For several years in the early 1960s, before I became a teenager, my skin flaked and stank of chlorine, my eyes were shot with red, and my short hair gleamed green. As a competitive swimmer, I had a three-hour workout every summer morning and a two-hour practice every evening, except on Sundays, when there was no evening practice. My mother hired a teenage boy to drive me home from the later practices, which let out after dark. But I walked to and from the morning workouts. The long laps in the fifty-meter pool required a certain kind of courage—physical endurance. But the journeys on foot required another kind—the fortitude to be on my own in an unpredictable world.
Although I had two brothers, my habits were those of an only child. Sometimes I read a book as I trudged the 45 minutes over the hills and across the valleys between my house and the pool at the community college. Other times, I constructed an elaborate serial fantasy in which I starred as Super M, with adventures similar to Superman’s, but without Lois Lane or a day job. Alone and brave, I saved a lot of people, and they were sorry they never knew my name.
Back then the human population was sparse in Los Altos Hills, but apricot trees and horses were thick. My route took me cross-country, behind the Immaculate Heart Monastery of the Poor Clares (whose nuns I never glimpsed), and through high grasses, across orchards carpeted in fallen fruit, and down unpaved trails rank with horse dung and deer pellets.
Not infrequently, danger jolted me from my book or from my Super M reveries. Yellow jackets buzzed me, angry at my intrusion on their feast of rotting apricots. Or the dry grasses would rustle, signaling the passage of a snake, probably a harmless gopher snake, but possibly one of its lookalikes, the venomous rattlers that matched their five-foot length and diamond markings. I was never bitten, but I stood motionless for long minutes, as I had been instructed to do, waiting for the snake to make its way out of striking distance.
The most terrifying encounter of my swimward trek was with a species known for its docility. One day, as Super M was soaring through the skies toward another daring rescue, a vibration beneath my feet shook me from my dream. For a moment, I couldn’t see the source of the rumbling, which was punctuated by something like a baby’s cry—an eerie, not-quite-human baby’s cry. Then I turned.
Surging toward me from behind was a great, dirty, gray mass, almost liquid in its undulations. The mass was made up of a hundred bleating sheep stampeding toward me. I froze, as if to appease a diamondback. But the mob, moving as a single beast on 400 pounding legs, showed no sign of dividing to pass around me. Their alien yellow eyes, bisected by horizontal pupils, stared at me unblinking and blind. And suddenly I was down, choking on dust, pummeled by hooves as they roared over me like a freight train.
I was bleeding and bruised when I reached the pool, and in shock. For once I didn’t linger on the edge, didn’t put off the chilly plunge. The cool clean water parted as I dived into my lane, which was neatly separated from the next by a rope of thick beads. The numbing fear began to wash away as I fell into the familiar rhythms of kicking, stroking, breathing. As Cheever wrote, “To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition.”
My swimming career came to an end after I reached puberty. Menstrual cramps kept me from practice several days a month, and I slipped behind my teammates. Free of chlorine, my eczema cleared up, and my hair grew out a dirty blond. My fantasies turned from Super M rescuing the world to boys rescuing me.
New McMansions and a great expressway now block the route between the house where I grew up and the pool where I swam. The apricot trees have all but vanished, and no one keeps sheep anymore. But every year, even now, a dozen people are bitten by rattlers. Almost all of them survive.