It was the first full day of summer vacation. School had ended at noon the day before. I was just finishing my Cheerios when Jimmy knocked on the back door. My mom let him in and he sat down across from me at the table. He looked very excited.
"Dave, the pool is open."
"I know, Jimmy. Want to go swimming?"
"We got a new lifeguard this year." I nodded as I crunched. That wasn't big news. Jimmy continued, "He's a hippie."
I looked at him with raised eyebrows. "This is the seventies, Jimmy," I countered after I swallowed.
"There's more," my friend continued excitedly. "He drives a van."
I finished the last spoonful of cereal and got up from the table. "Let's go see this."
"Dave." I turned to look at my mom. She pointed at the table. "Dishes."
"OK, Mom." I put my bowl and spoon in the dishwasher before we rode off on our bikes. Along the wide paved street that fronted our houses, and about halfway down the hill, was a neighborhood pool. It wasn't a public pool. It was owned by the neighborhood homeowners' association. All the families who used it paid for its upkeep as part of their association dues. The pool didn't open until school let out for summer, unlike the public pools which opened on Memorial Day. When the pool did open, Mrs. Pemberton (who was the president of the homeowners' association) hired someone to operate it. That person would arrive in the morning, unlock the rusty padlock on the chain around the fence, clean the pool and add chemicals. He also served as lifeguard while the pool was open and made sure that only members used the pool. At first, we had to sign in on a notebook. After a few days, the lifeguard usually recognized us and the notebook sat unused on a table near the gate.
As we coasted down the hill, I could see that the gate was open, and that an old van was parked in front. From a distance, a large peace sign could be seen painted on the side. When we got closer, I saw that letters were painted around the sign. They spelled "Cartwheel".
We were already wearing our bathing suits and carrying towels. That was the standard uniform for the first days of summer when the pool opened. We'd meet our friends here and spend every morning of the first few days in the water. We parked our bikes next to the gate and stared at the van - a real hippie van. We walked through the gate and saw him. He was just finishing the morning cleaning routine. He looked tall enough to be a grown-up, but he had long curly hair. He wore cut off blue jean shorts, bleached into a tie-dyed pattern. He looked like a hippie, all right. Until that moment, I had only seen hippies on TV.
"You boys belong to the pool club?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," I answered. "I'm Dave Albright. This is Jimmy Lerner."
He put down the long handled brush and walked over to the notebook. He found our names and held out a pen. "Cool, man. I'm Cartwheel."
I smiled and took the pen, writing my name on the sign-in page in the clumsy writing of a ten year old before handing the pen to Jimmy. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Cartwheel."
Cartwheel laughed. "No, definitely not Mr. Cartwheel. Just Cartwheel. That's what my friends call me."
Hesitantly, I said, "OK, Cartwheel." It still felt uncomfortable calling him that.
"The pool is ready. You're my first two customers of the season. Jump in and try it out." He turned his back to us and climbed up the ladder to his elevated seat.
I looked to Jimmy. He just shrugged. Then he yelled, "Cannonball!" and jumped into the water. I took a deep breath to steel myself, and followed. The water never gets warm this far north. By the middle of summer, the pool may not be as painful, but it is still cold. It's a nice respite from the warm muggy summers. Early in the season, it's downright cold. That's probably why the adults didn't start using the pool until July. We didn't care.
We were kids and it was a pool. It was our pool.
I hit the water and the shock of the cold was like knives sticking into my skin. It was very cold. I came to the surface and exclaimed, "Whew!"
"Cold?" It was Cartwheel speaking.
I tried to answer, but my teeth were starting to chatter. Cartwheel laughed. "Swim around some. You'll warm up." That's what my mother always said, too.
We swam a few laps and were just getting out when more people arrived - some of the girls in the neighborhood. Jimmy and I were drying off with our towels so we could warm up in the sun. Jimmy nudged me with a smile on his face. Two of the girls were older, teenagers. He always liked to watch when they got out of the pool because the cold made their nipples stand out. We were too young to have figured out what girls were good for yet, but Jimmy still liked to watch. I made a face at him, but turned to look at the girls anyway.
The girls were looking not at us but at Cartwheel. They were talking in whispers and giggling. Obediently, they signed the book without being asked. The two older ones walked over to say hi to him. He looked like he was enjoying talking with them, but he was also businesslike. He wasn't here just to have fun, after all. This was a job for him.
We turned back to the gate at the sound of our names. It was the rest of our gang. I hated when they called me Davey, and they knew it. That's why they did it. It was a game we played.
