by Byron Thorson
Hammond, Louisiana, USA
I was 13 in the summer of 1969. The United States was in turmoil. Vietnam, forced bussing, riots, drugs, etc., made it a time when you didn’t trust anybody you didn’t already know.
My friend Dave, also 13, and our Scout Master Mr. Henry all lived in the same trailer park. I did trust them.
One day Mr. Henry invited Dave and me to go to the beach with him. When we got there it was nearly deserted and we saw why: the red flags were out. That meant there was a dangerous undercurrent in the ocean that day. An undercurrent is a force beneath the ocean surface that goes in reverse of incoming waves. It can suck anything underwater and out to sea in a matter of minutes.
I couldn’t swim at all. Dave could only swim a little. And Mr. Henry could only for short distances. He was over 60 and overweight.
Dave and I stayed close to beach. We could feel the undercurrent even in knee-deep water. Mr. Henry got on a little inflatable raft and paddled back and forth along the shore. Soon we lost track of him because we were having fun wrestling with the waves. When we finally spotted him he was about a quarter mile out, clinging to the raft, and yelling for help.
Dave ran to the lifeguard station. Nobody was there. He came back with a Styrofoam life preserver attached to a long nylon rope. He tied the rope around himself about 20 feet from the preserver and jumped into the water. I tied the loose end around myself.
The waves were getting bigger because the tide was coming in. Dave fought them until he was close enough to throw the preserver to Mr. Henry. Then I started pulling without much success. They were exhausted. I was in the water over my knees. Waves knocked me down and the undercurrent pulled at all three of us.
Suddenly, a bus load of hippies appeared and saw us. They jumped in immediately and helped me pull. From the surfing area two professional surfers showed up and began pulling Mr. Henry to shore. We all saw Dave go down and not come back up. But by this time, nearly 30 people were pulling on that rope to save the lives of a young kid and an old man they didn’t even know. When they were close enough to shore we pulled them out. It only took a few seconds to pump the water out of Dave.
Dave and I were awarded the Boy Scout Life Saving Merit Badge. I still wonder why. It was the 30 nameless people that saved our lives.
Maybe the ’60s weren’t really that bad after all.