Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Time I Saved a Dude's Life

Back in the summer, Jess and I were relaxing at my old apartment complex's pool.  Enjoying a cocktail, as we do.  People watching, as we do.  Sunbathing, as she does and I never do.

We stopped our conversation to observe a black man in the pool, groaning and splashing around, a lot.  Instinctively, I thought he was mentally handicapped.  From the splashing that his legs were doing, one could infer that the man was swimming, but his lack of momentum and wide-open eyes would imply otherwise.  Additionally, he was grunting -- the kind of grunt from a person who is out of breath but afraid to take a breath, in this case because of the water that threatened to enter his lungs.  

"You're doing so well!" a woman yelled to him from across the pool.  Upon hearing her voice, he stopped his splashing.

"I am?" he exclaimed, standing upright in the shallow water that barely reached his armpits.

"Yes, baby, you got so far!"

"I did?!" he asked, wiping water from his eyes.  A few people clapped for him.

He waded to the side of the pool and easily hoisted himself up.  He shook off some of the water before walking by us.  His exiting of the pool was accomplished with such ease and swagger that I was shocked.  Here was a man who was not mentally handicapped, but simply did not know how to swim.

Of course, I felt bad about my initial impression of the man.  But the splashing, applause, and excitement distinctly reminded me of the Best Buddies pool parties, when I was a part of that organization.  My initial confusion was echoed by Jess, a social worker who works with the mentally handicapped, and we began talking about how rare it is to see an adult who does not know how to swim.  We went on to talk about our own experiences swimming as children, she at her aunt's pool and myself in the ocean.

Our conversation progressed to other things, and it wasn't until twenty minutes later that I noticed the man in the pool again, attempting some other sort of swimming practice a few yards from where he had been before.

He was holding his nose, bobbing up and down.  When he went down, he went completely under, and when he went up, he gasped for air.

He looked as ill-equipped for the pool as he had before, but he did not look like he was having fun this time.

"Is he...?" I began to ask.

I then scanned the pool to see if anyone else was watching him -- any of the other pool-goers, any of the lifeguards.  Finally, I saw another man in the pool take notice, which was enough confirmation for me to run over, jump in the pool, and save the man's life.

The other guy in the pool also sprung to action and reached the drowning man the same time that I did.  Desperate to breathe, he grabbed onto us as if we were ladders attached to the bottom of the pool and he was frantically climbing to his second chance at life.  Together we managed to calm him down and keep him afloat.

"Bring him over here!" a young female lifeguard snapped, now on the scene.  She was waiting by the nearest ladder, completely dry.  Even her toes were bone dry.

"Sir!  Get it all out!" she yelled as our little human flotilla neared the ladder.  "Whatever is that's in your mouth, spit it all out!"

It was apparent that the guy was going to be okay.  He was scared, but hadn't swallowed too much water.  So I got out of the pool and let her handle the rest, though her only concern at this point was to yell at the other teenage lifeguard and his friends, who had been hanging around him all day, apparently distracting him so much that she couldn't do her job either.  When a drowning man is saved by two random dudes instead of the lifeguards on duty, I suppose that the blame needs to be placed somewhere.

Anyway, I did my civic duty and everyone lived happily ever after.

But here's the thing.

I lied.

You see, from the moment I saw him the second time, bobbing up and down, I was instantly certain that he was drowning and needed help.

Yet, I waited.

For something like 5-10 seconds, I waited.  And I can't figure out why.

I wasn't waiting to figure out if he really was drowning.  All the clues were laid out for me twenty minutes before as we watched him struggle to swim in shallow water.  And seeing him bobbing up and down the second time, he was clearly in deeper water, unable to float, stand, or breathe.

I also wasn't pausing so that someone else would save him.  I am not the best swimmer in the world, but this wasn't the ocean.  It would be a relatively easy rescue, with more help coming once I jumped in.

I suppose that what I was waiting for was someone else to notice him.  And as much as I have thought about it and analyzed it, I can honestly say that I have no idea why I needed that.

I must say that it disappoints me.  Yes, I jumped in eventually.  But the eventually part of it is scary, especially considering the fact that I instantly knew what needed to be done.  When it comes to fight or flight decisions, 5-10 seconds is an eternity -- certainly enough time for someone to die.