Tim asked, in a low whisper, "Who's the Flower Child?" as he pointed discreetly to Cartwheel.
"Isn't it cool?" Jimmy asked. "He's the new lifeguard."
"Is the water warm?" Billy asked.
"What do you think, man?" I said. Everyone laughed. It was the standing joke.
We spent the morning at the pool, alternating between swimming and warming up in the sun. The girls were on the other side of the pool, mostly trying to surreptitiously watch Cartwheel. When we got on our bikes to head home for lunch, Tim suggested meeting at the swing after lunch.
I rode up to Jimmy's house after a lunch of sandwiches at home. He was ready for me, now wearing a t-shirt with his bathing suit. We headed towards the next hill, away from the pool. We met up with Tim and Billy on the way. Just before the top of the hill, we turned right onto a dirt road cut through tall grass. As we turned off, I looked to the side and could see the pool off in the distance, with Cartwheel keeping watch from his platform.
We rode along the rutted road, leaving the homes behind us. A meadow was to the right, trees to the left. Birds were singing happily in the trees. Before long, we passed the burned out remains of a very old building. With the Bicentennial coming up in a few years, every old building suddenly had a story attached to it about the Revolutionary War. In our minds, the building had been an Inn, where George Washington had once slept during the war. The story went that there was an agreement. Soldiers from both sides had stayed there. It was like neutral territory where they didn't fight. In reality, the building was probably just an old barn. At ten years old, make believe was larger than life. When the Apollo astronauts had been collecting rocks on the moon that spring, we got library books and spent weekends trying to identify the shales and shists in our backyards. Tim's father worked for the government, doing something vaguely connected with NASA and he got us some really cool photographs of the astronauts. We even tried to concoct spacesuits to add realism to our play.
After the "Inn", the road turned to the left and entered the woods. There were two spots where the ground was lower that stayed muddy. Billy had fallen off his bike there once and had to ride home covered in mud. His mother washed him off in the yard with the hose. We rode slowly through that part. Next, the trees thinned out and we rode down a hill as the sound of a gurgling brook slowly became louder than the crunch of small twigs and other debris under our bicycle tires.
The stream ran through a valley between two hills. The hill on the other side was cleared of trees at one spot. Unknown kids long ago had climbed a really tall tree and hung a rope from a branch. If you grabbed on to the end of the rope and ran up the hill, when you reached as far as you could go and still hold on to the end of the rope, you could hang on the rope and swing. The swing would carry you across the stream, across the valley, almost to the trees on the other side, and back. You had to let go of the rope when you swung back to where you started. When the rope was slack, it hung about ten feet above the stream. We used a long tree branch to grab the rope and pull it to the hillside where we could grab onto it.
Jimmy got there first and dropped his bike alongside the stream. He liked the swing more than the rest of us. He always had to be first and last on the swing. I was right behind him, crossing the stream by stepping on the rocks and looked for the tree branch. We kept a really long one there at the edge of the clearing. I found it and went back to the stream to grab the loop at the end of the rope. Jimmy watched and smiled. The first ride of the day was going to be his again. I brought the rope to him and he started up the hill. The rest of us sat and watched.
Jimmy climbed the hill as high as he could with the loop at the end of the rope in his hand. He always pushed the limits. When he could go no further, he faced downhill, jumped, and put one foot through the loop. Instantly, the rope carried him down the hill and over our heads. Jimmy's cry of "Wahoo!" echoed through the woods as he flew. Because he had started so far up the hill, he could get three swings before he had to put his feet down and stop on the hill. The rest of us could only get one or two swings. You had to stop while you were still swinging far enough to be able to touch the hillside with your feet. I had scary thoughts of what it would be like to hold onto the rope until it stopped swinging. You would end up suspended over the stream, too high to be able to jump down. As long as someone was there to pull you back to the side with the tree branch, you could safely get off. If not, you were stuck up there. The water in the stream was only knee deep. Dropping from the rope that high up was sure to cause serious injury.
My turn was next. When I saw Jimmy's feet hit the ground with a puff of dust, I ran up to meet him. "Fly, Dave," he told me, still grinning. I took the rope and went up the hill. I didn't go as far as Jimmy because I wasn't as tall and I was afraid of losing my balance with the rope pulling back on me. When I was ready, I looked down the slope to where my friends waited. I took a deep breath, jumped, and held onto the rope for dear life.
