Once barefoot, twice lucky: A non-fiction story
Honestly, no one ever knowns when they're going to face the possibility of death, let alone face it twice. While on my first deployment in 2006, my ship visited Split, Croatia. It was our first port, and it would be the first foreign country I’d ever set foot in. A couple of friends and I signed up for a tour to Krka National Park because it was advertised you could jump from a twenty-foot waterfall into a “bottomless” pool, and swim in the mountain spring-fed waters of River Krka. The bus that took us to the waterfall had a tour guide who spent the time describing the countryside, and the local history. River Krka spanned from south Bosnia to the Adriatic Sea; it was home to over two hundred species of birds, and seven natural waterfalls. After our trip it would also be the home to my favorite black Converse shoes.
We reached our destination after the bus dropped us off by hiking twenty minutes down a steep hillside. Along the way, old women wearing Babushkas sold various homemade trinkets and goods; among which was a homemade red wine that I'd bought several bottles of. When we got to the river, it was as if we’d stepped into a dreamscape. The water was every hue of teal, aqua, cobalt, and turquoise. The trees were lush, and heavily leaved in shades of dark and bright green. My friend Brad and I instantly opted for swimming. I changed into my bathing suit but kept my shoes on because the last thing I needed was a foot injury. What I didn’t know at the time was that the riverbed was formed of sandstone, which is never truly jagged. Together, Brad and I slowly waded into the swift current of the river. Something else we failed to notice was that we had gotten in the water at the furthest point possible, which made it more of an adventure than necessary to get to the waterfall.
Halfway to the waterfall the bottom dropped out to create the “bottomless” pool. Everyone was jumping in from atop the fall where a rock jutted out, nature's diving board. Between the edge where Brad and I stood chest deep in frigid water, and the waterfall, was a sun rock. Some people sunbathed, while others used it as a temporary resting place. I have a fear of deep water, and it's amplified if I can’t see the bottom. From where I stood, I saw the water change from bright aqua to the color of sunshine through cobalt glass, the rocks beneath seemed to disappear the darker the water got. I began to feel anxious. The thought of some creature, undiscovered by man, swimming around down there had my heart pounding in my throat. At that moment I removed my shoes, tied the laces together and draped them around my neck, tucking one under each arm. In a surge of bravery, I kicked out and swam as hard as I could for the sun rock. I felt that if I made it there, I could conquer my fear and could celebrate by jumping off the waterfall... Or maybe just encourage others to jump.
It took a lot of effort to get to the rock, but before I passed that last arm-length distance to grab a hold, I heard a strangled gurgling behind me. Instead of anchoring myself before turning, I just turned. The current pushed me right into Brad, whose eyes were wide with panic. When our bodies collided, he grabbed onto me and pushed me under. He was struggling to keep from drowning and his self-preservation instincts had kicked in. But for me, the one being held underwater, my instincts were useless against him. I was scared witless. I kicked with everything I had just so he couldn’t push me down further and was quickly losing air. I tried prying his hands off, but it was like a vice grip, so I waved frantically, trying to get someone’s attention. There were all those people around us! How come no one saw Brad’s terror, or my hands thrashing wildly? Suddenly he was gone, and I broke the surface gasping. The darkness at the edges of my vision receded and I saw someone had finally swum out to help. When the guy got Brad to the rock, he returned for me. On my assisted swim to the rock I learned our rescuer’s name was Brisco. He was a Search and Rescue swimmer from our ship.
After a brief reprieve, Brad wanted to continue to the ledge behind the waterfall. We made a deal that if he made it to the ledge behind the fall without being rescued by Brisco again, I would swim to the ledge too. It turned out the current between the rock and the fall wasn’t as strong as it was getting to the rock. Brad got to the ledge without incident. The swim to the waterfall was easy until I got directly under the falling water. It made swimming side-stroke necessary to keep my head above water. Reaching out to Brad, our hands were inches apart when I heard someone shout “I’ll save you!” I looked up and saw a very large man with his arms stretched wide, running right for me. He hadn’t counted on the impact of the falling water to affect his trajectory and so instead of landing beside me, he landed on top of me. Air punched from my lungs and I flipped backward. The weight of my shoes disappeared as I struggled to untangle myself from him. I was still underwater and upside down, trying to get right side up. We managed to separate just as we bumped into the sun rock. I was flung around to the far-side of it when I finally got upright and was able to breathe. I was furious. Because of him, I’d nearly drown, again. Because of him, I lost my favorite pair of Converse shoes. They were my concert shoes, my everyday shoes; they were worn, scuffed, and loved shoes. They were priceless to me for the memories I’d made wearing them; then worth even more because I’d survived nearly drowning twice in one hour. But this would-be savior had nearly killed me, and left me barefoot in the process. When I decided that yelling at him wouldn’t do any good, I turned and swam for shore. I was tired of near-death experiences, sick of choking on mountain spring water.
The beauty of the waterfall and the crystalline waters no longer held awe for me. The water took on a sinister glare, and the trees seemed to laugh at me. All I wanted to do was dry off and pop open a bottle of Babushka wine and drown in something other than water. Red wine and sunshine was all I wanted after that. And anyways, it wasn’t every day I was given a second chance, twice in a row. Every now and then I still wonder if my shoes were ever found. Where they found and taken home? Were they thrown away, mistaken for trash and not the treasure I saw them as? I hope not. I hope they were found, and whoever had them also found humor in finding the perfect sized shoes in River Krka.
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