By waiting instead of instinctively jumping right in, I allowed my brain to overanalyze things.  Surely a proper mental analysis would have been no mental analysis at all, rather than what my brain made my body do, which was perk up in my chair a little bit and scan the pool for other observers while I asked questions to nobody in particular like "Is he...?"

And further, as I ran and jumped in, asking myself questions like, "Is this going to be cold?" and "Is this going to be deep?" and "Is this going to be embarrassing?"

And even further, after grabbing him and struggling to pull him to the edge of the pool, thinking things like "Dammit, I forgot to take my sunglasses off" as they crookedly clung to the top of my head and ear.  All while wondering if my cell phone was in my pocket* while telling him things like "You're safe now man, just try to calm down."

*It wasn't.  But it would be the third time that I fell into a body of water with an iPhone on my person.

*   *   *

I was still desperately out of breath by the time I got back to my chair next to Jess, where we resumed our people-watching.

The female lifeguard walked by, still yelling loudly at the other lifeguard, making sure everyone at the pool knew whose fault it was.

She didn't say "thank you."  You know, for doing her job for her.

The woman who had been congratulating the man for his "swimming achievements" twenty minutes before had sauntered over to the scene, laughing at what had happened.  As if it was no big deal.  As if she had no responsibility for what happened, leaving someone who doesn't know how to swim unattended in a pool.

The man had a bit less swagger as they walked by us, but was laughing it off.  He was okay, but stayed out of the pool for the rest of the day. 

Neither said "thank you."

Maybe they were waiting.

-Youngman Brown


  1. Sweetie, you're okay. You did fine. The first question to ask yourself before you attempt to rescue someone is Will I get back safely? If you had gone in alone, he might have pulled you down. I'm appalled by the behavior of the lifeguards and the woman who was with the man. Favorite Young Man was a lifeguard when he was a teen. He took it very seriously and once saved a little boy's life; however, the parents thanked him profusely and his boss told him what a good job he had done. So allow me to take the place of the people who should have thanked you to say – thank you very much. Quite a few adults don't swim. Willy Dunne Wooters and I are doggy paddlers. Not learning to swim is more common among black people than among white people, or so I have read in more than one book.

    Janie, who is proud of you

  2. You're a hero man. Never mind the hesitation - by-stander apathy is common - but you threw yourself into the rescue. I suspect if you and Jess had been the only observers, you'd have gone in straight away?

    Interesting and thought-provoking post, as per usual.

  3. When I was a flight attendant, I ran after someone off the airplane to give her her purse that she had forgotten. Not fast enough. Could not find her. Ran down to baggage claim. Out toward parking. There she was with her group. Got the purse to her. She looked me up and down and said, "Why do YOU have my purse?!?" (remember I am in uniform) as if I had stolen it, not as if I had spent 20 minutes hoofing it around LAX trying to get it back to her. Forget any kind of thank you or positive acknowledgement from her. Grrrrrrrrrrrr.

    Maybe I should have left the purse. And maybe you should have let the lifeguard get fired. No, I don't really mean that. But I feel your pain.


  4. And here is proof positive that people-watching can save lives. The fact that you were so observant, enough to recognize the signs of distress when that guy was in trouble, is very impressive. You have nothing to worry about. Far too many people would have ignored the situation, thinking "Oh, he's probably fine," and the guy probably wouldn't have made it out alive. I think that moment of hesitation is human instinct. The important thing is that you did jump in, and the guy lived to swagger another day.

  5. Embarrassment is a powerful thing. What if he thought you were racist for attempting to save him. (What? The black guy can't swim, because he's black?) What if it was an elaborate prank? What if he was just fooling around? What if…

  6. Wow, two life guards and yet two random guys had to save him? Not that you are random, but you know what I mean :)

    And the waiting a few seconds thing? Completely, utterly normal. You were taking a moment to assess what was happening. I remember taking a social psychology class and this was one of the things they covered. The thing is, most people don't ever get beyond the assessing, into action. So you did good! You did good, Youngman Brown :)


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