8 Seconds

Essay Number 3

Essay Number 3

I got my third essay back in English 111 today.

The prompt was a personal narrative, using illustration.

In grammar school, I was taught to write out numbers smaller than twenty, and round numbers like thirty, forty, one hundred, and so on, and to use numerals for other numbers. Mr. Beverage, after having read the first draft, suggested I run with numerals all the way through in this instance, for the effect.

I took that advice, and I have to say that I do like the running undercurrent of the recurring digits.

As you can see in the image to the right, he asked if he could use the essay as a model for future classes for this assignment. I was, of course, happy to oblige him and not a little flattered and tickled. I just made the corrections he requested and emailed a copy to him.

The essay, in its corrected form this time, lies below the fold.


Louis Shackleton

English 111 Section 6

Mr. Beverage

September 26, 2008

8 Seconds

It is strange how time can go so quickly and so slowly simultaneously. In 8 seconds, Florence Griffith Joyner can run 80 meters on her way to a world record, or an old man can take 2 steps along the sidewalk. In 8 seconds, a 1978 Porshe 935 can flash from a dead stop to within .9 seconds of a quarter mile finish line, or a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle can start its engine on a dark Philadelphia winter morning. In 8 seconds, 6 million gallons of sun sparkling water can thunder over the precipice of Niagara Falls, or a newlywed couple can share an electric kiss for an eternity in the shadows. In the end though, life moves very quickly and can change drastically in a little less than 10 heartbeats. A warm, sunny day full of hope, optimism, and accomplishment can turn on a dime into an everlasting night. In 8 seconds, a man can drown.

I swam well as a boy; “like a fish,” some would say to me. I had taken swimming lessons as a child and lifeguard classes as a teenager and even occasionally sat in for a buddy who needed a break at the local pool. That was further in my past than I could admit to myself, and I didn’t prepare for this swimming test at all. “It might be difficult,” I had told myself as we strapped on our gear, “but I’ll muddle through until I’m back in the swing.”

At the grand old age of 23, I had finally made it into a Special Forces unit. One of my dreams as a kid was to wear the Green Beret in defense of my country. It had been a long and winding road to get to the shores of glimmering Grayson Lake, Kentucky, on that bright April morning. The air was warm and the water cold and I was beaming in anticipation of the evaluation to see how much work I would need to do before being sent to Fort Benning and then on to Fort Bragg. Arguing with Uncle Sam for 6 years had finally paid off. I was going, no matter how well I did or did not do, so I wasn’t even nervous about the evaluation. I was a benighted young man radiating ignorance.

The 10 of us watched in awe as the rescue divers who had once stood where we now did rolled backwards over the sides of the zodiac and disappeared into the lake. We admired them, much like other young men admired gleaming NFL quarterbacks or glittering movie stars or glam-rock guitarists. We wanted desperately to be them, strong and serene, confident and capable, already tested in the crucible of training and found unblemished. The zodiac driver fired his flare, and we stepped into the iciness of the lake. The murky tendrils of fatality that lay just below the glinting reflections of the sun were only hinted at by the subtle undercurrent of decay on the wind.

I was cockily ahead of the group by the time we switched from wading to swimming, but the zodiac seemed unsettlingly far as seen from water level. Nevertheless, I began the long, deep strokes necessary to keep me on the sunny side of the sparkling little wave tops. What had been a faintly unpleasant odor invaded my nostrils and began to snake into my skull.

I was just about halfway to the zodiac when it began to dawn on me just how rough and how cold the water was becoming. My breaths were too short, so I attempted to suck a little extra hopeful air into my body as my face turned rightward toward the sky.

Timing, as they say, is everything. Instead of a mouthful of bright sunshine, what I took into my lungs was about a gallon of frigid, fetid, foul black water. My chest spasmed in protest, and the rest of my body followed its lead. Under ordinary circumstances, I might have taken a moment to tread water while I coughed it all back up. Under ordinary circumstances, I would not have been wearing 50 pounds of dead weight on my back or waterlogged combat boots on my feet. Out of practice as I was, there was never any hope I would keep my head above the dark water at that point.

With 8 seconds remaining in my all-too-short life, I watched the blue sky fade from below the waterline and regretted my arrogance, even as I sought to correct for it.

With 7 seconds remaining, I fought unsuccessfully to get my gear off so I could claw my way back to the surface. My fingers refused to comply with my demands.

With 6 seconds remaining, I cursed the cold water, the increasing darkness, and my cramping legs, which were by that time also mutinous.

With 5 seconds remaining, I was angry that my gear didn’t have some sort of quick-release mechanism that could be found in light conditions this dim.

With 4 seconds remaining, I had exhausted the little bit of oxygen left in my lungs and watched the last of the carbon dioxide bubbles float up toward the fading light of the warm sun.

With 3 seconds remaining, I wondered in the gathering gloom if they would find my body, a body which had utterly betrayed its owner and was by this point refusing to cooperate in any meaningful way.

With 2 seconds remaining, I just wanted to sleep in the now complete blackness.

With 1 second remaining, I didn’t care about and barely felt the hand that gripped my arm from somewhere in the dark.

The rescue divers told me it was several minutes before they could get my lungs working and my heart beating on its own again. In fact, I was lying on my back on shore by the time they did. As it turns out, the low water temperature was my enemy and my friend that day, the dark and the light, the yin and the yang, the death and the life of me.

It is strange how time can go so quickly and so slowly simultaneously. At operational speed, the Space Shuttle can travel 38 miles in 8 seconds and a giant turtle about 2 1/2 feet. In 8 seconds, I can type 8 or 10 words for this essay, and in 8 seconds, you can perhaps read a few more than that. In 8 seconds, 32 babies enter the light of day and of life for the very first time.

In 8 seconds, 8 people on this planet leave it behind.

15 Responses to “8 Seconds”

  1. themadlolscientist, FCD Says:

    DAMN, you’re good! And what a scary experience!

  2. Stephanie Z Says:

    Yep. No matter how many times I read it, it doesn’t lose any impact.

  3. Elspeth Says:

    I like the use of digits for how they convey the passage of time. I agree that writing the numbers out as words wouldn’t have the same effect.

  4. Lou FCD Says:

    Thank you all for your kind words. I’m very exhausted from school, and I really appreciate the encouragement.

  5. Elspeth Says:

    You’re clearly off to a really solid start, Lou. Unfortunately, working on one’s degree can be exceedingly draining, especially if you’re doing it on top of working, family, heath issues etc. Take care of yourself, Lou (sleep, food, the usual): don’t let it overwhelm you. One week at a time, one class at a time.

  6. Lou FCD Says:

    Thank you Elspeth, and I’ll do the best I can to take care of myself.

  7. Diana Says:

    Mmmm, I like.

  8. Kym Says:

    Lou, this is brilliant and it definitely deserved an A+. In fact, I think you should try publishing it!

  9. Kevin at GodsDandruff.com Says:

    I’m never going swimming again!

    Great, involving writing.

  10. Lou FCD Says:

    Hey, thanks Kevin! (but don’t let that stop you from swimming. just because I’m an idiot, that doesn’t mean…) :)

  11. David vun Kannon Says:

    Nits – Porsche, Zodiac

    I like the transition from the water image of Niagra Falls to the rest of the essay.

    Congratulations!

  12. I Write Like « Crowded Head, Cozy Bed Says:

    [...] 8 Seconds, a piece for my first English class at Coastal, and featured in last year’s literary magazine, was compared to Dan Brown (a bit disappointing, that…). [...]


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