As much as I’m ashamed to admit it, I do not care for water. I don’t even like to drink it, though choking down some H2O is better than being submerged in it. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been completely underwater (and still have digits left over). By my reckoning, there have been two accidents and one baptism. Well, make that two baptisms. I’m afraid it’s a long story. Oh, you say you have time? Awesome.
It all started when my brother threw me into a swimming pool when I was 6. Then, after a few years with a perfect record of staying on dry land, I was goofing around at the lake and fell in. My sister had to dive into the water and pull me out. Nothing boosts the ego of a 9-year-old boy like being rescued by a girl. And it doesn’t do much for a kid’s phobias, either. From that point on, I vowed never to go near the water again.
And then I remembered something: I had not yet been baptized. That was a problem for a good Church of Christ kid. There’s a story about the famously irreligious W.C. Fields reading the Bible on his deathbed. When asked what he was doing, he replied, “Looking for loopholes.” For the next couple of years I scoured the New Testament in search of a dryer form of salvation. But alas, it seemed that immersion was the only way.
So out of pure terror, I put off my baptism until I was 14. During a Gospel Meeting at my home church, I finally faced my fear. But the event was not without drama. You see, our church was very small, and we were meeting in a local nursery school building. Since there was no baptistery, we had to drive thirty minutes to the closest Church of Christ. As every minute ticked by on the drive, I got more and more nervous about my possible martyrdom.
It was a cold March evening, and since it was also a Tuesday, that church’s baptistery was not heated. To make matters worse, once I got down the steps into the water—but before the immersion itself—the preacher decided to prolong my anxiety and frostbite by reading an entire chapter from the Bible. Had he chosen Psalm 119, I might not be here today. But with every verse, my dread increased.
By the time the big moment came, I was in a mild state of panic. Such was my fever pitch that when I was finally lowered into the water, I did not go gently into that good night. Instead, I fought it, kicking and flailing like a cat trying not to take a bath. It’s a wonder I didn’t drag the minister down with me, but somehow he managed to get me up. After the curtain closed (back in the days when baptisteries were little theatres), he gave me the bad news. He thought we should do this again.
I was still just adjusting to the fact that I had not died. “You have got to be kidding,” I thought, as I shivered there, inches away from the dry top step. But since I had kicked and flailed, he explained, my body had not gone completely under. Thus, technically speaking, I had not been immersed. Two elbows and a kneecap were still lost in sin. So I was baptized again. It happened so quickly, I barely had time to panic. And this time, things went better.
Fast-forward 28 years. In case you’re trying to do the math, that brings us up to last Tuesday. I get an email asking me to volunteer for a faculty dunking booth as part of Relay for Life. Having not been submerged in nearly three decades, I once again thought, “You have got to be kidding.” While I considered declining because of acute aquaphobia, I realized this was no time to be a sissy. Relay for Life honors people who have survived much worse.
So I agreed. During the day on Friday, people asked me if I was going to change out of my coat and tie before my 4:30 p.m. destiny. I was not, and I could only quote Benjamin Guggenheim’s last words on the “Titanic:” “We are prepared to go down as gentlemen.”
Friday at 4:30 p.m., I ambled over to the Front Lawn, where a small crowd of students and colleagues had gathered for the not-all-together-pure-hearted purpose of seeing me get wet. I suppose my reputation as a fussy “indoor” guy added to their glee, but I must confess I was slightly disturbed by the level of zeal shown by people I once thought were my friends.
One colleague in particular — a thin, lanky, pool-stick of a man — had a wild frenzy in his eyes that was matched only by the ineptitude of his throws. I wish I could capture in writing his expression of giddy rage. I can only say it was what you would expect from the Marquis de Sade sitting ringside at Wrestlemania.
Somehow, I managed to survive about 15 dunks in 30 minutes, and emerged with my mustache still dry, and only slightly ruffled. And after wringing water out of my necktie, I simply straightened it, held my head up, and marched off to the car. Where I promptly discovered I had forgotten to take my wallet out of my pants. But what are a few damp credit cards and 12 soggy dollar bills for a good cause? I regret that I have but one dry life to give for my campus.