tobias crabtree

defining lines; drawing and writing

Tag: swimming

Oxygen Appreciation

There was this part of training when I was in the Marine Recon Indoctrination Program, called RIP for short, that I found particularly daunting. The corporal running the morning evolution would say it with a particularly wicked snarl on his lips, “oxygen appreciation, fellas, get ready.” Corporal Siedenswartz certainly had a way about him, and it wasn’t a pleasant way at all. Oxygen appreciation might consist of any number of different events, but you could count on one thing for sure, you would be counting every second of your existence until the drills were over. They all took place in a swim tank (that’s the term used for a swimming pool, since “swimming pool” has a note of pleasure to it, they used “swim tank” in it’s stead) and, most often but not always, there were props. The props might include ropes, different sized camouflage blouses and trousers, combat boots, cinderblocks, 45 lb. weight-lifting plates, helmets, 7 and a half lb. rubber rifles, and anything on the pool deck that might add chaos to the churning, gasping, wall-eyed debacle that was called training.

For almost 6 weeks, there were 4 of us. The 4 united by a strange and convoluted training regimen that was loaded with unknowns. Everyday was different. We did not know the schedule, only that the day would usually start in the zero-dark thirty and end when the bodies no longer performed the functions commanded of them. The 4 of us were men, not boys. We looked to one another to make it. Another thing to point out was that we had volunteered to be where we were. Recon is a volunteer unit, you can quit at any point in time and you will be sent away accordingly. Back to the normal Marine Corps.

“Looking to your left, looking to your right, making sure your buddy comes up on the other side, underwater crossover…GO!” Siedenswartz’ voice was always audible. The distance underwater varied from 25 meters to 50 meters. The time between intervals always collapsing down as the burn in the lungs created a panic in the heart of the 4 of us. To come up in the middle of a crossover would create a world of hurt that included burly instructors with tree-trunk legs entering the tank and riding the panicky fool to the wall. Once the instructors were in the water, the games became far more difficult. Each of us would swim under the shadow of the shark above us. Each of us knew that to come up would result in a struggle that would escalate and spread to the rest of  the 4. We learned the hard way, but by god, we learned. A kind of steel started to set in. As we ran like soaked rats to the chow hall, we would find peace in the quiet jokes about the instructors. Jokes they would never hear but might feel just a little when the 4 were in the water with our beady little eyes just above the surface and our hearts slow thumping like alligators. So used to the dreadful evolutions were we that panic became a far off world that took a very long journey to get to. More weights in the water. Tie and re-tie the knots in the ropes that waited down by the drain.

One morning we got to the tank and there was a heavy feeling amongst the instructors. I never figured out what had happened but it was probably personal. The had lives other than being professional bruisers, it’s just that the 4 of us hadn’t a clue what their lives were like. The bottom of the pool was dark and the sun was still a couple hours away. For warmups we would often lie on our backs with fins on our feet and do flutter-kicks while Siedenswartz walked around with a hose, blasting cold water in our faces. “I can’t hear the count! Start again.” We were told to find our boots on the bottom of the tank and put them on before we showed our cake-holes (mouths) above water. This meant, put the boots on the correct feet and have them tied because we might very well be going on a run straight out of the water.  –Ever ran with boots on the wrong feet? I have. It sucks.– We all surfaced with boots on, tied and ready. The 4 of us were Jamie Urlahb, Christian Regenhard, John C. Thomson, and my ownself, Tobias. Christian and I wore boots that were close to the same size. John’s feet were a couple sizes bigger and Jamie’s were bigger yet. In the meeting at the bottom of the tank, there was a quick sorting out. Time is of the essence when surface air is unavailable. We would do our best to quickly put all the rights to one side and all the lefts on the other, then it was a grab at sizes. It sucks more for a bigger footed guy to try and jam his foot into a too small boot than the other way around. –Ever seen a big guy go for a run in a too small pair of boots while you were running in a pair too big? I have, and it sucks.– These are precious seconds without air that make a big difference in the long run. It paid off to let it burn and sus it all out on the bottom, down there where all of our eyes seemed glazed and tiny bubbles collected around our mouths while our hearts thumped and thumped. At the surface, the instructors commented on the time we spent below. They joked that maybe we were starting to like it down there. That maybe it was more peaceful because they weren’t yelling at us. Maybe it was a little peaceful in that particular way. They told us to fetch the 45 lb. plate that was at the bottom. If you’re a water polo player, this would be your kinda gig. It takes a good amount of strength to get a plate that heavy off the bottom. It takes more to keep it at the surface. And it don’t matter who you are, it ain’t staying on the surface for long, especially when the object is to hold the plate free of the water. I went down and got the plate, half way up, Johnny met me and grabbed ahold. Levels, man, levels. The trick was we all were given the task to keep the plate up, but our legs were kicking into one another. The boots weren’t making it easier, that’s for sure. Somehow we kept it up long enough for Siedenswartz to get bored, “drop it, partner up!” Here I could continue to tell you about the different things we were told to do, but it’s easier to go to a pool and show you, so I ain’t doin’ it. Just know that it sucked, and in the end, we made it through that dark morning. There were more days and nights of dread and pain, but I believe that week and those hours were the pinnacle of what amounts to the most difficult moments of my life. To this day, I never enter a swimming pool without thinking of the tank and the living, walking, menace of  Siedenswartz. He pulled me aside once and said, “Crabtree, you’ll never have harder days than these…never in your life.” He might’ve been right about that, as long as we’re talking in the physical realm. I believe I’ve endured things heavier than that in the region of my heart. There’s a difference and I’m more suited to physical suffering. I guess I’d have to thank ol’ Siedenswartz for that.

