I’m originally from Orange County, California, where I had the pleasure and honor of serving as a Newport Beach ocean lifeguard for five seasons. Whenever I could, I got shifts working the Point. If you wanted to save lives, that’s where you worked. The Point was known for its massive, spontaneous rip currents.
So, late in a shift, I’m working Tower 15. Two blocks to my right is another guard named Mike, working Tower 17. I’d known Mike for a number of years.
He calls me over the phone and says, “Hey, I got a couple kids. I gotta go give ’em a warning. Keep an eye on us.”
I say, “Sure,” and hang up.
Anytime you get out of your tower, you’re supposed to let somebody else know, in case a situation develops. And sure enough, as soon as he hangs up the phone and grabs his buoy, a rip is snapped up under these two kids, and they’re getting sucked out. Mike sees it before it’s happening, and he’s running full tilt toward the ocean. I scan the water. All I see is two small noses bobbing in the choppy water.
[pullquote] I scan the water. All I see is two small noses bobbing in the choppy water. [/pullquote]
I drop my binos and I call in and say, “Double rescue 17—he’s out. I’m going.” Mike is already punching through the surf line. By now, the mother of the two kids realizes what’s happening. She’s on her feet and screaming. I start sprinting toward her, but before I’m even halfway there, Mike reaches the kids—a brother and sister around eight or nine years old. Mike told me later that he got to the boy first, and when he turned to the girl, he had to reach down into the water and catch her by the hair to pull her back up.
Mike swims sideways out of the rip current into the clear water and starts bringing them in. When I reach their mother, Mike’s in waist-deep water. These kids are so exhausted, they can’t walk, and so Mike’s carrying them. He’s got one under each arm.
I turn to their mom and say, “Hey, it’s gonna be OK. They’re safe.” I see the terror start to drain out of her.
Then she glances back and gets her first good look at Mike. And a crazy thing happens. I see a new kind of panic wash over her as though there’s some new, equally dangerous threat on her kids’ lives. She rushes up to Mike and snatches her kids and turns up the beach. Not even a thank-you.
Now, Mike had a rough upbringing. You can tell just by looking at him. He has a number of really intimidating tattoos, and his shaved head shows the scar he got from a broken beer bottle. Maybe he wasn’t the friendliest guard on the beach. I admit, I didn’t really get along with Mike.
But everything he lacked in PR skills, he more than made up for in lifesaving ability. If any other guard had been working 17 that night, including me, there’d be a very real chance that that mother wasn’t going home with both her kids.
I have a young son and daughter, and I can’t even imagine the depth of her terror, and so I sympathize with her. Even in her assessment of Mike, ’cause he was a really intimidating guy. Maybe she didn’t know anybody who looked quite like Mike. He wasn’t her idea of a knight in shining armor.
That doesn’t change the fact that he had just rescued her kids. It was hard to understand what had happened in her heart.
Mike just glanced at me, shrugged, and jogged back to his tower.
That was over ten years ago. If you asked Mike about it today, I doubt he’d even remember. But I won’t forget. As I jogged back to my tower, I promised myself I’d never let my own fear or prejudice prevent me from recognizing a hero when I see one.
Racism is very real; this journalist who witnessed Nazi horrors firsthand warns us that our fight against prejudice needs to be strong, always.
*Told live at a Moth show at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, MN