Sometimes, lifeguards just don’t get no respect
By David Claude Bailey
His skin white as a catfish belly, legs and arms almost stick-like, the toe-headed boy inched out to the end of the diving board, obedient to his mother’s hectoring. “You can do it,” she said from the shallow end, her arms outspread as if she could catch him. He looked around as if someone might deliver him from his predicament.
Me? I said, “You can do it.”
He didn’t. Like the sodden branch he resembled, the 8-year-old, who had forgotten everything he learned about swimming last summer, sank straight to the bottom.
It was my first day of work as a lifeguard at Reidsville’s Elks Club pool. I was freshly certified as a Red Cross water safety instructor, a notch above what was required to sit atop the lifeguard stand and acquire the tan and regal demeanor sure to attract the attention of lasses wearing skimpy bathing suits.
Reach, throw, row, then go flashed through my mind. No reaching for him from the side. No boat. Life preserver useless, I dove to the bottom, put him in a cross-chest carry and headed for the shallow end — only to encounter his mother’s purple face and flailing limbs. Understandably, she too had decided to rescue her boy, but without the advantage of knowing how to swim. No problem, I thought, remembering the drill for preventing a rescuer from being pulled under by someone else needing rescue. You come up under the second person, holding your free arm forward like a charging quarterback, and push them up and backwards until they find his or her footing.
By the time I got the boy to the side of the pool, he had stopped coughing, but his mom could barely get her breath between hysterical sobs.
Not a bad day’s work, my father was saying that evening when the phone rang. Dad answered it. He listened for a minute or two, and then said, “You need to talk to him about it,” handing the phone to me with his signature quizzical look. It was the president of the Elks Club, who said he needed me to call the woman who had almost drowned . . . and apologize to her.
“For what?” I asked. “She says her chest is pretty bruised up and her husband says you treated her in an unprofessional manner.”
Unprofessional, I thought. Was I supposed to have asked her permission before saving her life?
Without a moment’s hesitation — and to my utter surprise — I told him that he needed to find himself a new lifeguard.
After hanging up the phone, I sheepishly looked at my mom and dad. My father had an enormous grin on his face and said, “Good for you.”
At least I had Dad on my side.
But what is it about drowning victims?
Yes, there were others. The second, exhausted from an all-night drive from New Jersey to Holden Beach, had been swept out by a rip tide. It was quite a chore to get him ashore, where an ambulance and EMT’s were waiting. He was probably dazed and distracted, but I didn’t get a word of thanks from him, though a medic patted me on the back and said, “Rough surf, today. Good job.”
But his encouragement didn’t quell the sting from two boaters my buddy and I saved from certain drowning in the Edisto River. Paddling this South Carolina cypress-lined waterway, Bob and I heard a motorboat approaching at top speed. The boat’s operator weighed at least 250 pounds. In front of him was a huge cooler, and a hefty passenger sat in the middle seat instead of in the front. The outboard engine added another hundred or more pounds — all of which resulted in the jonboat planing along at a 40-degree angle that surely defied the laws of physics. Seeing our canoe, the operator immediately cut his engine. And, immediately, a flood of water rushed in over the transom. Then, like some slow-motion cartoon, the boat knifed into the water almost vertically, the weight of water, men, cooler and engine pulling the boat to the bottom.
I remember most distinctly two things: the fear that the two fishermen displayed as they tried to dog paddle — and the cascade of Budweiser cans floating all around them. “Get him to shore,” the boat operator said. “He just had bypass surgery.” We paddled over to his friend, and Bob helped him flounder onto dry land like some walrus. I took the canoe and pursued the captain, who was being swept downriver by the current. Floating facedown on the boat cushion, he was taking in a lot of water. He was determined to board our canoe from the water, a real nonstarter given his weight. I finally managed to convince him to stand up.
Bob and I retrieved their boat and their empty cooler. Then we had a grand time chasing the flotilla of red-and-white cans, whose tops barely bobbed above the water line, unlike soda cans that sink. Once we’d returned their beer and anything else that floated, the two were still arguing and trying to blame the accident on each other and us. We didn’t linger. The last thing we heard was one of them saying, “You know those assholes stole most of our beer, don’t you?”
As my dad used to say, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
O.Henry’s contributing editor David Claude Bailey majored in Greek at UNCG, but learned something worthwhile in his phys ed classes there.