For me, the worst part of scuba diving is struggling to get into your wetsuit. It is a horrifying dance of trying to fit 10 pounds of sausage into a five-pound case. You tug and you pull and you strain at the neoprene material, often in front of dozens of people, until every ounce of dignity has been squeezed out of your body. Unless you are a supermodel, your suit shows off every lump, bump, and roll of every late night you have ever lusted after a carton of ice cream that supposedly serves 16.
Sitting on the bench near the small concrete boat ramp that slanted down toward the water, I had just started to squeeze into my black scuba bottoms. Popularly known as Big Blue, the body of water I was about to enter was a former clay pit that the town of Mason City had converted into park and lake a few decades back.
While small boats with trolling motors were allowed usage of the bowl-shaped lake, in my dozens of trips there over several years, I had only seen one or two fishermen back down the ramp to place their small metal vessels into the water. Mainly, it was used by 20-somethings to throw their oversized inflatable inner tubes into the water so they would not have to walk the extra 40 yards from the parking lot.
This park is one of the best bodies of water to scuba dive in in the state of Iowa. Most of the lakes and pits that dot the Hawkeye State are so murky that it is like diving in a dark closet. Then you have to worry about boaters and underwater entanglements. With 10 to 15 feet of visibility, a diver’s biggest worry in these 14 acres of water in Mason City is the occasional fishing hook cast from the shore. Along with the fish and various objects that can be discovered at the bottom of the lake, it is one of the best places for new divers to get much needed experience and for others with hundreds of dives to maintain their skills.
One of the fun things about such a place is you start to recognize some of the locals. There were the three girls with filthy mouths and even louder tattoos who liked to lay out on the nearby grass and complain about their boyfriends and dead end jobs, the two rotund sisters who should have bought larger swimsuits lounging in their inner tubes as they slowly became a playground for cancer. An older gentleman wandered through the park longing for someone to speak with him as he searched the green trash receptacles for the occasional empty soda pop or beer can.
On this particular Saturday morning, I was there to help certify eight new divers. Something I had done on numerous occasions before, often acting as the safety diver to insure that no one got hurt. This group was going to be easy. They were all college-aged men and women in their early 20s, which meant they were all in pretty good shape.
More importantly, each one of them shared the same dream of becoming astronauts when they graduated college. They had been selected from across the United States to participate in a summer program led by a former NASA astronaut at Iowa State University to learn some of the skills that these young people might need on that career path. Along with survival skills, skydiving and classroom work, learning to scuba dive would give them an inkling of what it was like being in space. This meant these kids listened, paid attention, took direction and did not do stupid things. These were the cream of the crop of America’s youth, young people who said please and thank you, were not lippy, and you knew were driven to make their parents proud.
After spending some time with them earlier in the week at the pool, it was clear that for half of them their dreams of being astronauts were going to remain just dreams. On the other hand, two, maybe three of them, had the right stuff. They were going to do great things in life. One was a tall, slender African-American young man that attended Tuskegee University in Alabama. If you spent more than three minutes around him, you just knew he was going to go far in life.
So, as I sat on the park bench, with the eight students nearby on the grass assembling their scuba gear, I was looking forward to a nice relaxing weekend. It was then I noticed one of my favorite locals pushing her baby carriage as her golden retriever kept pace along side of her. She always looked like the well-meaning middle-class mother that you could imagine being in a product ad that was supposed to increase a baby’s intelligence.
I had even remarked to her on several previous occasions how cute her baby was. One of the reasons she was so memorable was the tennis racket that she carried in the elastic fold in the rear of the baby carriage. This woman had a brilliant idea that I wish I had thought of when I used to take my golden retriever to another Iowa lake and throw tennis balls out into the water for her to retrieve. After about half a dozen times of tossing a ball as far you can throw it, you are exhausted and the dog is only getting started.
Instead, this woman used the tennis racket to smack tennis balls out onto the water until the dog grew tired of it. Like she normally did, she parked the baby carriage where the sidewalk ended at the top of the ramp. The dog and her then walked down to the shore a few yards away and she started hitting the tennis ball onto the water. You could tell that she loved the dog and the dog loved her.
On this day, as she was focused on getting the dog its exercise, I noticed the baby carriage slowly inching forward. She had left the front wheels of the carriage closer to the lip of the boat ramp than normal. Before I could fully register what was happening, the stroller started heading down the ramp and was picking up speed.
The mother was totally oblivious as to what was going on. With my legs tangled up in my wetsuit, there was nothing I could. My heart leaped up into my throat. This was not going to end well.
Then, from out of nowhere, one of the students also saw what was happening and dashed after the baby carriage. It was the young man from Tuskegee. Just as the front wheels were about to hit the water, he grabbed the handles of the stroller, turned it around and began to push the baby back up the ramp. This kid was a hero! I breathed a sigh of relief. Then another thought flashed through my brain that caused even greater anxiety. How is this woman in rural lily-white Iowa going to react if she turned around to the sight of an African-American teenager walking up the ramp with her child, especially when he got to the top of the ramp and moved the carriage to a safer location? Something inside of me told me her reaction could have been much different than if one of the white students had been in a similar position, at least in degree. This is a misunderstanding that can get people killed.
Thankfully, she never noticed a thing. The young man quietly parked the carriage on the sidewalk, locked the wheels into place, and went back to getting ready for the dive before she even glanced back to see if the baby was still safe.
We can often be that clueless, self-involved mother who will see what she wants to see. Too often we can transform innocent, hard-working, sometimes heroic people into villains because they are black, Hispanic, Muslim, homosexual or just different in appearance. It is not that we mean to, rationally we know better.
Yet, it is that split second, where we don’t have all the information, where we make snap decisions, that we often find ourselves in the wrong. Every day we have those reactions involving race, sexuality, xenophobia and gender. We often talk about good and bad apples when it comes to such matters and they are out there. But rather, more often it is that split second, that split second when a hard working police officer walks up to a car he has pulled over, that split second a person hears someone being noisy in a restaurant, or that split second you hear footsteps behind you on a darkened street.
I often hear good people deny that racism exists. If that is true, then it should not make a difference whether a person is black, brown, pink or white and we should never have to worry about those split seconds.
Trevor Soderstrum was born and raised in Story City. He’s been writing columns for about a decade and attended the summer session of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.