When Bert Fell into the Lake
by Larue Lindberg
2003, Guadalupe, California
Part One — The Rescue
Today has been beautiful, bright and sunny with colorful flowers in the neighbors' front yards showing off their best summer blooms. I had time to spend this morning sitting quietly on my front porch enjoying it all. As I sat there admiring the flowers I let my mind wander where it would and in a little while it wandered me back to an early summer morning sixty-five years ago in my Grandmother's flower-filled garden. The memory of that beautiful place and what happened there that morning will always be as clear as if it had happened just a few deep breaths ago.
Our family was vacationing at Grandma and Grandpa John Lindberg's home; Pa's parents. It was located in Michigan State's Upper Peninsula, so far north that no matter how hot the summer days the nights and early mornings are always very cold. On the particular early morning I was remembering, Bert, the youngest of my three brothers, and I were left at home while Grandpa, Pa and our two other brothers, Don and Bob, went off to a "men only" activity. Bert and I were left because he at four and a half years old was too young and I was a girl. Being a "men only" activity, Ma and Grandma had no interest in it so were also at home.
Larue, Don, Bert and Bob
(taken in Grandma's back yard at the time of the story)
After the male contingent left, Bert and I asked if we could go out to play in the garden. Ma and Grandma hesitated because the garden was bordered across the back and along one side by the lake located behind our Grandparent's home. The lake was about three feet deep where the garden edges dropped sharply into it, and only a hedge fenced those edges. It wasn't the safest place for young children to play. At the corner where the two hedges met Grandpa had made an opening and built a little wooden pier about two feet wide and three feet long. There were fish in the lake and he actually fished from there.
Bert loved to take a stick and pretend it was a fishing rod. He would stand close to the end of the pier, stretch out his arm to hold the stick as far over the water as he could, and hope that he might really catch a fish. The family never left him alone there. I was ten that summer and had been helping Ma look after Bert since he was six months old. She and Pa took for granted that I was mature enough by then to take full responsibility for his safety. We were allowed to go.
It was a morning cold enough to see our breaths. I put on a warm outer garment and Ma dressed Bert in his old almost outgrown, winter, heavily lined, gray tweed suit coat. Before we went out we were given a warning to stay away from the water and especially the little pier. Ma and Grandma explained why we could easily drown if we fell into the lake. Its bottom was a thick muck that would suck us down and we were not yet big and strong enough to escape from it. The lecture over, we scooted outside.
Happily released into the bright outdoors, we headed down the path to the back of the garden where we could look through the hedge and see the lake. We were city kids who knew almost nothing but brick, cement and city stink. Being away from that, surrounded by Grandma's abundant flowers and with a real lake at our feet, we were in a Never Never Land. Of course Bert headed straight for the pier and his fishing stick. I tried to talk him away from it but he was a stubborn little guy and wouldn't give up his game.
He kept at it while I could only stand at the foot of the pier to watch over him. My memory is blank here. I don't know how long we were there or what made me turn away from him but I do remember hearing a quiet splash behind me. Even before I turned back to him I knew he had fallen into the lake. The sight I saw terrified me. Only his ankles and feet were sticking out of the water with the soles of his shoes flat to the sky. They were already sinking slowly, telling me that the muck at the lake bottom was pulling him down.
My instinct told me run and fetch Ma and Grandma but our human minds are full of surprises. My ten year old mind suddenly switched from instinct to a mode of skilled logic. "I can't go for them.", I thought, "If I do he will be completely gone by the time we come back. I have to do something now." I couldn't think of a way to grab his feet. They were too far from the pier for me to reach and I didn't know how to swim. At my young age, I was already five feet tall so the water wasn't too deep for me but how deep was the muck at the bottom? If I jumped into the water with my heavy clothes on I could sink into the muck too and we would both drown.
