Expressway: Suddenly, in big trouble in the waves

Beachgoers enjoy the water at Robert Moses State Beachgoers enjoy the water at Robert Moses State Park in Babylon. (Sept. 1, 2013) Photo Credit: Steven Sunshine

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Sometimes, God gives us lessons wrapped in strange packages -- like the time my friend Patti and I almost drowned.

It was summer 1972, we were both 16 and on any Saturday you could find us at Robert Moses State Park. On one particular day, the sky was cloudless, a heavenly blue. The beach was pure gold. Storms the night before had whipped the waves into a crest of wild mustangs that thundered and crashed against the shore.

Patti, in her two-piece yellow bathing suit, and I, wearing a blue two-piece, headed for the ocean. We loved to bodysurf. On this day, the deep crevices of water and steep waves called to us like sea sirens. Swimming past the breakers, we looked back at the patchwork of towels on the beach. We caught waves and rode them in, laughing as our stomachs turned red from the gritty sand.

Around 4 p.m., we decided to ride one last wave. We headed out and as the shore became a thin line, the bottom of the sea disappeared from below our feet. We were experienced swimmers, having had years of lessons at local pools. We were having fun, feeling confident, and swam out farther than we'd ever gone before, as if in doing so, we were demonstrating our bravery. We finally nodded to each other and were ready to start back.

But then we heard whistles. I squinted and in the distance saw lifeguards on their platform, pointing and motioning for us. Who were they signaling? Not us. We were strong and could get back by ourselves.

Patti and I started in, but the water stopped us. The more we struggled, the farther out we were pulled. Realizing we were in a rip current, we swam parallel to shore, hoping to get out of it. But the fatigue of the day bore down. We struggled to move our arms and legs. The shrill sounds of the multiple whistles became frantic, until time passed and there were no whistles, just an eerie quiet.

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I tried keeping my head above water but struggled to breathe. Each movement had me swallowing more and more of the ocean. Still thinking I was OK, I used what little energy I could to try for shore, but then I felt someone come up from behind and wrap his arm around my torso.

"Don't struggle," he said. "Put your arms around your chest. We're bringing you in."

I couldn't see my rescuer, but I felt his muscular arms and legs pulling me back to shore, saving my life. Glancing over at Patti, my eyes clouded by seawater, I noticed someone helping her, too.

As we coughed up seawater, the lifeguards carried us onto the beach. It was then that I saw other lifeguards running into the surf. We weren't the only ones rescued that day.

When I got home, my father asked me about the beach. I didn't answer. If I'd told him what happened, he would have said I was some kind of special stupid to be so foolish.

I didn't go into the water much after that. If there was a lesson to be learned it's that when you're in too deep -- and not just while swimming -- ask for help.

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