The best story of the summer – by far – came out of Panama City over the Fourth of July weekend when over 80 total strangers on a Panama City beach responded to screams. Two boys, ages 14 and 11, were caught in a rip tide and all of these “angels” quickly formed a human chain -- over 80 people with their arms locked -- to stretch out in the water, reach those kids and tug them out of the Gulf. As I read it, I got emotional for a moment because I found out about rip tides the hard way once long ago.
I pulled a guy out of one about 30 years ago and I know I saved his life, only by the grace of God and an extraordinary string of circumstances. I was the perfect guy at the perfect time. I don’t tell this story to be a braggart but instead to tell everybody the trick if you ever get involved with a lethal under current. In my private hiding place, where I keep my secret things, I actually have a small clipping from the Miami Herald and the only reason I keep it is in hopes of sharing at the Pearly Gates when the timing is right.
I was a good swimmer from the very beginning, swimming in the Chattanooga Swim League for Dick Davenport and Don Waters from my 10-and-under debut. Ray Bussard once offered me a chance to be on his team at UT but by then I was into girls, horsepower, tobacco and a lot else that was a whole lot more fun.
I earned my Water Safety Instructor (WSI) badge from the Red Cross early, and then took it up a few more notches when I became an “ultra-grand poohbah” of WSIs, or whatever they called it where you qualify other WSI’s. One summer the fabled wrestling coach, Jim Morgan, and I went to Black Mountain, N.C., to teach vets who had lost their limbs in Viet Nam how to swim. What a hoot. And I’ll never forget the joy I had teaching a bunch of the Orange Grove faculty about life-saving when the “new” Orange Grove pool first opened on Derby Street.
I worked with the late Lloyd Ray Smith for years and I was actually a “professor” of sorts at the old Dalton Junior College, teaching three classes of swimming every week for four or so semesters. So, yeah, back when I had both elbows I was well above average. Then again, ever since my right arm was shorted by five inches because infections prevented a prosthetic, I have just one elbow and all I can do is swim in a circle.
About 20 or 25 years ago I was in Miami for goodness knows what when I found an afternoon where I could walk on the beach. Back then some of those skinny fashion women were prone to go topless and it makes for one heckuva afternoon stroll. So I had my cigar and wore a hay-seed grin as I went down the beach.
Suddenly I saw a swimmer in trouble about 200 yards off-shore. I could see he was panicking (flailing his arms instead of swimming) and he was being carried away from the beach. I instantly recognized the poor guy was in a rip current. I had never seen it happen before but I had taught about it!
I look back on it sometimes. In an emergency, you don’t think – you just go. I yelled to some people to “Get help!” and raced into the waves, swimming hard. I was amazed how it seemed I was moving out really fast. Again, I used to swim sprints but this was uncommonly quick and I realized the rip was actually carrying me out. You hear about the undertow but this was on top as well. By the time I snatched the drowning man, his body was going limp so I grabbed a handful of his hair. Hair is a good ‘handle’ instead of slippery skin, plus it gets his mouth and noise above water fastest until you can get an arm around the swimmer. I slapped his face to help ‘alert his brain’ and yelled, “Breathe! Breathe!”
Oddly, I was completely calm because we were still moving away from the beach. I got him in what used to be called “a cross-chest carry,” and used a side stroke to keep his face out of the water. He was in his early 20s and had a build similar to mine. Obviously neither of us had ever been in such a current.
Usually a panicked swimmer will grab you, desperate to survive, and you can “lead” them to safety easier than you can carry them. This guy didn’t fight -- bad sign – but he was coughing and gagging and gasping for air so that was in my favor.
From all the years I had taught the WSI handbook, I immediately remembered that you never, ever, dare try to swim back the way you came. Here’s what happens: most people can’t swim out of a strong rip tide and, if you challenge it, the water will beat you down. Because you can make literally no progress against the current, you tire quickly and lose control. When you lose control, you will panic and panic is tragedy’s best friend.
Instead, the simple trick is you swim back ashore at about a 45-degree angle. The instant you begin, immediately find an identifiable point on the beach at 45 degrees– a beach umbrella, the top of a beach house, something that will be your target. Using such a focal point, you have a better chance of not veering from your course, and begin slow, deliberate and forceful strokes towards your landmark. Forget how far it may seem. Keep your eye glued to that focal point.
If you are ever caught in a rip while swimming, use the same trick – swim out at an angle. And there is this – you can tell as you begin to escape the current. The undertow seems to lessen but keep your strokes steady and stay on course. There could be another rip close by. There is a huge urge to go faster but you need to conserve strength, keep steady, and stay in control. (Tip: There is a thick muscle that connects the shoulder and the chest. That’s your handle for the cross-chest carry, and if your victim starts fighting you, squeeze the life out of that muscle and they’ll behave.)
I have no idea what I said to the guy. I remember telling him as he coughed up water to “Breathe … please breathe” and “Don’t fight me … we’ll be okay” and “we are doing fine … just a few more minutes … keep holding on my arm … kick if you can.”
Another funny thing – I can’t remember getting tired or out of breath. Adrenaline, I guess …. Just steady strokes with my eye never leaving that beach house with the green roof. When I finally got to the beach about 8 or 10 people walked out to shoulder-deep water to help and not until I felt the surf did I welcome those reaching hands.
About 50 or 60 people had gathered and a bunch had entered the water, More hands came from everywhere, helping both of us ashore. This was before cell phones but the beach patrol was there, police cars and the ambulance was coming through the sand. The poor guy was traumatized, crying hard, with a couple of friends wrapping him in towels. He was trying to wave off the ambulance, which is a major mistake, because a person in trauma can easily go into shock. Life rule: Always go to the hospital if “the free ride” shows up … ambulances carry oxygen and EMTs.
Two officers helped me out of the water and all of a sudden the gravity of the situation hit me. I was throwing up. I think it was from the salt water that I didn’t realize I was swallowing in my own efforts to breathe. Some people slapped me on the back, giving me hugs, and all that did was make me throw up more. People were handing me bottled water, towels, Gatorade and the shore patrol took me to their truck where I sat in the air-conditioning trying to catch my breath. I remember I was shaking like crazy. I wasn’t cold but it was about ten minutes before I quit shaking.
I declined to give my name, begging not to be involved, and an older shore patrol guy quit asking, thanking me like he understood. The victim’s family came up, and I just said how glad I was that I came along, About 30 minutes later I resumed my stroll minus my cap, and a really good pair of sunglasses that I lost in the Atlantic. I reached in the pocket of my Baggies and two cigars and my lighter were gone.
I had my keys and two real wet $10 bills in my snap pocket so I got a cold Diet Coke and sat on the beach for a while. There was a small story in the paper the next day but it didn’t give the guy’s name so I’ll never know who he was. But I’ll never forget that when I heard him crying, I knew he had to be breathing.
In all the years I have never once thought I did anything special, other than help a fellow out of a pinch. If I had been the victim, I have always believed – seriously – that God would have had somebody else walking the beach that day. But who could have ever known a guy from Tennessee, one who knows nothing about the ocean and especially rip tides, would have taught water-safety classes that included what to do if you are ever caught in a rip current? Swim out at an angle and it’s a snap.
One more thing. The newspaper clipping said I was wearing an orange bathing suit. It was red.