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Ask anyone that knows me well and they’ll tell you I don’t mind exaggerating a story here and there – “Taking the liberty,” as I call it. Not here. Not this post.
I wrote a post about people watching mid-way through our summer vacation and thought I’d seen all I needed for content… Wrong. The day after I finished the article, this happened:
I always wanted to be a lifeguard – probably why The Guardian and The Sandlot are two of my favorite movies (one deals with saving lives at sea and the other has a great lifeguard scene). I’ve lived by the water for short periods of time but was never able to pull the trigger. Nonetheless, I consider myself pretty competent in the water. SCUBA certified, I enjoy free diving, swimming for exercise, and just about any other water-related activity.
Knowing all this, the following shouldn’t surprise you.
Clara was with grandma for nap time. Monica and grandpa were on the beach while I was enjoying one of the finer things in life – body surfing. A tropical storm was coming through the nearby area which meant the waves were killer brah (first and last time I’ll do that).
Standing up from a sick-ride (sorry) about mid-way between the beach and the break and I hear a woman scream, “Lifeguard!!!”
The scream reeked of terror and had great volume. First thought was a shark.
I know to go for the eyes, try to get free, and get your butt out of there, so if it was a shark I wanted no part of it. I didn’t know this woman or what was going on so I turned to assess.
The woman was standing in the break and seemed frightened but physically fine. I looked further and saw three heads bobbing off toward the horizon. Not good. Big waves can also mean big current and on this day that was the case.
I turned again toward the beach and spotted the lifeguard sitting in his chair. Like most crises time was of the essence, so him unaware of the situation was also not good.
1, 2, 3 more screams from the woman and now the surrounding swimmers were joining in. I’m not sure they knew why but this woman seemed stressed out so they felt inclined to get his attention. Finally he saw the distress and bolted from the chair. At this point I turned and swam to the woman.
“Are you OK? What’s going on?” I asked.
“No! They’re getting further out and can’t get back in! We need more lifeguards!”
No shark. Good news. Also, everyone was currently above the water – also good news.
“OK, no problem ma’am. Stay calm, we’ll get them back.”
At this point I saw the lifeguard bolt by headed for the furthest out – different woman, we’ll call her Tina. There were 3 in trouble and only 1 lifeguard. Nobody was headed to sea, everyone was heading for shore. I saw the heads drifting further out and It was a no decision to take off.
I put my head down swam toward the cluster. First one I came to was Mandy (not her real name) and I asked her, “Are you OK? Can you swim?”
“Yes, I just can’t get to shore!!”
“No worries just keep floating. I’m going to get the guy and we’ll be back soon for you. Hang tight, it’ll only be a minute.”
Maybe 100 feet later I get to a guy who looked like a Jim to me. I never caught his name so that’s what we’re going with. Jim doesn’t seem to be doing as well as Mandy. He’s spending consecutive seconds above and below water and growing increasingly panicked. He’s also exhausted and apparently in his 50s.
Fighting a current that’s pulling you directly out to sea, losing, and not changing your plan is a recipe for disaster. In that situation it’s always wise to swim parallel to shore for a while until you feel less pull from the current then try to make your way in. In a traumatic situation, that knowledge may or may not come to the forefront of your mind. It wasn’t in Jim’s.
“Help me man, I can’t get back.”
I couldn’t help but notice the ‘Get me the hell out of here!!’ seemingly plastered all over his forehead when I said, “It’s no problem. I’ve got you now and we’re getting back to shore. It’ll only take a minute. I told him to lay on his back while I put my arm under his armpit and across his chest to let him float on top of me for a second.
In that moment I saw the lifeguard tending to Tina. I will interject one thing. He had a float strapped to his back like a backpack that trailed him on a line. Tina was able to hold on and kick into shore. That would’a been nice to have had. Oh well… Hairy-chested Jim and I were looking to tackle this adventure without assistance – makes for a better story??
The lifeguard (also didn’t get his name) sends me some hand signals I couldn’t help but interpret as, “You all good?”
I throw him a thumbs-up and say, “Nice float,” under my breath. He’s a ways away so I’m sure it didn’t register. Turning my attention back to Jim I tell him to take a couple deep breaths, get some air, and then we’re heading back. We’re both laying on our backs with him floating on top of me and my head most commonly above water (there were moments it wasn’t – hey this was my first save and I’m doing my best here).
We kicked and I swam side-stroke for what felt like 10 minutes. Two days before this I literally said, “I don’t believe in rip currents, I’ve never seen anyone get stuck in one.” This was the day I ate crow.
Jim seemed to be calmer now, so that was a win. He was giving a solid kick while I’m swimming but eventually I start to cramp up. Could’ve been the beer I finished a bit ago or the run I took that morning but in any case I was dehydrated, and not too excited about that fact. I didn’t clue Jim into this as we fought back toward the beach.
Eventually we make it back to the break. I stand and tell Jim, “It’s ok, you can touch here.”
Apparently he was a bit shorter than me (hard to tell out at sea – my bad) because he gave it the college try and came back with, “No man, I can’t!”
I saw the wave forming in that moment, grabbed him, and let it take us further in. He was finally able to stand again. Relief and shock washed over him in an instant.
A different lifeguard met us there (I know, where’s he been?? This thing took about 15 minutes) and tapped me out. Not a word just took hold of Jim and started walking in. I’m getting ready to ask a question when my dad comes up (also in his 50s) and asks me if I’m alright. I didn’t hear him but could only notice his soaking wet hat. ‘What happened to you?’ I’m thinking.
I came to find out he was the one that came out to get Mandy. We stood for a minute in the surf and took in the scene on shore. The lifeguards had to number 5 at least by now (timing is everything in life, guys) and they’re all filling out paperwork or asking questions. The police are there doing police things and the crowd of onlookers is starting to dissipate.
Then I see my wife… Ohh… Monica is a great and proper woman but the following is edited.
“What is the matter with you? I couldn’t see you, I didn’t know where you were, and that guy could’ve pulled you under!! Clara and I need you!”
We talked it out and I answered her questions of what I would’ve done if this or that would’ve happened. She seemed pleased with my answers under fire, satisfied that her point was made, and asked, “what did he say to you after? Pops (my dad) got a huge hug and a heartfelt ‘thank you’ from [Mandy].”
“You know what? Jim didn’t say anything. Neither did the lifeguards. I’d have thought for sure they’d want to ask a question or at least tell me to stay out of their business in the future but nobody said anything. Huh – now I know how Batman feels.”
The three of us laughed then we literally walked off into the sunset. Unsung heroes after a good day’s work. We didn’t need any credit, we were just happy to be able to help that family. Pops and I agreed – there’s no wrong time to do the right thing (not an original quote).
1) Sometimes people watching pays off.
2) That family was back in the ocean the next day. I love the persistence, but guys… Give it a day.
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