I felt totally helpless looking at those sinking feet while trying to think of a way to grab them. Suddenly they disappeared completely. My stomach tightened with fear but almost immediately his head popped up to where his feet had been. His face was gray from cold. His blue eyes, wide open with fear, were looking straight into mine begging for help. His mouth was also wide open in a silent scream that was much more frightening to me than if he had been shrieking.
I have learned since then why his scream was silent. The lake water was ice cold. When a person is suddenly submerged into ice cold water their muscles seize up, making breathing almost impossible. Bert couldn't breathe so he couldn't scream. He was sinking again and his lower lip was already under the water.
Being right side up, at least his hands were free to grab if only I could find something for him to grab. His stick was lying on the pier so I held it out to him. It was much too short and I could see it was too flimsy to hold him. There had to be something else I could use. Maybe I could tear a limb from one of the bushes but any that I could pull off wouldn't be strong enough to hold him. I was terrified but that strange logic kept me from panicking. I searched the ground for a possible fallen sturdy branch but found nothing. Grandma kept an immaculate garden.
Bert kept sinking. The water was almost to the upper lip of his open, silently screaming mouth. His big frightened blue eyes were still begging me for help. There had to be a way for me to save him before he was sucked under the water and gone. I searched the ground again and there, almost at my feet and partially covered by a few fallen leaves, lay a jump rope. It was the red paint of its handle showing through the leaves that caught my eye. I picked it up and found it was only half there but it would have to do.
Jump ropes were made much more sturdily in those days than they are now. The ropes were thicker with solid wooden handles turned to fit the grasp of a human hand. I knew the handle would float, and the rope that was left looked long enough to reach Bert's outstretched hands. If I could just get that handle to him I might be able to pull him out of the water.
Did I lie on my stomach or did I kneel while I was on that little pier throwing the jump rope to Bert? I don't remember. I do remember that it took only one or two throws to land that red handle where he could grab it. When he did he locked both of his hands around it in the frozen grip of a drowning person, which is just what he was. My hands were holding onto the other end of the rope with the same kind of grip. He hung on and I pulled with all my might. I saw the rope become absolutely taught as he inched out of the water. I can remember hoping it wouldn't break because it was such an old rope.
It held. We were not only lifting Bert but the weight of his clothes. That warm tweed coat Ma had dressed him in acted like a sponge and was swollen to twice its dry thickness. Bert could barely bend his arms. Again, I can't remember every detail but I do remember the immense relief when, with me pulling and Bert clawing, we finally dragged his torso over the end of the pier. After that we let go of the rope and between us we wiggled Bert the rest of the way onto the pier.
The rest of this tale belongs in a comic book. My mind reverted to a scared witless ten years old.
Part Two — The Ridiculous
With Bert out of the water there was no more need for either of us to be terrified that he might drown. The terror now was what kind of punishment was waiting for us, Bert for disobedience and me for turning away and allowing him to fall into the lake.
We left the pier and started up the path to the house. Bert, like a walking sponge in his ice water soaked clothes, shivered so hard his jaws were almost paralyzed shut but still managing to chatter out over and over, "Please don't tell."
With my arm around his shoulder I chattered back over and over through my fear, "I won't."
What could I do to keep my promise? All I could think of was to hide him.
Grandpa had a high woodpile along the driveway next to the side of the house. Ma and Grandma couldn't see the woodpile from the kitchen where they were working, so I took Bert behind it. He was almost doubled over with the cold. What I did next was truly laughably dumb. I took the waterlogged suit coat off of him, wrung it out as well as I could, and then, as if it would do any good to keep him warm, I struggled him back into the wet mess.
After that I couldn't think of anything else to do. I was just a scared ten year old who knew I had to go into the house sometime but to do what? My thoughts of that phase of the adventure are just a blank. All I can remember is knowing that I had to go into the house and face Ma and Grandma.
I do remember very reluctantly going up the back stairs and into the kitchen. Ma and Grandma were sitting across from each other at Grandma's little kitchen work table, which was just inside the door. They were peeling potatoes and having a nice chat while they worked. I walked past them into the kitchen proper but they didn't even acknowledge me. Good. I didn't have to answer any questions yet about Bert and our activities out in the garden.
