I could hear him yelling up at me as I stood there shaking at the top of the high dive. I was ten years old and suddenly higher up than any tree I’d ever climbed. The water in the pool below looked like it was a hundred feet down. And now all I wanted to do was ease back down the ladder and just forget the whole thing.
But the man in the gray t-shirt with the whistle around his neck had already spotted me. He planted himself at the pool’s edge next to the lifeguard stand and put his hands on his hips.
“Come on!” he shouted again, squinting up at me. “You can do it! Now jump!”
It’s been more than thirty years since that day at Kanawha, the West End recreation center where I spent so many summers as a kid. But I can still hear that voice hollering at me to make the leap from the tall diving board – what we called the “high dive” back in those days. And even now, I’m not sure which scared me more: the thought of jumping, or the thought of chickening out. After all, Ray Long Sr. was watching, and I didn’t want to let down the Coach.
As Kanawha’s summer director, Ray Long ruled the long, hot days at the pool back in the 1960s and 70s when I was growing up, and every kid who ever splashed in the center’s two pools worshipped him. Coach Long was a tough guy, a man of few words. But to us, he was cool before we knew what cool even meant. He was gray at the temples but still as muscled as the young lifeguards who worked for him each summer season. He always wore the latest all-white athletic shoes. He had a sharp nose and stern, square jaw that gave him the look of an Indian chief. And he always had the best tan of anyone.
Thinking back on it now, I can’t remember a single summer day without full sun and cobalt-blue skies. Beginning every Memorial Day weekend when Kanawha opened for the season, I would loop my towel around my neck, hang my transistor radio from my Sting Ray’s handlebars, and pedal at top speed up to the pool, where my buddies and I would spend each morning and most of the afternoon playing endless games of Marco Polo and living on a diet of Sno-Kones, soda, and ice cream sandwiches we’d buy from the snack shack. We would stay in the water until the chlorine stung our eyes and made our vision cloudy. The kids, the grownups, the lifeguards – even the cranky teenager who checked you in at the front gate – were our summer family.
Coach Long presided over it all. Coach was the guy you wanted to impress with the size of the splash you made with your can-opener or cannonball (managing to get him wet was a rare bonus). He liked to torture the dozens of kids poised at the edge of the pool waiting for the end of midday “adult swim” by faking us out with a few quick chirps with his whistle before finally blowing the official, full-tilt, jump-in blast to let us dive in. Most mornings, you could find him teaching the smallest children how to swim; later on, he would bob around the shallow end, porpoise-like, with shrieking kids clinging to his neck. My younger brother, still just a little guy struggling with words and names, called him “Coach Along.”
But Coach Long was more than just our summer hero. Ray Long was a real coach who took Douglas Freeman High School wrestling and football teams to victory, year after year, once Kanawha closed each Labor Day. And though he has been gone now nearly twenty years, the memory of Long’s career as a coach and youth leader brought more than one hundred friends, fellow coaches and family members back to Freeman in the spring of 2007 to celebrate a Henrico County School Board proclamation issued that year dedicating the school’s original gymnasium in his name.
On that day ten years ago, the men who had played under Coach Long and had looked up to him for so many seasons – aging football linemen, wrestling captains, even a former Kanawha lifeguard who had recently become a grandfather – stepped forward to speak.
One by one, they recalled how Long had changed their young lives for the better. He introduced me to new friends, some said. He helped me set priorities, said others. A punk kid like me could have gone either way. You need someone to believe in you, especially when you might not believe in yourself. He made you believe you could do anything.
Coach Long was what every kid needed, the old athletes were saying. He was the guy who stood in that special space between being your friend and being your dad. Sure, he’d put his arm around you, take you under his wing, tell you to try harder. But he didn’t have to love you like your old man did. And when you got tired or scared or angry, he didn’t have to understand or forgive or forget. He just kicked your butt – around the track or across the gym or through the water – until you finally learned to kick your own butt. He told you: You can do it. And you did.
Jump! The yell still echoes across the years, and I remember the quick rush forward, the aqua-blue diving board suddenly disappearing from under me, and the flying leap that left fear and worry and so much else about being ten years old far behind. And down below, the man with the whistle cheered and clapped and broke into a grin that seemed to say just one thing.
Sometimes, all you need is a Coach Along.