Written by J. A. Goodman
The noise of the door slamming ended my mother’s sentence before she did. My mind played back the words she had just shouted to me.
“Be home on time young lady and DO NOT (she always emphasized do not) go in the water today, they issued gale warnings and the lake is kicking….”
BAMMM. After spending my entire life, all 15 years of it, living on the shores of Lake Ontario, I decided I was the expert. Who are ‘they’ to tell me the lake was too rough I thought to myself as I ran down the street to meet my friend Rosie.
Rosie and I had met in High School when a teacher had paired us for a project. We became comrades from that day on. We shared strong feelings of closeness that went beyond the simple friendship of 15 year old girls. I was very protective of Rosie and she was very trusting of me, a position I found I enjoyed. She was waiting for me when I ran up the beach and into her front yard.
“Hi Buddy, you aren’t still planning on going in the water today are ya?” she asked me.
“I don’t know,” I replied, “let’s go see what it looks like–then decide.”
Rosie had called me buddy ever since we were ‘buddies’ in the swimming pool at Charlotte High School where I had tried to teach her how to swim. She was from the city and knew little about the water or swimming. She did fine when I was holding her, but the minute I let go she would begin to sink. She failed beginning swimming. Rosie looked up to me because I was an accomplished swimmer and had just past the advanced life saving course that Spring. No big deal for me since I have lived with the lake at my back door all my life.
I led the way to the beach. As we left the protection of the houses, the strong winds hit us with their full force, taking my breath away.
“Wow! Wind is really blowing hard today” I hollered. “It’s a real Nor’Easter.”
A quick glance told me we were the only ones on the beach. Even the seagulls had abandoned the area in favor of a sheltered retreat inland somewhere.
The waves were rolling toward the shore like an avalanche pounding down a mountainside, getting larger as they gathered up everything in their path only to smash onto the shore, leaving behind long fingers of foam that struggled frantically for a hold before surrendering and slowly slipping back into the water, disappearing as they merged into another wall of water that rose and again smashed onto the shore.
I looked at Rosie as she considered the waves. “What! Are you crazy? I’m not going in that!” she said.
“Oh come on, it’s not dangerous” I reasoned. “It’s really lots of fun jumping over the small waves and riding the larger ones into shore. Watch me.”
I ran into the water. I enjoyed the high waves, the rush of the water, the deafening noise as the waves crashed down around me. I was sure Rosie would enjoy it also, if I could only convince her to try.
The temptation of the water became too much for her and she hesitantly walked in to join me.
“Come on Rosie,” I hollered over the roar of the waves, “I’ll take care of you, don’t worry, it’ll be fun.”
Soon we were caught up in the force of the waves crashing toward shore and the undertow pulling us away. One minute we were standing safely in waist deep water when suddenly a rogue wave broke all around us. Rosie had been on my right hand side, but the wave had pulled her out so she was now behind me. I could just touch bottom as I turned to look for her. I saw her struggling about 6 feet away from me. I heard her yell for help, she said she couldn’t touch bottom.
Instinctively I kicked off the sandy bottom and was by her side in an instant. All my recent training flashed through my mind as I grabbed her chin and turned her on her back. I remembered the warning the instructor’s drilled into our heads, that a drowning person will panic and often drown the rescuer. I was relieved that Rosie was not panicking, she just rested her head on my hip while I held her face above the water using a firm grip around her chin.
With Rosie floating on her back, I had to do a side kick to get back to shore. As I began to swim toward shore, I realized the waves had continued to pull us out during the seconds it had taken us to get into position.
“Are you O.K.?” I asked Rosie.
“Yes” she said, “this is just like in the school pool.”
“Well, hang on tight, we’ll be into shore soon.” I replied. I hoped with more conviction than I felt. The seconds were going by slowly while my mind raced with thoughts of drowning. What a stupid person I was! How could I have gotten us into such a dangerous situation! The sickening realization that the waves were winning flashed across my mind, I was making precious little distance for all my hard work. I knew I couldn’t keep up this pace for as long as it would take to get us into shore. My mind was calculating all the possibilities as another large wave broke over us. I swallowed some water that time. I looked at Rosie, she was smiling back at me with no fear or panic on her face. Just trust–she trusted me and I can’t save her.
What a jerk I am. My blood was racing, adrenalin mixing with raw fear was making it difficult to swallow. I adjusted my body to hold Rosie’s head higher out of the water. I can’t let her drown I thought but I knew I couldn’t get us both to shore.
Something on my left caught my eye for a split second. I turned and saw the rocks that jut out into the lake to form a channel to the pond. We were about 25 feet away from them. I quickly figured the angle we were traveling, and how much I would have to change it for us to reach the rocks. We were going out and moving to the left. The rocks ended another 10 feet into the lake. I realized immediately it would be close, but it was our only hope. If we missed the rocks we would drown.
“Rosie” I said as calmly as I could, “Can you kick your feet?”
“Like this?” She replied
“That’s good, only harder, as fast as you can” I urged.
Rosie kicked and I felt us moving. I felt renewed, I kicked and stroked with my one free hand while I held tight to Rosie with the other. I checked the angle. We were making it! We were moving closer to the end of the rocks. My kick was getting weaker, the waves stronger. We were on the side of the rocks… then we were in front of them… I couldn’t reach them… we were going to miss them… my heart was beating faster that I thought possible. Oh God, I prayed, please give me strength! Another wave caught us, my left leg kicked out and struck something. The pain caused me to pull both legs up, then I quickly put them down. I felt something hard, it must be the rocks I thought. We may make it after all. I struggled to steady myself. The rocks were slippery and uneven but they were only 3 feet under the water. My heart was beating so hard that I felt like my chest would break. My legs felt like rubber, the waves were still breaking in my face causing me to swallow more water. I knew another strong wave could sweep us off the rocks as abruptly as it put us here.
“Rosie, can you stand up? We’re on the rocks, can you pull us out of the water?” I could see Rosie struggling for her footing on the slippery rocks.
Suddenly she stood up in the water as she found a solid place for her feet. She pulled me up, I crawled to higher ground with Rosie helping me. As we reached the rocks above the water, I collapsed in total exhaustion.
“Boy” she said, “you did that really good, I never even swallowed any water.”
“That’s good” I replied weakly.
We rested there until I got my second wind and then, as 15 year old girls are so prone to do, we started to talk about how miserable our boyfriends would have been if we had, in fact, drowned on that windy summer afternoon.