It was like I was flying. I soared over the heads of my friends, seeing them following me with their eyes as I passed. I flew over the stream, crossing it in an instant. Far over me, I heard the rope and the branch creak as my arc reached its limit near the trees we had ridden through, then I swung back. I picked up speed as I again passed my companions, before preparing for my landing on the hill. I put down my feet and dragged them as I still held onto the rope. Dust flew as the rubber soles of my shoes skidded along the ground, over rocks and dirt. I had landed.
Like that, we each took turns, passing the rope off each time. We spent hours that afternoon, flying through the trees. We took off our shoes and waded in the cold water of the stream. Sometimes, we stacked rocks and tried to build dams. We hiked about a hundred yards downstream where a pool formed behind a waterfall and swam. We were ten years old. We wore no watches. We noted the passage of time by the light of the sun. We had no responsibilities and we were indestructible. Life was simple and innocent back then.
When the sun started to go down and it slowly started becoming darker under the trees, we got back on our bikes. Jimmy made his last swing over our heads as we started down the road, his cry like that of a bird high in the sky. He landed and caught up to us before we exited the woods and soon enough we were back on our street.
I coasted down the street towards home. Just as I started pedaling to climb the next hill, I looked ahead to see Cartwheel still on duty at the pool. He would be closing the pool soon, the end of his first day as our lifeguard. One by one, we peeled off from the group as we reached our homes. Billy was the last rider. He lived just on the other side of the pool.
When I got home, my mom asked if I had met the new lifeguard.
"Yeah. He's real cool, man."
My mother laughed. "What does that mean?"
"He's a hippie. You know, flower power and all that."
"He's nice. His name is Cartwheel."
"Cartwheel, huh? I'm sure he has a regular name, too."
"That is his name, I think."
"I'm sure when Mrs. Pemberton hired him, he had to tell her his real name," my mom countered. Grownups always have to deal with details like that.
The next day was more of the same. We had the entire summer ahead of us. We spent mornings swimming at the pool, always under the watchful eye of Cartwheel, and afternoons in the woods. Sometimes, we talked about Cartwheel, wondering what he was really like. It was Billy who gave a name to Cartwheel's van - The Makeout Machine. This was a few years before Ford came out with their Good Times Machine. I guess Cartwheel was a trendsetter. We imagined all the women he must pick up to kiss and "stuff" in there. The windows were tinted so dark that we couldn't see anything inside, so we dreamed up what the interior must be like. In our minds, we saw a bed, a lava lamp (though we never thought where it would get power), a TV, a refrigerator, and a stash of drugs. Hippies always had drugs. We knew that. There was some dispute over whether Cartwheel had one special girl, or he went through women like we went through underwear (Tim suggested that description).
Over time, we came to know Cartwheel better. He talked to us sometimes. Jimmy finally worked up the courage to ask him what being a hippie was like. That made him laugh. He told us about love and peace and politics, foreign concepts for us. He would greet us by name, which only aggravated the girls who were, for the most part, too shy around him to do much more than look at him from across the pool and giggle to each other.
Sometimes, Cartwheel would ask us about ourselves. Things like how we did in school (good enough to get by, except for Tim who was the class genius), what we wanted to be when we grew up (bold goals like astronaut, baseball player, things like that), and if we liked girls (No way!). He assured us that our attitudes about girls would change in a few years but we didn't believe him.
One afternoon, about two or three weeks into summer, we were back at the swing in the woods. Jimmy was going up the hill for yet another ride. We were sitting or lying on the ground, talking about our favorite subject, the mysterious Cartwheel and his magical Makeout Machine. I remember looking up the hill at Jimmy. It seemed that he was a lot higher than usual. It looked like he was standing on his toes, trying to get a little more height on his swing. I laughed. I had turned back to the rest of my friends when Jimmy's "Wahoo!" came from far over our heads. We looked up to see him sail past. At the end of his swing, there was a kind of popping sound from far above us. Jimmy and the rope seemed to drop just a little and the movement affected the arc of his swing.
I got a good look at Jimmy as he swung back towards us. He wasn't grinning or yelling this time. He looked terrified. I scrambled to my feet. Just before he swung over the edge of the stream, there was another pop, louder this time. Jimmy screamed. It wasn't, "Wahoo!". It was more like, "Ahhhh!" Then he fell, with the rope trailing along behind him. I looked up and, to my great horror, the end of the rope was no longer attached to the branch. It had broken.
The whole incident probably took only a couple of seconds, but I remember it in slow motion, as if it really lasted for minutes or hours. I yelled, "Jimmy!" and pointed. Tim and Billy were on their feet now as well. We were all helpless. All we could do was watch and scream as Jimmy and the rope got closer and closer to the ground.
