remembering martin

Some of my fondest memories of youth are of summers hanging out at our community swimming pool that sat on a hillside of its namesake, Phantom Lake. A large pond, really, the lake was fabled for its murky depths that remained a mystery—that in fact, a small plane that had crashed into it had never been fished out, it sunk so deep. I camped poolside practically every summer day. Between dips in the water I’d lay on the hot cement deck, eyes closed, listening to the drone of small planes pass overhead on their way to the small nearby airfield.

I remember morning practices, steam rising off of the water, thick like fog on some days, the fresh air chilling our limbs. We were packed into lanes like sardines, swimming circles, counting laps, watching the big timing clock’s red second hand for take-offs and finishes thinking it was watching us. We must have looked like a piranha feeding frenzy, scores of gangly churning arms and wild feet kicking up foam. Goggleless, we’d exit the pool rubbing little fists into our painful red stinging eyes, later tipping our heads back to drip cold, soothing milk into them tasting it through our sinuses.

In the next lane over swam a few skinny boys a year or two younger—perhaps nine or ten—named Andy, Rick and Martin. Andy, the feisty one, was short, dark-haired, tan and wiry. He had a smile that practically took up his entire face, cute dimples near his eyes. Rick was taller and fairer with straight, thick hair the color and texture of straw, a consequence of chlorine and sun. I’d rarely see them without towels slung around the backs of their necks, like some friend’s lazy arm. They both had fantastic, witty senses of humor. I hung out with those two a lot one summer, riding bikes and picking blackberries.

Then there was Martin. He was the tallest boy, a beautiful blond Swede with wavy locks, like butter and sugar, and broad muscular shoulders. He walked—almost swaggered—with feet pointed slightly outward in a wide, heavy stride. I can still hear his heels thumping hard on the pool deck. His arms were extraordinarily long and lean. Martin was kind. Martin was funny. Martin was also fast.

The thing I liked about my friend Martin was his passion. He never did anything halfway. He was hotheaded, like some say about Italians or Irish. If he didn’t beat his time, even if he won the race (though I can’t think of a time that he lost) he’d rip off his cap and goggles and throw them in disgust, all red in the face. He was hard on himself and it showed. But Martin’s passion and drive made him a great success. He became the fastest swimmer on all three of the teams we competed on together: summer league, high school and AAU swimming. I watched him grow—always in the lane next to me day after day, year after year—into quite a handsome, charming man. He liked calling me by my nickname at the time, Boss. We endearingly called him The Swede.

In his teens Martin became pals—bosom buddies—with an older boy named Brad. The two of them wore ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots with their Speedos. It was an awesome look. I think they wore aviators, too. I can see them now, strutting down the pool deck, the broad brim of their hats shading smiling faces, Brad’s arm sometimes briefly thrown over Martin’s shoulder like a brother. Their fondness for each other was palpable—sweet.

After high school Martin joined the Marines Corps and became a 1st lieutenant and a pilot. Although I hadn’t kept in contact with him I heard that he had continued to excel in swimming for the academy, and was a great leader.

Then one day (a few years had passed since I had been in touch with Martin) I got a call from a friend. She told me that Martin had come home to celebrate his twenty-fourth birthday—September 25th—with his mom and dad. His father, also a pilot, had built a single engine airplane that he'd been flying. The two of them went up for a birthday ride. I was told that upon taking off from the local airfield they had buzzed Martin’s mom at home, as was their custom—as if to say so long, we'll be back—they flew low above the house, which sat on a hillside not far from Phantom lake, but they never came back.

I attended the double funeral. Sorrowfully scanning the gatherers seated in pews I wondered what others were thinking, feeling. Martin's swim coaches were there, some with tears in their eyes. I looked across at my girlfriend who had suddenly and tragically lost her own father when she was just fifteen or sixteen, and pondered her grief, no doubt in my mind these deaths like salt in her wound. Somber faces fixed on two caskets, one draped with an American flag. I seem to remember standing in a long line of mourners giving condolences to Martin's beautiful mother who I always admired for her spirit, assertiveness and individuality. Somehow now I'm not sure if it really happened or if I am imagining it, but in my mind, when it came my turn we embraced. This tall Swedish woman I had always known as a pillar of strength, was listless, vacant, in shock. My heart sunk like a rock into water. The only thing I could say to her was that I was so very sorry and that I loved her son, my fond friend for so many years.

Even today, I cannot hear small aircraft buzzing in the sky above me without imagining Martin and his dad, his mom and his sister. I think about them and mourn their loss. I wonder what Martin might have become. A four-star general? A senator? A father? My thoughts always turn, then, to Calvin. I ponder his future. Will he be with me for years to come? Will he live to be an adult? Will he ever be able to talk or to walk by himself? Will his seizures ever abate? My questions are left unanswered, all uncertain as anything, as uncertain as tomorrow.

The only thing I can rely on is today—this moment. So like Martin, who inevitably inspired his friends, his loved ones and probably even strangers with his zest for life, I aim to live life with unleashed passion and drive, flying high as I possibly can.

I miss you, Martin.

Carl Martin Svensson, September 25th, 1964 - September 24th, 1988


  1. Thanks for that, Christy. Very touching tribute to Martin and those Phantom Lake days...and very well written.

  2. Our family will always miss Martin, John's best friend through high-school, college and until the end. My parents still freeze in pain when they hear a 21 gun salute. Martin was truly my childhood hero and it's so nice to think how well he is still remembered. Anna Karin and Hannah would like to see this. I remember hiking trips with Martin and Ingvar. Ingvar and my dad, with their long legs striding up the mountain as if gravity was pushing from behind...a wonderful family.

  3. dear meg,
    i knew john and martin were very close. i did not know your families went on hikes together. i think about martin a lot, even though we were not super-duper tight. it makes me realize how crushing his loss is for those who loved him most.i have sent the story to anna karin but have not heard from her. i hope she doesn't mind that i wrote about martin in the way that i did. xoxox