The man with the coffee
When I was home, I heard about the death of my high school swim coach, Denny Bunn, by way of an effusive editorial in the local weekly. I’d actually been thinking about Denny (we only called him “Mr. Bunn” when he was substitute teaching) quite a bit lately, as I spent more and more time in the pool. He was the sort of guy who made you miss him when he was gone, and even though he and his wife had left town for Florida several years before, we still wanted to tell stories—to wake him, I suppose.
We told about how he spent some time urchin diving in the dead of winter—cold, dark, dangerous work that Denny was not only overqualified for (we couldn’t say with certainty if, in his time in the Navy, he had been with the SEALs or underwater demolition, but we agreed that it didn’t make much difference) but seemed willing to do on a volunteer basis, just for the challenge.
We talked about how he took a few of us down to UNH one winter to go orienteering—one coach, three kids, and I couldn’t have had my license more than two or three months, so I was six feet tall when he asked if I could drive. He must have known.
We talked about the time we were getting ready for the annual 4th of July weekend triathlon, where his wife was the race director, and some of us did a practice swim in Center Pond. Center Pond isn’t very deep, created, like several inlets on this section of river, largely for the ice trade. Those of us who had spent the spring running were thrashing along, and Denny was playing; then, once, he porpoised and found himself nose to nose with a snapping turtle. According to the story, he then stood up out of the water to show us the turtle, which he had by the hind flippers.
The time we led him out on a big loop through some very rocky trails in West Bath with his dog, Nate, and I worked out that Nate had been on longer runs than I had. (That was before 20 miles became my gold standard for a “long run.”)
How, when I was living in Pennsylvania, one of my co-workers returned from the “Wife-Carrying Championships” in Bethel and asked me, “Do you know Denny Bunn?” One more connection in a wide circle of… friends? Teammates? Training partners? Accomplices?
“We” was always a different set of people. Denny and his wife didn’t have any children—none in the house, anyway. They adopted entire schools.
We didn’t talk about the cookouts at their house. (“The burgers are ready, are there any buns?” “Yes, two.”) Or mention how he convinced me that I could finish an Olympic-distance triathlon on high-school training. How he kept me out for two years of swimming despite my clear lack of anything like an aptitude for the sport; I remember a post-practice discussion on the pool deck which foreshadowed one I would have two years later with my college advisor, as he pointed out that quitting was probably the worst thing I could do in terms of my own stress level. How we had taken a school bus to Bar Harbor to swim against MDI, started the meet at some ungodly hour (9 PM?) then took the whole bus full over to Sandy Beach in the morning and ran screaming into the ocean. In January.
We never figured out how two people with such powerful southern accents turned up in mid-coast Maine and made so many friends so quickly. I suppose we couldn’t help it. We were wondering what we’d done to make them stay.
It’s been years. I imagine, in that time, hundreds more high school kids had Denny pass through their lives, probably with a bigger splash than he made in mine.
Damn, we were lucky.