Walking around the block recently, looking at the foundation of a new house going up, I remembered one of the most important days of my life. I was five years old. My parents had purchased a house—this was in Queens in 1978—on a double lot. They split the property in two and were building a second house on the empty half. The plan was for us to move into the new house when it was finished and sell the old house.
My father, an architect, had designed the new house, which at this point was only a cement foundation—what would soon be our basement floor, some 10 feet down, with walls that rose to ground level. It looked like a huge open cement box inside a huger hole in the ground. Between the two was a deep trench that filled completely with water when it rained for several days. Work stopped and my two brothers and I were sad. We would not get to see the general contractor, a family friend who always said hi, or the men who operated the machinery and nodded to us as we watched, amazed at the movement of earth and building materials.
One evening the rain let up, and my brothers and I lied to our mother that we were going down the street. Instead, joined by two neighbor kids, Mario and his little sister Edith, we walked onto the construction site to study the long pools of water that had formed around the cement walls. The oldest was Mario, at whose side I had fought many machine-gun battles against German and Japanese armies. Next oldest was my brother Jesse, two years older than me and always boss among the Skinner boys.
As we walked onto the site we were joking about standing too close to the water and falling in. The joke was, I remember, accompanied by a herky-jerky dance and fake screams, the kind of death throes we acted out while playing war.
Mario and Edith stood back from the water’s edge, and I with them. My brothers both moved up to take a look. Chris, my younger brother, who was not quite four years old, went too close. He slipped into the water and was gone, invisible inside the dark brown pool of standing rain.
I thought that was hilarious, a weird, funny real-life version of our joking. I laughed so hard. Mario and Edith laughed so hard. I don’t know if Jesse told me to shut up, but I remember thinking, Why isn’t Jesse laughing?
Chris came up for a moment, flailing, but he didn’t know how to swim. I stopped laughing. Mario and his sister ran away.
Chris went back under, and Jesse jumped in. None of us were swimmers, but Jesse was able to plunge down, find Chris, and bring him to the surface. The difficulty then was climbing up a foot or so of muddy bank. Chris slipped out of Jesse’s arms. Jesse went back down and brought him back up. This happened maybe three or four times. One time Jesse climbed out first, holding Chris by his pudgy arms, and then tried to haul him out that way. It didn’t work.
This all took place about 15 feet from the driveway next-door. And through the trees, a Volkswagen pulled up. The young man who was renting the house got out. I called for his help. For a second he was smiling, not understanding, but then, snap, he was in the water, which was over his head, struggling to hold the wormy wet bodies of my two brothers and push them up the bank. I think he got Chris out first and then helped Jesse. Soon all three were out, soaked, and it was over.
According to my mother, my brothers and I didn’t mention anything when we got home. But a day later the man from next-door came to see my parents and told them what had happened. His version I fully accept. He got out of his car; two kids were drowning; he jumped in to save them. All true. For years this was the only version my parents ever told, until at some point I was, by sheer repetition, able to wedge my fuller account into the family record.
Before the young man from next-door saved them, my older brother Jesse saved my younger brother Chris, finding him in the dark rainwater and pulling him up to the surface, repeatedly, both of them gasping for air. Jesse saved Chris. First. Or perhaps I should say, also.
Today my brothers are grown men. Jesse’s a plumber with his own business. And Chris is a police officer who in his spare time carries on the family tradition of investing in real estate. For having laughed, I have always felt it was my job to remember what happened.