“It is September 24! You’ll catch your death.” Mom declared. “You may not go swimming with your friends.”
I couldn’t believe it. I’d finally, finally, finally been invited to the cool kids beach by Cathy, a seriously cool girl. And Mom was telling me that I couldn’t go. Or that I couldn’t go swimming, which was what people do at the beach.
We compromised. I got to go to the beach with a promise not to swim. A promise I was planning to break just as soon as it was out of my mouth. Mom wouldn’t be there – she’d never know. And she didn’t until much later.
Mom was being ridiculous, I thought – it was a warm September day, in the 80s. A perfect, last beach day of the year.
In spite of growing up on the beach, I was (and am) a rotten swimmer. I never really learned to get very far or very fast. I splash around in the water in something a half notch above a dog paddle.
But I love the water.
Early on I learned to back float forever. When I tire after my first 10 strokes, I turn over, point my head in the direction I want to go, and meander through the water. I watch the gulls overhead, see pictures in the clouds, daydream. It’s wonderful. Relaxing. Peaceful. Not at all tiring.
In elementary school, Burying Hill Beach was where the cool kids went in the summer. It wasn’t my beach. I was not generally invited there. But when school started that September, Cathy took a liking to me, and invited me to meet her and some other friends there.
In fact, there were tons of people at the beach that day. It was likely to be the last sunny, warm day for swimming at the beach. Everybody in 7th grade was there. Everybody in our class and all the other classes. The beach was packed.
For some reason I don’t recall, Cathy wanted to swim in the causeway that runs between Burying Hill and Sherwood Island State Park. All the cool kids did it. At least when the life guard wasn’t looking, they did. In fact, it was probably what the lifeguards spent most of their time doing all summer long – chasing people off the jetty and away from the causeway. Of course it was late September; there was no lifeguard. We were free to swim wherever we pleased. As we stood there considering the other side, we heard half-hearted warnings from behind us, which, naturally, we ignored. We’d crossed to Sherwood Island earlier in the day. What was their problem?
“Race you across!” said Cathy. And in she went.
Ingrid and I looked at each other, shrugged, and dove in after Cathy, who quickly outpaced us. Soon, I was left far behind even mediocre swimmer Ingrid.
It had been really easy to swim the causeway just an hour or two ago. Even I managed it. But of course, the tide had ebbed, and was now going out. And while the water looked completely placid, the tidal current was heading straight out. Fast. And it took me with it, out towards Long Island, 30 wet miles away.
But don’t worry. Remember, I am a champion floater. Possibly the best back floater ever. Olympic-quality floating. (Hey, synchronized swimming is an event. Don’t judge.)
I wasn’t scared in the least. I turned over on my back, pointed my head towards shore (I had long since passed the end of the jetty) and started kicking my feet and flapping my arms. I was making good progress, getting out of the strong part of the current. I was heading to Long Island a little more slowly. And besides, it was a beautiful day, the water was warm, the sky was blue. It was delightful. And I knew I’d make it back to shore. I only hoped I’d make it before dinner. I was supposed to be home by then. If I didn’t make it, my mother’d kill me.
I don’t know how long I was floating, enjoying myself, when I was rudely interrupted. Some man just swam up to me and started shouting stuff to me. At me.
“Put your arms around my neck,” he ordered. “And don’t be afraid. I’ve got you now.”
“Afraid of what?” I asked. “What does this guy want?” I wondered. Fortunately, I kept that thought to myself.
But I did as I was told for the first time that day, and held onto his neck. I must admit, that it was easier to see the crowd that had formed on the shore while my head was above the water. What’s everybody looking at?
So the man towed me in, chatting all the while.
“You’re very calm. Some people panic,” he said.
Frankly, I was more panicked about having my arms around a strange man, to tell you the truth. That’s why people panic, I thought. It was quite humiliating, in fact.
As soon as we got in, somebody else immediately wrapped me up in a towel and started rubbing my arms and back as if I was suffering from hypothermia.
“I’m OK!” I kept saying over and over again. Why is everybody making such a fuss? I wondered. What’s the big deal? I would have made it.
I imagine I thanked him. I’m sure I did. Positive. I mean, I do have manners. I just can’t remember thanking him or anybody else. I thought they’d overreacted. (They hadn’t.)
It seemed that Cathy had made it to the other side. Ingrid, like me, had gotten back to dry land on some other unknown man’s back. I vowed to become a better swimmer, because it really is embarrassing to be hauled out of the water like a flounder.
I learned not long afterwards that Jenny L’s father had been the guy who fished me out.
Each of us went home, vowing never to tell our parents the story of that day. Nobody told. Strangely, nobody else let our parents know, either. Life was better when nobody was a tattle-tale.
But just like the promise I broke to my mother that day, I broke my pledge of silence.
I told Mom in 1982 when she was staying with me after my operation.
“What?!?!” she shouted. “Somebody saved your life and I didn’t even get to thank him?” She was mortified. Laughing, but mortified.
“You would have killed me yourself if you’d known at the time.”
“You are in such trouble for going swimming when I told you not to.”
“Mom, this happened in 1968.”
“… wait until I tell your Dad.”
* * *
In a couple of weeks I’ll be going to my 40th High School Reunion. I sure hope that Jenny’s there, and that her Dad is still alive. I hope that I can at last pass on my parents’ deepest thanks, and my own, for his unheralded rescue.