’t mad at him. I actually felt it was my fate because God wanted to give me an opportunity to learn and benefit from a valuable lesson in life. I was acutely aware that I was nearly killed, because I trusted and relied upon someone with my precious life in the balance. I promised myself that I would be watchful to prevent this from ever happening again. I made up my mind that I would always be proactive to protect my own safety and never rely on anyone entirely. I also felt proud that I saved myself from sure death, by swimming to the best of my limited ability instead of giving up and sinking.

The courage and perseverance I demonstrated on that summer day, as a young boy, made a lasting positive influence upon me. It helped to enhance my self-confidence enabling me to embark on new challenging endeavors throughout my journeys in life. Eventually, I became an excellent swimmer, even competing in numerous triathlons. I continue to appreciate the recreational and health benefits of swimming. Most importantly, I continue to strive to become the best that I can be while being grateful every day for the precious gift of life.


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