As I paddled around the last buoy of my last lap on a mid morning training session I turned straight into a steady west wind and I was enveloped by a sweet, familiar, salty smell and a morning sunshine so perfectly warm that I was instantly overcome with bliss.
To use some of St Augustine’s words, everything about this moment was “hushed”. The view of the golden sandy beach was hushed, the soft chiming of the bell buoy was hushed, the flight of the gulls overhead was hushed, the wind textured water was hushed, all hushed, hushed…
Along with the bliss I was also transported down the ancient highway to a similar moment from my childhood almost 40 years earlier that is still etched into my brain and my heart. The memory that overcame me was that of a July morning in the summer of 1982. The scene was Post 7 at the Salisbury Beach State Reservation. It was about 10:15 am, the regulars, that is the rank and file lifeguards were already at the their stations, applying tanning oil, yup, tanning oil, surveying the scene at each of their 200 yard long stations of coastline “posts,” sipping hot coffee out of styrofoam cups.
These ground troops as well as the assistant-head lifeguards, “assistants”, mid level supervisors, had just survived another Craig Weir constructed morning workout, that is high intensity, little to no rest interval, only complete when one or more guards showed signs of death or death like fatigue symptoms, commonly done in high New England summer heat and humidity.
Unlike the ground troops that had to scurry off to their stations immediately after the workout and be there at 10 am sharp or else…, the assistants on the other hand were all out to breakfast enjoying eggs, pancakes and coffee with cream at Marie’s or maybe the 4D before they would leisurely find their way out to the beach to deliver some breaks and help keep the peace. All but one that is …
Ricky Battistini, also known as Ricky Bat, Ricky the Kid, Bat, Batman or just The Kid, a man I came to respect and love very much was the one assistant who had very clear priorities other than carbs, kangaroo court and caffeine, namely paddle training.
Batman would frequently skip the breakfast privilege in exchange for what would be his second or third workout of the morning, a lake swim before work, the Craig Weir carnage workout, thirdly, his paddle out to post on a 12′ 6″, 55 pound old school rescue board. These boards were referred to as “hurricane” boards because that’s how well built they were. Although he was older than almost all the other guards, Ricky Bat trained harder, usually smarter and more intensely than almost any of the youngsters.
In preparation for the 1982 Cape Cod Lifesaving Championships held in early August, Ricky the Kid chose to train even more intensely than in summers past as more and more elite watermen/women were coming to Salisbury Beach to work, play and compete and Ricky was not even to close to being ready to give up his spot.
Rick and I would tag team the hurricane board from the first aid room across the long stretch of deep soft sand and make our way to waters edge. On the particular morning of memory the on-shore wind had kicked up just a little bringing with it richly aromatic North Atlantic air.
The breeze was just cool enough to soften the blow of the heat coming down from the bright sun in a cloudless sky and the heat coming up from the soft sand that was just beginning to sizzle. The soft, deep blue sky, the warmth of the sun, the refreshing breeze and walking with my big and trusted friend who cared so much about me was as perfect a moment a 12 year old boy could want.
Along the walk Bat would talk to me about paddling technique, about how the direction of the wind would affect our journey northward, about the goal of the session and how it related to his goals in the upcoming competition. We’d pass the ankle slappers of the cool shallow water, hop on the board in tandem, me up front, Bat on the back and our journey/adventure had begun again.
Some of the time I paddled on my knees, some of the time double arm prone in perfect cadence with Bat’s Knee paddling and some of the time I just put my hands down as pillows and took big gulps of that incredible delicious salty air, the sun warming my back and just enjoyed the ride, quietly observing the dedicated work my motivated buddy was putting in while I got to dream and just be a kid.
As the 2 mile journey concluded and we turned from parallel to shore to heading in Ricky would always say, “ok Kid, lets finish strong” and we would come into the beach, light wind at our backs working as hard as we could (think the training scene in Rocky 1), cool downs weren’t in fashion in the early 80’s. Rick would carry the board up the beach up on his head, partly cause his arms were tired and partly to impress any young women that might be watching our arrival.
It was this precious memory and many other days with Rick just like this one that came over me so completely when I turned the buoy into the morning wind heading for shore.
His example of training, pursuing one’s goals, working harder than one’s competitors have stuck with me. His example of caring and guiding young people has also stuck with me.
As the memory transported me I was no longer a middle aged dude alone on board workout in San Diego, I was a 12 year old boy, safe, content and on the front of paddle with an “uncle” I loved, who trained with joy and trained with purpose. As I paddled closer to shore I picked up the pace and said out loud, finish strong kid.
Thanks Batman, I love you.