I was cold and nervous so only went as far as Grandma's big black cook stove that had a nice warm fire burning in it. Oh that warmth felt good, but what to do about poor little Bert freezing behind the woodpile?
I paced back and forth in front of the stove trying to make up my mind about what to do. If I didn't tell Ma and Grandma what had happened, Bert could catch pneumonia or something. If I did tell I was betraying my promise to him. Also, if I told what would happen to me? How would they punish me for not taking better care of Bert – a big dilemma. All of these worries sailed through my mind in the short time of about four paces past the stove.
There was nothing I could think to do but tell. I stopped pacing and, being so scared I could hardly breathe, I put my hands on my hips, faced Ma and Grandma and blurted out, "W…ell, Bert fell into the lake!"
The reaction to my statement was two ladies holding peeling knives and potatoes in suspended animation as they exploded out of their chairs and yelled at me.
"Is he still in the lake?"
"No." I said.
"Then where is he?" they demanded.
"I pulled him out and hid him behind the woodpile." I chattered.
I never thought Ma and Grandma could move so fast. They jumped from their chairs and, looking like two tornadoes with their print house dresses swirling around them, ran out to the woodpile, grabbed Bert and blew back into the kitchen with him in tow. They dumped him in front of that warm cook stove and in no time had stripped off his load of freezing wet clothes.
My part in the rest of this tale was one of grateful onlooker. Ma and Grandma were so intent upon taking care of Bert that I was forgotten, and I was hoping it would stay that way. If they forgot about me they might not think to punish me for letting Bert fall into the lake.
After Bert was stripped, Ma took him upstairs to the bathroom. I followed out of curiosity to see what would happen next. Ma drew a DEEP, hot bath and put Bert into it.
The deep bath was something I had never seen her draw before. That was a forbidden luxury in our home. For some reason Ma had a rule that we could have bath water no deeper than three inches. I think it might have been something she inherited from her mother who grew up on a farm where water had to be conserved so that the well wouldn't go dry. Also, these years were at the depth of the Great Depression.
Anyway, Bert wasn't saying anything. He happily slid down so that he was lying under the water except for his head, and he seemed to be enjoying finally being warm from head to toe.
I can vaguely remember Grandma coming up the stairs and going into the bedroom where she turned down the bed covers and did something under them with her hands.
When Ma had Bert out of the tub and into his nightshirt she brought him into the bedroom and she and Grandma tucked him into the bed, clucking things to him about a "Nice long nap in a warm bed", etc. I saw Grandma slide a hot water bottle under the covers with him. I think what I had seen her doing with her hands while she was turning down the bed was sliding the hot water bottle around to warm the bed.
Grandma and I left Ma alone with Bert. We went downstairs to the kitchen where she resumed peeling potatoes. She didn't say anything to me. I just stood there wondering what would happen next. I was still waiting for and dreading that scolding I was sure was coming my way.
I heard Ma coming downstairs and heading for the kitchen. When she reached the doorway she stood there and said through giggles, "That's the first time I have ever seen Bert happy to have a bath and be put to bed. He is already sleeping." Ma was looking at me as well as Grandma while she said that and I remember feeling relief that Ma and Grandma were happy and I wasn't going to be punished. I was home free.
Bert slept for hours. I have no further specific memories of that day but I do know that when the men came home they were told the story of Bert falling into the lake.
For the rest of that vacation, every time we visited relatives or friends Pa made a big joke of telling the funny story about Bert falling into the lake, and he would end it by asking Bert if he had seen any fish while he was down there. Bert would shyly answer, "Yes."
I didn't think it was very nice of Pa to do that but when I asked Bert about it a few months ago he said he hadn't minded the teasing and he really had seen a fish.
There were fish in that lake. I remember that once, Pa and Grandpa took Don, Bob and me to the edge of the lake behind the back bushes to fish. I was only about three years old but I caught one.
Yes, Bert did see a fish.