“WE MUST MAKE IT TO THE SANDBAR!”

By / Letters to the Editor / Wednesday, 15 August 2018 14:41

A TRUE STORY
BY  BOB LYONS

On a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon in July, 1954, at Carolina Beach, N.C., my family and I were enjoying the sun, sand and water.  I was an airborne soldier then, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.; and home in Wilmington, N.C. for the week-end. 
We swam and played in the surf until we became tired; then we returned to the beach to dry off and rest on our blankets.
As I lay on the blanket, my thoughts went back to 1944 when I was 10 years old. Then my house was on Carolina Beach Avenue South, just behind where we were lying and enjoying the fresh breeze from the Atlantic Ocean. So I was very familiar with the beach and the changing tides there. 
We boys were in and out of the water 3 to 4 times a day then.  One day that summer, my best friend, Alf Gunnerson, and I had gone out early to catch the big waves breaking out past the sandbar, and body-surf them through the shallows, between the beach and the sandbar, to the beach. The water level there was only knee to thigh deep then, so we knew we had almost two hours to enjoy the great waves before the rising tide got too deep for us to get back to the beach.
Reluctantly, we finally started back to the beach, when we saw that the tide was coming in fast; so Alf began swimming right away, as he could swim – but I couldn’t.  The water level in the shallows had risen to chest high and was getting deeper.  I had trouble keeping my head above the rising water. 
I called to Alf, “Alf, Alf, help me. I can’t swim!” 
He immediately turned, and swam back to me.
“Get on my back, Bobby.  Put your arms around my neck!”
I did and he carried me to shore piggy-back style. We fell on the sand and caught our breath.                                                                                       
When I got home, I told mother what had happened and expected to get a whipping for not being more careful in the ocean. But instead she gave me a hug and told me about a special “Learn to Swim Week” to be held at the YMCA in Wilmington next week that she had heard about.  Wilmington, N.C. is on the Cape Fear River, about 25 miles inland from Carolina Beach.
Mother took me to the “Y” that week and I learned to swim under Mr. Adam Smith, who was a great instructor, and very patient with us 8 to 12 year olds kids.  We all learned to swim.              (I learned later that Mr. Smith was a substitute swimmer in one event for Johnny Weissmuller in the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany when Mr. Weissmuller was unable to compete.
Johnny Weissmuller played the role of “Tarzan’in the movies in the 1930s and 1940s.)  After I learned to swim, Alf and I had a lot more fun swimming in the ocean that summer.
We had all just begun relaxing and making family talk, while resting from our swim, when someone  yelled, “ …there’s a woman out there and she’s in trouble – she’s splashing the water  like she’s trying to stay afloat!   I had an immediate awaking from my 10 year old reverie, and stood up.  I could see someone out near the sandbar; so I ran to the water as fast as I could.  I saw her head go under the water and come back up as I made a shallow dive - so as not to lose sight of her. 
Somehow, in the seconds it took me to get to her I remembered my Boy Scout Life Saving merit badge training, a required merit badge to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout. I learned various ways to approach and control a drowning person; and how an un-suspecting rescuer can be grabbed by the person and taken under the water. The “underwater approach” is best for that situation.  My instructor was a senior life guard at the YMCA; the same “Y” where I learned to swim in when I was 10 years old.  I was 14 years old when I earned the Life Saving merit badge.                                                                                                                                         
Since she was still splashing the water, I decided that the “underwater approach” would be safer, so I went under and came up in front of her, and told her to calm down and do as I say.  I put my left hand on her right shoulder and my right hand on her left side; then with a push on her right shoulder and a pull on her right side, she easily spun around till her back was in front of me, and I was in control.  I put my left arm around her front using the “cross-chest carry,” and told her that we were going to swim together through the waves to the sandbar; and she should kick and pull with her right arm as best she can, to help propel us both forward.
I had decided for us to swim to the sandbar instead of directly to the beach because we were near the sandbar; and it was 25 to 30 yards to the beach, so I didn’t think we could make it that far. I knew I was her only hope - and that I could not leave her.
We tried to swim through the waves to the sandbar, but the waves were breaking right on the edge; and after two hard tries, I knew we could not make it that way. We had lost a lot of our strength in the attempt to get to the sandbar together.
I had checked the depth near the sandbar, and knew it was over our heads. I had another idea, so I said:
“We can’t make it this way.  I am turning you to face the sandbar. I am going to the bottom.Then I will put my hands on your waist, and with my feet on the bottom, I will push you as hard as I can toward the sandbar – when you feel my push,  you swim for all you are worth to the sandbar!   I will be right behind you“
“WE MUST MAKE IT TO THE SANDBAR!”
       “Are you ready?”
        “ Ok, she said.”    
        “ Let’s do it!”
I went to the bottom, placed my feet, grabbed her waist with both hands and pushed her as hard as I could; then felt her legs slide through my hands, and dimly saw her feet take off in front of me.  I swam underwater, following her feet until I broke the surface. I came up right beside her, where we both stood on the firm sand of the sandbar, holding hands, riding up and down with the waves; and getting our breath back.
After resting awhile, I asked her if she was ready to catch a wave to the beach.
            “Yes.”
            I said “ready now?”
            She nodded.
            I said “next wave!”
We dove in front of the next wave and rode it nearly to the beach.
We just sat beside the water’s edge, too tired to walk up the beach to where the family was; but  they came running down to us, giving us hugs - and hugs – and tears - happy that we were safe.
I would like to note - that the woman I helped from the ocean to the beach that day, was the same woman who took me to the YMCA in 1944 to learn to swim, when I was 10 years old.
She was Mildred Ellen Howell Smith – my mother.

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