Jimmy hit just on our side of the stream, among the rocks. The rope fell like a snake around him. I thought I heard a crunch when Jimmy hit. He made a loud sound like, "Oof!". We were paralyzed by fear. We weren't sure if we had just seen our friend die right before our eyes.
We didn't move, didn't make a sound. The wind in the leaves and the sound of the water over the rocks even seemed to cease. I think we all held our breath. Then, just when we couldn't stand the suspense any longer, Jimmy groaned.
That single sound freed us from our bonds. As one, we moved. He was still alive. We raced for Jimmy, falling to our knees around him. As Billy touched him, I admonished, "Don't move him." The others looked at me. More calmly, I explained, "We might hurt him more. You know, internally." There were nods. We had been taught some first aid in PE class and in Cub Scouts.
"What are we going to do?" Billy asked me. They were all looking at me.
"I don't know. I'm not a doctor."
"Well, we have to do something for him."
I thought, my mind suddenly a mush. We had to get him help. We needed a grownup, someone who would know what to do. I looked at Billy. "Go. Get on your bike and ride like the wind. Get his mother to come out here. If she's not home, get anyone's mother. Just get a grownup out here fast."
Billy nodded and splashed through the stream to where we had left our bikes. As he picked up his bike, he looked back at us.
"Go! Fast! Jimmy needs help!"
He didn't answer me. He just gave me a curt nod, looked down one last time to Jimmy's crumpled form lying among the rocks, and took off. We could hear him pedaling as he raced through the trees. His sound faded, replaced with the water and the wind.
It was going to take a long time for him to get help. Even riding fast, it would take time to get someone and come back out here. I wished I had a watch at that moment. I could have some idea of when he might be back. Even at that young age, I knew that in times of crisis, minutes could seem like hours. I mentally followed Billy, seeing him emerging from the woods. I tried to follow along, pacing myself to what I thought was as fast as he could ride. I saw him passing the burned out building. He still had a long way to go.
Minutes did seem like hours. Tim didn't speak. He just watched. He looked to me, to Jimmy, to the woods where Billy had disappeared, then back to me. I looked over Jimmy's body. He was bleeding, but not a lot. Bright red was appearing on the grayish rocks. It was little streams of bright red that weren't flowing, just staying there. I hoped that meant he wasn't losing too much blood. It seemed to be more like what happened when I scraped my knee really bad. I wished I knew more of what to do. The best we could do for him was to wait.
Jimmy groaned a few more times. I saw him try to move but encouraged him to stay still. "I hurt," he tried to say but it came out as more of a moan. His eyes were still closed.
I was trying to keep time in my head. It seemed like Billy had been gone for hours. In my head, I had seen him go to Jimmy's house and ride back here in Jimmy's mother's car. When he failed to appear, I imagined that Jimmy's mother wasn't home and he had to get his own mother. I even imagined that the car couldn't make it down the muddy road and they had to walk. Where was Billy?
I was starting to panic, to think that something bad had happened to Billy, too. I was about to send Tim to get help when I heard a different sound. It wasn't water, or wind. It was mechanical, but very faint. A hum, but a straining sound. It was slowly getting louder. I felt my eyebrows raise as I realized it was the sound of some kind of vehicle. Maybe not a car but more of a truck.
"Jimmy. Someone is coming for you."
I saw Jimmy take a breath and his eyelids fluttered. "Is it my mom?" he asked weakly.
"I'm not sure, but it's someone. It won't be long now."
I could hear whatever it was getting really close now. Then I heard a new sound, a swishing combined with a rhythmic clanking. With a start, I realized it was a bicycle - Billy's bicycle!
Billy's bicycle suddenly came through the trees. Immediately behind him appeared the vehicle I had been hearing. I was surprised, but it made sense.
"Jimmy, you're not riding with your mom."
"An ambulance?" he asked.
"No, man. You're going to ride in The Makeout Machine."
Cartwheel's van bounced along the dirt road and came to a stop. Cartwheel jumped out and ran through the stream to where Jimmy still lay on the ground. Cartwheel was wearing his usual t-shirt, blue jean cut-offs and sandals. He had obviously come directly from the swimming pool. He knelt down and touched Jimmy very gently.
"Don't move him! I mean, he might be hurt, or..." Tim admonished him. Billy and I gave Tim the kind of look a teacher gives you when you interrupt her.
