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Drinking the China Sea


One by one, people quit. There was some cheating as well, some students found a place where the bottom was within bobbing distance and they could take a rest. Others skipped their turn passing victims and boxes. With so many people in the water I think it was hard for the instructors to keep complete control.

On all of the “lean back and float” commands I could feel water being forced up my nose and ears. The next morning I woke with a wicked cold. On one of the longer, thumbs up exercises I swallowed a ton of water and began hacking so much I was retching. It reminded me of the story of the seven Chinese brothers who each had a special skill. One of them could swallow the sea. I was off to a good start at swallowing all the water in the pool, but I still had a long way to go. I actually vomited a little, and my throat burned for the rest of the day. You wouldn’t want to do that during CPR.

The hardest moment came when Sir June yelled, “Thumbs up! Now, sing the national anthem.” While the other students were singing “Mabuhay,” I considered it would be fair for me to sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” but since the American national anthem is hard enough to sing on dry land, let alone while drowning, I decided it would be more politically correct to just listen.

After the song had finished we passed the pilot, stewardess, and box several times. At some point, they stopped coming around. Sir June was staring at his stop watch. “TIME!” He yelled. “Congratulations. You have all passed.”

With no preplanning at all, the entire class began shouting “Guardians!!!”

After lunch, we lined up by twos. Two instructors played drowning victims in the deep end. We had to dive off the wall, swim out, and rescue them. The instructors weren’t making it easy, however. They were flailing about and extremely combative. Simulating an extremely panicked victim, if you got anywhere near them they would grab your head and pull you under.

In rescue swimming there are three basic approaches, front approach, rear approach, and underwater approach. Since all rescue carry positions require the victim to be laying on his back, supported by the rescuer, approaching from the front or underwater requires you to rotate the victim around, so you can get him in a good carry position. Approaching from the front has the added disadvantage that the victim, in his panic, can grab you and drown you by accident. So, the easiest approach is the rear approach. This way, you are safer. You just have to grab the guy, support his chin with one hand, shoot the other hand over his shoulder and grab him in a cross chest carry. Then you swim side stroke and transport him to safety.

When it came my turn, I swam out to Sir Jun. he was flailing like a banshee (assuming that banshees flail). I gave him a huge birth as I swam around behind him. I supported his chin, then shot my arm over his shoulder and began to swim. He immediately turned violent in my grip, rolled over and pulled me underwater. The lessons I was to learn, was: one; hold the victim very tightly so he feels secure and so he doesn’t attack you, and two; never let water go in the victim’s face or mouth or he will panic because you are restraining him, and he will feel like he is drowning.

Jun wrapped both arms around me and instantly, my military, combat swimming training kicked in. In combat swimming you are taught that the normal reaction, when someone tries to push you underwater is to resist. This is a bad reaction. First of all, it is futile, you can’t resist the combined weight of yourself and your opponent, which are both driving you under. Second, you will get even more fatigued by resisting. So, the proper technique when someone tries to pull you under, use your legs to do a fast, powerful scissors kick, while at the same time raising up your arms, shooting yourself even faster below the water.

In rescue swimming they also use this technique. The next step is to slip out, under the victim’s arms and swim away. Or, to attempt to slip out, then push the victim in the center of the chest, with a stiff arm, and then swim away and try again. In combat swimming you can use this escape technique or you can grab the opponent and keep descending, pulling him down with you. Either way, the first part of the technique was the same, and I did it instantly. When I tried to escape, Jun had a hold of me really tightly, so I used my foot, rather than a stiff arm, to push off of him. Luckily, I didn’t go completely into combat mode. Remembering it was a rescue mission, I was careful not to injure him.

I escaped, returned to the surface, got a good breath of air and did another rear approach. I secured Jun’s chin, then did my cross arm carry. Again, he went wild, and we wound up doing battle below the water.

