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June, 2000

Chance Encounters in the Waves

by Larry

Once, when I was young, perhaps about 6 or 7, not yet able to swim but capable of floating with an inflated toy just fine, I went, with friends and their parents I believe, to the ocean, probably the Atlantic, near where we lived then, at 121 E. Marshall St., Falls Church, Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where Dad was then stationed.

Anyway, it was a warm, sunny afternoon. I was enjoying the surf and the ability to float up and down on the big waves. By kicking, I'd somehow gotten quite far out. When I looked around, the beach was suddenly way back there; and it seemed I'd been swept far away to one side from where my group had been. I began to kick my way slowly back. It seemed that I was completely alone out there.

As I got into the breakers again, a mighty wave smashed over me. When I emerged from all the swirling water to gasp for breath, my lifesaver horse-ring was gone. My feet could not find the sandy bottom, which was perhaps far below me. I must have been closer to the beach or I could not have been among the breakers at all. But I did not know that then; and, anyway, I was still in big trouble and seemingly beyond all assistance. Barely able to keep my head at times above the waves, much less move to safety, I began, with little hope of even being heard above the waters' roar, to yell for "Help!"

Miraculously, a few seconds later, a large arm and a kindly man's face came out of the foam. I was rescued and even, moments later, restored to my buoyant animal, after which I was pulled back in to where I could easily walk in the then shallow surf. I quickly ran off down the beach till I'd found where I belonged, and never let on that, for some anxious moments, I'd thought it my fate to be a shark snack.

About two decades later, I was swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Texas coast, at Padre Island, late in the afternoon on another warm, sunny day. For a bit of adventure, I had swum out beyond the breakers and now, weary, was just floating, way, way out there, luxuriating in my body's deep relaxation, with a combination of pleasant sensations, and in the excitement of being alone, out beyond all other humans, immersed in nature's purity.

But after a few minutes I heard a small, weak voice, so soft beneath the ocean's noise that I was not sure I had heard anything at all: "Mister, can you help me?" I looked around and could not see anyone. Then there was a dip in a wave, a rise in another; and I was looking down on a dark head of hair and a tiny pale face, about twenty feet away. I swam over, of course. She said she had gone out too far and was now too tired to return. She seemed okay, just exhausted. She looked to be about eight or nine years old. The shore was a thin line off in the distance. No lifeguards. No one coming for assistance. "Well, let's get you on in, then!" I said, wrapping an arm round her, so she was roughly on her back, and taking a side-swimming position myself, thinking that with my own strong scissor-kicks we would make rapid progress. I was mistaken. As small as she was, against those waves, it took a very long while to get us both safely back. I was exhausted myself when we had finally set foot on a murky, clay-like terra firma. She ran off with only a mumbled "Thank you," and never a backward glance, embarrassed perhaps, and looking to my eye like a skittish marsh fawn bounding back to its mother. "How about that?!" I thought.

(The black & white photo above is Larry during a 1945 or 46 flood in San Antonio.)

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