One thing I can tell you, I do indeed like to breathe.

A Letter about Today

This is from a letter to a friend. Sometimes it’s easier to write the real shit to a person that knows you. After all, the ones that really know you, know where the skin gets thin and the darker blood flows closer to the surface.

in the process of living i end up spending a whole helluva lot of time thinking about the could be’s and the would be’s. it’s probably pretty stupid. i doubt the whales do that. or the bats. or the bristlecone pines. i always figure that them things with wilder souls don’t think about the maybe’s they just breathe and live and see the stars. wild as i wanna be, i’m a pale, frail, little shadow that can’t even concentrate on the moment i’m in long enough to be in the real, honest to jesus, midst of things. what a flop.


i swam today. i went out where the seals and sea lions are herding through the sea grass. the ocean pushes and pulls so much out there that i can’t ever tell if i’m even making any headway. looking down, it looks like i’m in soup and i’m just part of the ingredients being stirred up. the distance, i think, was about a mile, point to point along the cliffs. someone told me they saw a shark from the cliffs not that long ago. “thanks,” i said. when i was done, i hauled my sorry ass outa the water and up the sea rocks to where the big pools that look like goldfish bowls are holding water, waiting to give it back to the sea when the moon pulls the tides up like stockings. the moss was slick, green grease and the smells of dead and alive and everything in between filled me up and up. there ain’t no rhyme or reason to why i do that shit, i’m a little scared of it. sometimes, like today, when i’m out there far enough and alone, i wonder about my heart and when it’ll just kinda have enough of this shit i put it through. little flutters. hesitating life. 


there’s a bar down the hill. i went down and had a beer and a bourbon and a burger, the triple b’s.  seems like everyone in this town is beautiful, almost like they were all made for each other. i feel old today. and worn. neck hurts. body aches. grey in my beard. hard to find the good looks between all the wrinkles i’m cultivating. back up the hill on the bike, it’s steeper than usual. where’s the moon anyway, i think she’s waning so maybe she’s out later. the sky is empty tonight. i’m sick of words and drawing and stuff that i do, i think that’s a good sign that i need to move along. go out and out a little farther. i’ve been thinking of going somewhere else in the world, but i’m pretty sure it’s just me running from something that’s buried down there in my nasty squirmy guts. i think the trick to everything is giving it all less power. the wishing and the loving and the lifting and the pulling…just turn away and walk toward the open spaces. 


i was told that my dreams are abnormal. i went to see my psychiatrist, did i tell you i have one of those? isn’t that weird? lot’s of questions about lots of stuff. i guess i do like it a little, i just haven’t ever had someone that doesn’t know me ask me those kind of things. they got their theories and i got mine. i don’t ever tell them everything, that’s probably why they always want me back. cat and mouse. they gave me a ton of pills, i could make some good money on that stuff! instead they all just sit and roast in my little r.v….i don’t wanna flush them, i worry over the ocean too much to put that weird stuff in the water. i will have so many pills by the time i’m dead that i’ll be able to dope the government and make them stop being idiots. that’s the plan, i’m saving all my pills so that i can dope the government and make them go to sleep, they do less harm when they’re sleeping.


anyway…that’s about it. not much else to report, captain. 

age spots

i got this new spot on the side of my face. it’s what my ma has always called an age spot. i’m pretty sure it’s here for good unless i get it smudged out with some procedure by one of those doctors that promises to make you look better than you ever were. sometimes folks look at it. now i know how the folks from my past have felt when i stared at something they couldn’t help. life sure does teach some solid lessons.

when i was running, i noticed that my one ankle clicks every time i take a step. it’s like a metronome that keeps time while you’re playing piano. i kinda like it as long as it doesn’t swell up afterward, which it sometimes does. i feel like the body is more of an adventure as we get older. you just never can tell what’s around the bend. awesome.