"He knows more first aid than us," Billy told Tim.
Cartwheel never reacted to the exchange. All his attention was directed to Jimmy. He was touching Jimmy very delicately. Jimmy winced when Cartwheel touched his arm, then winced even louder when he touched his leg. The lower leg was a darker color than it had been before. Cartwheel turned to me, speaking in a hushed tone, too quietly for Jimmy to hear.
"We need to take him to a hospital. I don't like the way his leg looks. Will you help me?"
Cartwheel was asking me to help him. What could I do? He was supposed to know what to do. He was here to save the day. Still surprised, I nodded.
"Help me turn him onto his back," Cartwheel said. I reached out to my friend but I wasn't able to do very much because I winced when Jimmy reacted to the pain with a scream. Cartwheel said to me, "I'm going to try to lift him as gently as I can." Speaking a little louder, "Jimmy, this will probably hurt a lot. I'm going to try to make this as painless as possible."
Jimmy just gave a small nod. Cartwheel carefully slid one arm under Jimmy's neck. The other arm went under his legs, starting with the uninjured one. When he reached the injured leg, Jimmy cried out again.
"I'm sorry, Jimmy. I can't help it. I have to get you to help."
Jimmy said something that sounded like, "It's OK."
I winced every time Jimmy reacted. Cartwheel looked at me. "Dave, open the van door." I ran ahead and opened the first door. Cartwheel had to explain to me how to unlatch the other door so he could gently put Jimmy down on the floor.
The inside of The Makeout Machine was not at all as we had imagined it. It was very different from the opium den or the bachelor pad we had built up in our minds. It had orange shag carpet on the floor and a bench seat. That was all there was.
Cartwheel was waiting for me to move out of the way so he could lay Jimmy down. I got out of the way and Cartwheel put Jimmy on the floor. Then he turned to me. He looked very serious, and maybe nervous. I've never seen him look anything but confident and friendly before. That day, he looked scared. That made me scared. He was Cartwheel. He was supposed to know what to do. If he was worried, what was going to happen to Jimmy?
"The road out of here is pretty bumpy. I need you to ride with Jimmy and hold on to him."
"Is he going to be alright?" I asked my hero.
Then it happened. It looked like Cartwheel was blinking away tears. He looked me right in the eye, and then looked away, up at the sky. "I don't know, David." The words were just a whisper, purposely too quiet for Jimmy to hear. In that instant, my hero fell off his pedestal. He wiped his eyes. "I don't like the way his leg looks. We need to get him to the hospital. Climb in."
I did as I was asked. Without wonder now, I entered The Makeout Machine and crouched next to Jimmy, who was lying on the shag carpet. Seeing Cartwheel cry changed something in me. He wasn't invincible after all. He was human. I was counting on him to be something more, something a lot more, and save the day. I was counting on him to be the hero and save Jimmy. What I was seeing was something less. I felt wounded inside.
Cartwheel closed the doors and hurried around to the other side. Getting behind the wheel, he started the engine. He looked back to the two of us.
"Jimmy, the road is pretty rough until we get to the street. I'm going to try to make it as easy as I can for you, but it's going to be a little bumpy." Looking me in the eye now, Cartwheel said, "David, try to hold him still. Do the best you can." I felt so small, so useless at that moment. Worse, I felt like Cartwheel wasn't going to be much better at helping Jimmy.
I felt the van move. Cartwheel turned it around and it jostled as we reentered the woods. Jimmy moaned loudly every time we hit a bump. I tried to reassure him. I had to be strong for Jimmy. I had to give him hope. Unable to draw strength from Cartwheel any longer, I thought of what it might have been like for the astronauts if one of them had gotten hurt on the moon. For them, help was days away. I tried to be strong for Jimmy like I imagined the astronauts would be for each other. I needed another hero to give me strength.
We bumped along the road. The tree branches made slapping and scraping sounds against the sides of the van. Cartwheel was going slow, too slow it seemed. I finally realized that he was going so slowly because the road was so rough. It never seemed this bad to us on our bicycles. I knew then why we never saw cars driving out to the swing. It seemed like hours and miles before we came out of the woods, still only halfway to the street. The road wasn't any less bumpy, but more sunlight filtered into the tinted windows of the van.
I finally took my eyes off Jimmy for a few minutes and looked around. I didn't know why we ever were so fascinated by The Makeout Machine. It was just an old van inside, not at all what we had built up in our minds. Reality was turning out to be far less impressive than my imagination had been.
"How's he doing?" Cartwheel asked.