I remember every little detail of that day, except one thing.
As I watched the little girl and 11-year-old boy play that morning, I could tell that neither of them knew how to swim and suspected that if it wasn’t their first time swimming, it was probably their second. There weren’t many other people in the lake at the time, so I got down from my chair and tried to show them the basics — focusing on how to float.
At 15, I felt like I could save the world.
By early afternoon, it was my turn to open the giant slide — an engineering marvel involving sheet metal and fiberglass that no legal department would let slide today. The equivalent of five stories high, if you knew how to go down it just right, head first on a small raft, you could pick up enough speed to glide out 40 feet across the water.
In other words, back in 1979, that slide was legendary.
I climbed the slide and made sure it was properly wet down. Five or six people slid down. I was standing there on the little covered platform trying to make sure a small blue life jacket was properly fastened on a four-year-old boy, when I vaguely heard someone calling my name. The little boy’s father tapped my shoulder and said, “I think he’s trying to get your attention.”
I looked down to see Ricky, my fellow lifeguard, waving his arms frantically. Suddenly, I could hear him like he was right beside me, and for some reason, I knew what was wrong.
I slid down the slide to get to Ricky and try to help, thinking the whole way down, “Nothing like this has ever happened here.”
Ricky quickly told me the little girl and boy had gone under. He went to rescue them and got the girl up to safety. When he went back, the boy was gone.
We began to dive for him.
And we dove.
And then other strong swimmers joined us.
And they dove with us.
To me, the water got darker and darker each time I went down. I remember the lake’s muddy bottom. The whole thing was worse than a nightmare.
Two ladies sitting were standing near the shore, losing their minds. Somewhere along the way, someone got them chairs. One of them must have been his grandmother. They sat there the whole time, weeping and wailing with a grief that I can still hear, even though I don’t want to.
Ultimately, at least ten people helped us search.
Two hours into it, I was catching my breath with my right elbow on a board beneath the pier. I said to a lady I didn’t know but felt close to in that moment, “At this point, if I find him, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
She said, “You’re going to bring him to the top and do your best to bring him back to life. That’s what you’re going to do.”
And so I dove some more.
Nearly three hours after I slid down the slide, two fishermen brought their boat over and dove in near the diving board pier.
That’s where they found him.
In the deepest part of the lake.
Together, the fishermen brought him to the surface. Someone had called the ambulance. They took his body away, walking right in front of his grandmother.
After the ambulance left, we closed the lake. My uncle drove me home.
By the time we reached our house, I was much older than I had been that morning. Nobody was home, but my uncle had to go. I didn’t want to be inside or alone. I grabbed my basketball and headed to the driveway. Basketball was always there for me, but on that hot July afternoon, I just stood there looking from the goal to the street, basically hoping someone I knew would drive by.
And that’s what happened.
A classmate drove up on his brand new motorcycle. I told him about the afternoon. My friend said that he and his dad and another classmate were going bowling that night. Did I want to go? My friend went and got his dad. I wrote my parents a note and went bowling in his dad’s beige car. Somehow that recognition of friends making sure I was OK got me through.
And that’s all I could focus on at the time — getting through.
All these years later, I think of that 11-year-old boy, his grandmother and his sister. I wonder if he had been a good student. I wonder what his classmates said that fall when his desk was empty. I wonder if his grandmother blamed herself. I wonder how his little sister made it through and how deeply that day scarred her.
That whole day runs like a movie in my head. I remember it well.
I just don’t remember his name.