Strokin’ out

As we waited for the meet to begin, Robbie Bradford nudged me and asked, “What’s he up to now?”

I looked over at KK Monroe, who was grinning like a jackass eating prickly pears as he talked a mile a minute to Roundman.

“No idea,” I said. “But it looks like whatever it is, he’s having fun doing it.”

“Yeah,” said Robbie. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Let me backtrack.

The meet was part of a boot-camp-wide athletic field day, where every company had a team for each sport. I was on the swim team. There was only one swimming event – a 400-meter, single-elimination relay. Two guys did freestyle, one did butterfly, and one did breaststroke.

The freestyle guys were Tom “Stonewall” Jackson and KK Monroe, I did breaststroke, and Robbie did butterfly. Stony and KK were excellent swimmers; I was a decent swimmer, and Robbie was our Secret Weapon.

Individually, we were as different as could be. Stony was a chubby Florida guy who was awkward on land but cut through water like a seal. KK was a Chicago kid who swam competitively in high school, bragged incessantly, and when the pressure was on, always folded. Because of this, I questioned his being on the team, but Robbie told me not to worry.

“Why not?” I said. “He never does the right thing.”

“It’s okay, he doesn’t have to do anything,” he said.. “He only has to not do one thing.”

“What’s that?”I said.

“Sink,” he said.

Robbie was unique among everyone I ever knew in the Navy because he came from money – old money, in fact.

His family came over in the colonial era, owned Virginia tobacco farms (read that, “plantations”) and after that, Florida orange groves. He was brought up with every imaginable privilege – prep schools, European vacations, sports cars – and he managed to trash them all. He got kicked out of the schools, got busted smoking hash in France; the MG he got for his sixteenth birthday he wrecked before his 17th. Then he drank his way out of college and ended up in the Navy.

While he was a wild and reckless kid, he wasn’t stuck-up or unkind. In fact, he was a perfect gentleman to everyone, and everyone liked him in return.

So what made him our Secret Weapon? Just this: The college he flunked out of was Florida State, where he’d been the varsity swim team’s number one butterfly guy.

Race time

The first swimmers were on their blocks, tensed and ready. The whistle blew and they were off. They were even for three-quarters of the pool, then Stony started to pull ahead. And he kept pulling ahead, so when he touched home, he had a quarter-length lead on the second place guy.

Then it was The Robbie Bradford Show.

He launched into a perfect racing dive that took him way down the lane and when he surfaced, he exploded.

He was motion economy in its purest form, windmilling his way over the water at blinding speed.

The race officials were all UDT guys (precursors to the Seals). They were all lean, mean as hell, and unimpressed by everything. Or at least they had been till they saw Robbie.

“Christ on the quarterdeck!” yelled an instructor beside me. “Look at that guy!”

Robbie did a perfect racing turn and slashed his way back, made the touch, and now our lead was a full length of the pool.

I did my thing, finished with the lead intact, and KK was off.

He streaked up the pool in fine fashion, made his turn and was on his way back when we saw something was off … way off.

“Holy crap,” said Stony, “he’s only using his right arm.”

“Is he hurt?” I asked.

“Uh-uh,” said Robbie. “Look, he’s got his left arm behind his back.

We watched, engrossed.

A moment later, Robbie said, “I know what that idiot’s doing.”

“What?” I asked.

“Remember him talking to Roundman before the race?”

“Sure,” I said.

“I’m positive he was trash-talking, as always, and bet Roundman he could finish with one hand behind his back and still win.”

And he had enough of a lead to have done it, except for one thing: He wasn’t going in a straight line. Instead, he was drifting to his left, first into the next lane … then into the lane after that, until he hit the wall at the side of the pool, knocking us out of the competition.

“That rotten puke,” said Stony.

“I’d like to kill him twice,” snarled Robbie.

I said nothing, because I couldn’t talk and grind my teeth at the same time.

Wisely, KK stayed at the side of pool.

Settling up

All the teams came in and after they did, Roundman went over to KK.

I never knew Roundman’s real name, nor did anyone else. We didn’t have to – his nickname said it all. He was medium height, as round as he was tall, and all of it was rock-hard muscle. He was arguably the strongest kid in Great Lakes. He was half-Dutch, half-Puerto Rican and was always upbeat and pleasant, and never lost his temper. Or at least he’d never lost his temper till now, because after talking a bit to KK he yelled something that sounded like “Bluto.” He followed that by a string of Spanish which ended in “…tu madre.”

KK faked left, faked right, and sprinted over to us.

“Robbie,” he gasped, “you gotta help me.”

“Lemme guess,” said Robbie. You bet Roundman you could beat him with your arm behind your back, you lost, and now you’re not paying up.”

“How’d you know?” said KK, genuinely puzzled.

“Because that’s exactly the dumb-ass move I figured you’d pull.”

“You’re right,” said KK, pleading. “But help me, willya. Please.”

He was clearly on the verge of tears.

“You’re not only a dumb-ass,” said Robbie, “but you’re a pathetic one as well.”

Then he turned and walked over to Roundman. They talked for a while, then Roundman’s scowl was replaced by a big smile. After that, they shook hands, then Robbie came back.

“So what’s the deal?” said KK.

“Just this,” said Robbie. “Since we get all our boot camp pay next week, I told Roundman you’d give him twice what you owed him, and he agreed.”

“And what if I don’t wanna do that?” said KK, his braggadocio returning.

“Funny,” said Robbie. “I asked him that.”

“And what’d he say,” said KK.

“He said if you didn’t, that’ was OK,” said Robbie.

“He did?” said KK. “Really?”

“Yep,” said Robbie. “But if you didn’t, he said he was gonna stomp the living snot out of you.”

“What’d you say to that?” said KK.

“I told him that if you stiffed him and he stomped you, then the least I could do was lend a helping hand,” said Robbie. Then he added, “And two feet.”

The whole situation resolved in a happy ending all around.

Roundman got twice as much as his original stake.

KK got to live for — and screw up — another day.

And I got the best deal of all — another sea story for my rapidly-growing collection.