i’ve been playing the guitar quite a bit lately. i play it alone and in my toyota dolphin. it sounds cool in here, but i’m pretty sure i suck. i’ve written 3 songs. my buddy tim garrison says they’re my greatest hits, and i guess he’s right since they’re the only songs i’ve ever written. sometimes, when i’m real sad and alone, i play them slow and howl like a hound dog. i’m not sure how it sounds but i’m pretty sure it sounds like cats making love in the alley. but that’s alright. greatest hits, man.

i’m on a string of mornings where i’ve gone out into the ocean before any kind of daylight whatsoever. it’s crazy paddling out on a little board into the black. crazy wonderful. the dolphins and sea lions and whales are already there, waiting.  dark ocean. morning stars. the world underneath and the world overhead and the smallness of me in between. it’s ok, i’m just here. right fuckin’ here. and i really must say that my heart is overwhelmed in the process. i suppose it’s a kind of addiction, this thing i do. hopefully it’s how i’ll leave this world…by mixing with it.

when i wake, i listen to npr. familiar voices in the morning dark. they say things about my world that i can’t believe. sometimes they tell stories that make me cry. sometimes i laugh right out loud, i think they call that lol these days. i call it laughing out loud. but i like them voices on npr. they almost feel like friends.

i don’t know what to chase. i don’t know where to run. i’m sad that folks don’t fear the direction we seem to be headed. i feel the waves swell behind me and the push, the gradual momentum, and the wind; for this moment i am alone in the universe. i am being pushed by the power of the world i inhabit. it is, it is…humbling. sometimes i swim in this same green sea, i swim out where i know that life is so fragile. then i swim back to the land, my towel, my rig, my coffee. i see the seagull on the rocks as i swim in from the green. i am almost nothing. it would be good for every world leader to have to swim alone into the sea every now and then. it would change what they think of themselves. maybe we wouldn’t have as much to fight about.  hey man, we’re here and this is now. tomorrow is starting to look like a bully that’s waiting to beat us up.

i had a bunch of stuff i was going to write about, it all fell away once i put my fingers to the board. i was gonna write about friendship and crosshatching and the dreams i’ve been having. that’s all gone. i ain’t able to write what i wanna write. all these thoughts are running into me like a current, slamming me around and making me lose my paddle. and the river’s big and the rocks seem way too close and i thought i had this all figured out. not true. i’m mostly a mess and in the habit of going under. it’s why i haven’t written as of late. lost in the current. i’m sure there’s them what understand.

what makes us the thing we are? is it the carcass that carries our soul? or is it the song that follows us when we’re gone. if it’s the latter, i hope they don’t sing like me.

ah hell, that’s all.

between the devil and the deep blue sea

Imagethere is a cove in southern mexico, way south, where the mountains come right down to the sea. it’s a tiny cove, just big enough to allow a boat to anchor without being hit with direct ocean swell. on a map it shows as a little dip in the coastline, definitely not something you would think was worth a stop-over. i was sailing with two buddies. we were unsure of whether to anchor and get sleep or to sail through the night.

there are several facts that i should disclose here. i am not a sailor, although; i was on a sail boat for over six months. my buddies are not sailors either. we were sailing, we just weren’t sailors. all of us are capable in the common sense kind of way and all of us have had plenty of adventures together. we weren’t too worried. we were real happy to be doing something we didn’t know how to do. ok, so that’s the preamble. oh yeah, and we didn’t really know where we wanted to go…mostly, we wanted to go toward the sun.

so, back at the little cove…and the world and the stars and the sea and the wooden boat and the breath from our bodies and the beating hearts, all together. all in one place. we had sailed for 40 and a few hours without the modern sailing-conveniences of GPS’s and auto-pilot. we were tired. we dropped anchor and did everything we had read in Sailing for Dummies to make sure we didn’t end up on shore (a kind of rocky looking strip in the failing light) in the middle of the night.

i didn’t sleep well. i was worried about our anchor that had dropped too deep and seemed to be almost straight down. in the night, the waves stopped completely and i woke to silence…complete silence. it was like the universe was on pause. i stood up out of my sleeping bag and looked at the stars as they ran all the way down to the sea. beyond that amazement, the silky flat ocean was full of glowing plankton that were spaced out like the stars. it was as if the sky and the sea had come together and become the same thing. the truth is, they are…they are the same thing. i went to my bag and slept in the middle of the cosmos, for reals.

the morning was soft and wonderful. the cove was deep and blue. the anchor was stuck when we tried to pull it so i swam down to check. i went down, hand over hand, on the anchor chain and the clarity of the ocean was unbelievable. huge fish swam far below me and into the bluer farther farther. i worked at the anchor and several breath-holds later, we were loose and heading out.

i have always loved that saying, “between the devil and the deep blue sea”, and i know that it means to be stuck. i like to think of it different. i’m not worried about the devil and i love the deep blue sea. this is the truth i feel from living like i do; i am capable of any possible good and evil, the best version of myself is the one standing on the deck of that boat, in between the stars and the plankton. right there, exactly there…and hopefully someday, everywhere else too.