Without a Towel

Lessons from a lifelong battle with water

Scott Webb

If I squinted, I was sure I could see the microscopic bits of concrete making up the pool deck. They floated in front of my eyes like warring biologies, grey, black, and tan, radiating warmth against my trembling skin as I lay soaking up early-morning scraps of sunlight. I heard the whistles and buzzers, splashes and shouts of a youth swim meet. All around me were lanky, tanned bodies, other young swimmers waiting like me, for their next race.

I had a towel rolled beside me, a threadbare beach-themed number, but my dad had encouraged me not to use it until the end of the meet. After a swim, he stretched his lean, tan body on the concrete like a desert lizard. I watched droplets of water slowly dry on his sinewy limbs, revealing the freckles of European heritage, skin that had been subjected to a level of sunshine its forebears could not have imagined. He never used a towel, and I admired his economy and took it as a reminder that water brings life but isn’t safe—don’t get comfortable.

So I shook water from my long legs, pulled my wavy blond hair from the silicone helmet of my swim cap, and waited for sunshine to do its work. When the day was over, I wrapped myself in the towel I’d saved so diligently. I was grateful for its warmth after fighting the water and the unforgiving stopwatches that dispassionately listed winners and losers.

I was not a fearless child, and in a softer family I might have been a girl sitting dry on the pool deck, wrapped in a fluffy towel printed with Disney princesses. But my parents were water-lovers and wouldn’t tolerate an uncertain swimmer. I remember trembling with fear on the beach, knowing my dad would take me into crashing waves and dreading the pull of the water, the suck and the swell, all of it so much bigger than me. My uncoordinated, skinny knees knocked together and unsettled me, but I took comfort that I was built like my dad—long and knobby and wavy-haired—and he was handsome, confident, and sure in the water, even as he reminded me of its deadly force.

As a teenager, I was grateful for the tough-love lessons of swim meets and beach days, because I encountered a new way to enter powerful water, and a new man to follow. Dave was the pastor of our tiny country church and an experienced whitewater guide, and my brother and I took every opportunity to learn the complicated and powerful storytelling of mountain rivers from him. We ran every river in Oregon during those summers, jammed into Dave's well-worn river boats with ancient unused life preservers, coolers of sausages and smashed bread and never-quite-cold Coke, wearing hideous cargo shorts and thick Velcro sandals and battered, misshapen hats. On snow-melted, canyon-driven whitewater there were again no soft towels, only the rage and power of a barely contained force. It was not unlike the endless pounding of surf that had sent my knees to knocking, or the buzzers and whistles of swim meets, which created artificial drama in man-made water. I found my dad’s insistence that I enter the meet even though I wasn’t very fast, that I dive under the waves when I felt too scared to breathe, now served me well. The river picked us up and threatened to toss us like so many feathers. But we had power also—we had oars, boats, and shouts: “Pull!”; “Stay!”; “Now!” Our boats would tuck and sway, the river would open its rock-lined mouth at our tough little band, daring us to take it for granted or overestimate our own prowess.

Dave was a cautious, stalwart guide with legs like Ponderosa pines and a booming voice better-suited to the cathedral of whitewater and trees than the sedate, dark-paneled walls of our little hymn-filled church. When we were tempted to avoid scouting a big rapid, confident in our adolescent affinity with water, he would gravely remind us of the river's power, that it was not a roller coaster, that there were no safety belts here, no panic buttons if we got in trouble. In this wilderness, our only rescue would be our own grit, the power of our will. Even that might not be enough, we were reminded; good God-fearing folk easily remember that control is an illusion.  

After days on the river, we piled into a van, all legs and arms and bug bites and body odor, and buried our faces in the saved towels, warm from the back seat. Then we were grateful for the scent of fabric softener, the feeling of textured dryness on chapped thighs and tired arms, the sound of rushing water through the windows reminding us we’d overcome a dangerous foe.

Water is not soft, it is not safe. But to fool ourselves, for comfort in the face of deadly wet, we buy plushy, thick, cabana-striped towels or thin terrycloth rich with cartoon characters at big-box stores. We buy footballs and goggles, fins and floaties. We tell ourselves that this neutralizes menace, that with dry towels and inflatable flamingos we will be unharmed by this mortal force.

But truth isn’t sold in a summer sale. The truth that my dad and Dave both taught me, with their unforgiving toughness, their insistence that I take the hard way, that I save my towel for the end, dive when scared, take whitewater to the face and come out laughing, is that water is never safe.

I know this because one summer afternoon, when I was fifteen, I stood shaking on the muddy bank of a cold mountain lake. Although I was wrapped in a fuzzy orange towel, I was not safe or comfortable. All it took was a drip, a drop, a careless fling, and this cotton couldn’t protect me anymore. Suddenly I knew in my bones what I had been taught but had never understood.

I couldn’t rescue my friend. I used all of my strength and skill to save myself from his flailing arms, from the water that would kill us both. I felt selfish for doing so, but I heard my dad’s voice in my head, saying, “You are responsible for your own breath first.” So I let him fall, dropping faster than I’d thought—why did I think he would float? I watched a laughing teenager become a pale shape on the lakebed, a body, not a person. I heard the buzzer, the crash and swell of waves and whitewater. I felt my body strike out for shore and help, but I would not win this race. I stood on the shore and screamed until someone understood. I was wrapped in a towel and told to stay put while blurry bodies ran past me, dry chests and forearms and calf muscles, about to do battle with the wet. They were trying reclaim something safe, a time and a person we couldn’t get back. I knew it was too late. There was no more saving to be done, no more warmth to give.

This is what water without a towel teaches: don’t dry off, don’t get warm, don’t feel safe. Don't fool yourself. This is a fight you win, or you die. It’s just the body and the mind in combat with something bigger than any human will ever be; just listen to the roar of waterfall or the crash of a wave or try to see through the depths of a high mountain lake. When we really look and listen, we know something we have tried to keep from ourselves, a terrible truth we have papered over with the merchandise of vacation. Out here, no promise of dry land or warm comfort can save us. If we dare to enter that wet kingdom, we will risk it all, and we might lose.

These waters are not meant for comfort, so save your towel for the end, when you’ve won. Only then can you lean into softness and let your weary body puddle around you, with gratitude for water and dry land, for breath and strength, for the gifts we should never take for granted.


Community, Environment, Family


3 comments have been posted.

I love the way you write. It was as if I were right there beside you. I am 60 yrs old and this story brought back so many memories, thank you !!

Anna BattiseFox | December 2020 | Fair Oaks

Wow. You swept me up in such a way where my own adolescent tragedies suddenly feel like they could be retold with poise, meaning, intention. Thanks

Heidi Friesen | November 2020 |

This gave me chills, brought tears to my eyes. So vivid, so true. I am going to read it again right now.

Christine Bartell | November 2020 | Bend Oregon

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