Post by Cameron Cash
Texas heat is
not for the faint of heart, especially in Austin
with its legendary humidity, but when your body hits that cold Barton Springs
water it’s like satisfaction itself
is electrifying your senses.
When you get out, you’ve got natural air conditioning until the water
evaporates from your skin.
In the summer of 2002 I got my Open Water Rescuer Certification. I had worked as a lifeguard and swim coach during college at my neighborhood pool, but open water certification was a higher level of training and was required for me to be able to work at Barton Springs. A year later
would be at war with Iraq
again, and I would be at the Springs to hear a man take his last breath.
In high school we had a ritual for an afternoon at the Springs: first, we’d lie about being younger than we were so we could pay the cheaper admittance charge, then we lay out until we were dripping with sweat - always on the east hill where the adults hung out and where some of the women were topless (Austin has an ordinance that women can be topless anywhere men are allowed to be…God bless those hippies!) – then we’d race down the hill and dive directly into the cool water. It was awesome.
The year before I started working at Barton Springs, I was living in
New York starting up my
acting career. Then September 11th
happened. It was a relief when I booked
a national tour that fall, threw my things into storage, and left the city for
three months. When the tour ended I had
spent every dime I had earned and asked my mom if I could come home again to
save up some money. Not only was I broke, but something in me just couldn’t
face all that death and sadness in New York.
It was bleak; there were homemade missing persons flyers plastered everywhere,
candle alters mourning the dead on every corner, the gaping hole in the
skyline, the smell of smoke and dust, and then came the Anthrax. I felt like a
coward, but I couldn’t bear it. I
returned to Austin.
Of course I went back to the Aquatics Department and reapplied. The lifeguards at the Springs always seemed so cool and who wouldn’t want to work in such a beautiful environment, but even lifeguarding would be a job shrouded with mortality.
I got open water certified by a guy named Luke Strabala. He was a short, stocky hardass who taught me that CPR doesn’t work like it does in the movies (it is almost impossible to restart a heart with only CPR, it requires an electrical jump start) and that dead bodies can take on a shade of pale blue that will blend with the bottom of a pool. He was full of gross factoids like that. He also turned into a raging dick if he caught you slacking off – people’s lives were at stake and he wasn’t gonna let anyone forget it.
Barton Springs was a serious place to work. Because of the natural floor of the pool there are drop offs that a lot of people aren’t aware of when they get in the water. Suddenly they can’t touch the bottom and that’s when the swimmers are separated from the non-swimmers. There was a rescue almost every single day in the summer. We kept a tally of our rescues on a white board in the lifeguard office – we were proud of our work.
Because of the depth of the pool there are many dark places, so we had emergency drills to sweep for missing swimmers. The drills required a row of guards in snorkel masks spanning the width of the pool to dive down and sweep the floor with our hands until we reached the other end of the pool – we did this several times for real when anxious parents came by to tell us their kid was missing.One time I had to tread through the rainwater bypass drain looking for a lost little girl. The drain is a 7 foot by 7 foot tunnel that runs the length of the pool underneath the sidewalk of the west side. It was installed to keep run-off pollution upstream from contaminating the Springs and the endangered salamander that lived in it. It was dark in there, and I had to wear galoshes because the current was strong and the bottom was slick. The little girl, as it turned out, was in the bathroom playing in the showers.
There is also a diving well with one of the only operating diving boards in the city. Each summer, there is an annual diving competition with awards for the most skilled amateur divers. The diving pool required the lifeguards to have regular practice drills in which we rescued dummies with spinal injuries from the bottom 15 feet below surface. The diving area is also the part of the pool with the most rules and the area that attracted the most punks who got kicked out each day [just to return the next and do it all over again]. We got to know them by name.