The bursting splash and wave scared me, and a woman beside the pool shrieked. Pivoting in the shallow end, I saw my father, fully clothed, darting under the clear water with his arms extended like Superman in flight. He reached five-year-old Annie, trapped upside down in her inflatable swim ring, her legs kicking in the air. He tipped her over. She gasped. She was saved.
It was over in seconds. But Annie would never forget that day, nor would I. Though many years later I would realize our memories of it were light years apart.
Lounging in a motel deck chair near the deep end, he’d seen Annie drowning and dived in. Mother, teaching three-year-old Billy to swim, had been facing away.
When Father lifted his child from the swim ring to the pool’s edge, strangers gathered to admire the little blue-eyed girl and praise the alert man’s swift action. Mother sobbed. It was like a movie or TV show, I believed, with father as the star. He smiled. Annie clung to his neck. We emerged and wrapped ourselves in towels, the man of the day and his brood. Chuckling at his sopping slacks and buttoned shirt, the audience gathered his discarded eyeglasses and shoes.
Back in our motel rooms we shivered as window air conditioners rattled and blasted frigid wind onto our wet swimsuits. We quickly dressed in shorts and tops, then hurried outside where the air was scorching, even though the sun was low in the sky. Following Father, we trotted to the adjoining cafe for dinner. As we entered, folks who’d seen the rescue turned to us and grinned.
Bizarre behavior overtakes people when they spot a celebrity. They introduce themselves, shake his hand, pat his kids on the head. They recount his glory. The celebrity puffs up. He smiles and says it was nothing, anybody would have done the same thing. Craving an idol, the admirers imagine he posseses exceptional virtue and wisdom.
Father graciously answered their questions. He explained that we were driving from Kansas to Virginia where he would assume his new position as a hospital radiologist. He’d learned to swim in a rural Missouri swimming hole and honed his skill in the Navy during World War II. As his accomplishments rolled off his tongue, praise from diners and waitresses enveloped us. We children basked in his glow.
All too soon it was time to return to the icebox. With the door linking the two rooms open, we kids sat on one of two beds while the oldest, eleven-year-old Vicki, read us comic books, our mainstay of travel entertainment. Little Lulu and Archie were usually the favorites, but this evening Annie insisted on Superman. We cheered when mild-mannered Clark Kent tore off his suit and tie, revealing his true superhero colors. He streaked through the sky, then swooped down to capture bad men and rescue good folks. Like Lois Lane, we girls wanted him to love us. Brother wanted to be him. Fueled by action-packed drama, the little ones were soon whooping and jumping from bed to bed.
“What’s going on in here?” Father barged in, clutching a bottle of beer, and ordered them to settle down. Vicki and I knew better than to jump on beds. If we complained or cried, we would be told to dry up or he would give us something to cry about.
Mother followed him into our room and began preparing the younger two for bed, while Vicki and I quietly donned our pajamas. Mother kissed us goodnight, leaving the bathroom light on because we feared monsters in the dark. She left the door to their room open a crack. Soon I heard the others, exhausted by excitement, breathing deeply in their sleep. Annie, especially, slept soundly and snored. Always restless, I lay awake.
First I heard the television in my parents’ room. Then it shut off and father’s voice filled the void. He got louder and angrier. I couldn’t make out the words, but I knew what was coming. A crash. Mother crying. A smack and a yelp. More yelling. I huddled in a knot under the covers, grateful when the air conditioner cycled on and drowned him out. Finally, the light shining through the door crack switched off, and silence settled in. After some time, I drifted into nightmares.
The next morning mother roused us early to resume our long journey. A purple bruise marked her cheek. Dressing the youngsters always took time, so Vicki helped. Father joined us, his usual cigarette between two fingers, as we trudged to the café.
Father’s fans smiled and nodded when we entered. He presided at our table’s head. Annie demanded the chair beside her daddy. Mother took her place between the little ones while Vicki and I sat opposite. We were permitted to order pancakes on road trips, but we also had to eat bacon so we would get some protein, along with orange juice and milk. Our nutrition was important.
Strapped onto a booster seat, Billy fidgeted and kicked, struggling to get down. Annie giggled and drenched her plate in maple syrup. Mother, with downcast eyes and trembling hands, lifted a coffee cup to her lips. Father, reading a newspaper, sopped up runny egg yolk with a corner of his triangle-cut toast. I sat frozen, wondering when the bad man would burst out again.