After several more abortive attempts, and when I thought I was too exhausted to continue, I finally got Jun to the nearest wall. It wasn’t till the next day that instructors explained to me to keep a tighter hold next time. I never forgot the lesson, and in later exercises when the instructors tried to roll out of a save, I nearly crushed their ribs with my cross chest grip.

We had to line up and each do one more save, which was pretty similar to the first one. I my second save I wound up using one of the Judo type moves they had taught us. When a victim grabs your arm, rather than trying to pull away, you can use his grip to spin him around and grab him from behind. I couldn’t believe how quickly and instinctively the technique came. The rescuing came pretty easily for me I think because it was so similar to wrestling in mixed martial arts (MMA). In MMA, We are always trying to spin the opponent around, get behind him, lift up the chin, and choke him. As long as I substituted a save for a choke I would be fine.

When we finished the second save, Sir Jun called out a list of names, including mine and said, “You have passed your rescue test.”

Rescue test? I was still pretty hypoxic from treading water. I didn’t realize this had been our test. I thought it was just an exercise. In the end, it was probably better off this way, because I wasn’t nervous. When I was fifteen I had tried to pass this course, but had failed it. I was swimming competitively at that time and I was so competitive and arrogant, that I was in capable of putting anyone else before myself. A rescuer is not there to make himself look good. He is there so that some stranger will get another day with his family.

The war in Burma taught me that lesson. Sadly it has taken me forty years and a brush with genocide to understand the importance of saving lives. But thank God, now I know the lesson. And in addition to learning life saving in a pool, I was ready to begin my work as an EMT, working on an ambulance, which would be starting in a few days.

The next day was the easiest of the whole program. We checked into the pool in the morning and had to swim 4,000 meters, 1,000 of each stroke. The event wasn’t timed, it was just additional practice and confidence building to prepare us for the ocean swim the next day.

After the swim, we had lunch and a shower. Then we drove to the beach at Batangas for our final exam.

Driving anywhere in Manila is pretty hit or miss. With traffic it could literally take an hour and a half to travel five kilometers. As a result locals don’t even measure distances in time or kilometers. They measure in rides. “It takes three rides to get there,” means you have to change buses twice. Going to Bantangas we were driving, but of course, no one in Philippines does preventative maintenance so, less than an hour into the trip we got a flat tire. The spare was flat too, so the driver had to go to a gas station and get it fixed. This all set us back by about two hours.

The lesson I learned about survival in the Philippines is, you have to just not care. I had no where to go. I was with my friends. I didn’t know anything about Batangas and had no special plans for when I got there. I had to just not care that it was taking an extra two hours to get there. I took my backpack out of the truck, using it as a pillow, I lay down on the blacktop and took a nap.

It was late when we finally arrived at the beach. No arrangements had been made for our lodgings, so, after interminable speeches and explanations about the swim the next morning, we all just scoped out a comfortable place on a pick-nick table and slept in our clothes.

No one really slept the night before the swim. The pick-nick tables weren’t as comfortable as they looked, and people were a bit loud. I think nervousness kept them joking around till about two in the morning.

At 4:00 AM we were called to form up on the beach. Swimmers were divided into four teams. In each team buddy teams were assigned; one weak and one strong. I was elected leader of my group. At one point both my EMT class and my swimming class asked me to be class leader. Both times I refused for two reasons, one I really believed it was better to have someone who spoke Filipino and two, they didn’t need one more white man telling them what to do. Letting them elect their own leader gave some Filipino a chance to learn about people management.

Elmer was chosen as our class leader and he flourished. I never saw someone change so positively overnight. I was so glad that I deferred to him. I know I can lead. Give someone else a chance. When they asked me to lead my swim group, however, I accepted. This swim would hold a certain element of danger, particularly since it was still dark and the boats wouldn’t be able to see swimmers in trouble.

I told my people. “Rule number one, stay with your buddy no matter what. Rule number two, the group stays together. If you have a problem or need a rest, tell your buddy and tell me. I will call a halt.”

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