Red Flag Warning

It’s almost suspicious how often I happen to be nearby when bodies are pulled out of the water. Am I a jinx or a murderer? No, I just like being by water. And it’s pretty well documented that water is a serial killer.

I’ve already written the essay “Lake Superior Wants to Kill You,” outlining just about everything I want to share on the subject of drowning. There’s one more warning worth putting forward, however, regarding the various ways you can lose your life in the water. So please keep this in mind:

I won’t try to stop you from putting yourself in danger, and it’s unlikely anyone else will, other than maybe your mommy.

Of course, you’ll probably get some general, impersonal warnings. This essay and my other essay, for starters. There are warnings in the media constantly. And then on Minnesota Point in Duluth we have those red flags and warning signs on the beach. But that’s all you get. And it’s not enough, obviously.

Telling someone about the dangers of rip currents is like warning about the potential for pregnancy. The risk vs. reward balance is quickly weighed and then it’s time to get wet.

Less than three weeks ago I was walking near the Park Point Beach House and watching the roaring waves. As I returned from my walk I noticed a guy, maybe 25 years old, having a good time jumping into the waves. Two things quickly entered my mind. 1) I used to love to do that. 2) I wonder if he knows how likely he is to die today.

Standing on the shore nearby were two young women who were obviously there with him. I considered whether I should say something about rip currents and the dangers of swimming in them, but my vanity got the better of me. I don’t want to be the middle-aged guy who has to take a constipated dump on the party.

But the sandy beach slows down the pace of a stroll, and I had time to think of the best way to say something while resisting the urge to openly be the total fuddy duddy I actually am.

“I just want to make sure you know there is a life ring 20 feet behind you in case things go bad with your friend,” is what I thought might be the perfect thing to say.

“Hello,” is what I actually said, continuing on my way without being any help at all.

When I walked around the beach house, the wind was cut dramatically and all the sounds of waves were muffled. It was suddenly calm and quiet, comparatively. I met friends and played volleyball. While the waves continued to rage on the shoreline about 300 hundred feet away, I enjoyed a nice summer evening with friends on the other side of a sand dune and wall of trees.

A bit more than an hour after I had walked off the beach is when the sirens approached and the fleet of rescue squad vehicles arrived. Someone was in trouble. It could have been anyone, but in my mind it was obviously the guy I saw earlier.

Of course, once the rescue crew is on the scene there’s not much other people on the beach can do except stay out of the way. So we kept playing volleyball. But between bumps, sets and spikes I had to keep thinking about how I might have opened my adult mouth earlier, spoke some mature words, and maybe made a difference in that guy’s life.

It wasn’t long before members of the rescue squad emerged on a path through the trees carrying a body in a stretcher blanket.

At first, denial set in. It had to be a different person. More than an hour had passed since I saw that guy in the water. But who knows how long he might have been out there struggling? Maybe he came back to the shore and then went swimming again. Maybe the women went after him and pulled him to shore too late, struggling themselves to make it to safety.

Things turned solemn on the volleyball court. It seemed disrespectful to keep playing. We had to walk out onto the beach and see what might be there to see, even though the body and rescue people were gone.

In the same spot where I said hello to the women was the very life ring I was going to mention. It was sitting in the sand instead of hanging on the hook. Obviously it had been used.

Also nearby were two sets of abandoned shoes.

“Well, anyone who is walking the beach right now would be likely to leave their shoes here,” I said to my friends, hoping to erase from our minds the notion that while the guy got hauled away no one noticed the shoes of the two gals who were with him, and their bodies are still out there somewhere.

Thoughts can get pretty irrational in these moments. The first instinct is to discredit any connection I might have with the drowning victim. Then, as the minutes tick by, suddenly all the information available has to be neatly tied together in one paranoid narrative — the most horrific scenario I can come up with to make myself feel bad.

So clearly what happened is the guy struggled against the current and the gals went out to help him. They all perished and he washed ashore. Someone found the corpse and called 911. The dead guy was hauled away and no one even knew the two gals were there.

But I knew. I saw them earlier. I saw their shoes afterward. I did nothing to prevent the deaths when I had a chance, and then, while driving home, I could only run it all through my mind and feel sick about my uselessness. I was too cool to offer a warning, and then too shy, embarrassed or uncertain to offer any information in the aftermath.

And then the news release hit my email inbox:

Shortly after 7:00 p.m. tonight, the Duluth Fire Department responded to the report of a water emergency on Park Point Beach near the Beach House. The initial dispatch reported a person was pulled underwater by a rip current near the Beach House. When crews arrived, a 20-year-old woman from St. Paul was found on the shoreline. Bystanders had grabbed a life ring, and was (sic) able to assist the woman back to the beach.

Wait, a woman? And she lived? It was a breathing person who was hauled away solemnly with no sirens?

Bystanders reported to Duluth Police that the woman had entered the water when her sister had gone in and was struggling. The woman was able to help her sister back to shore and was reported to have been pulled back out by a rip current.

Clearly my imagination got the better of me. The people I observed had probably left the beach before the sisters showed up and had their struggle. No one died and I never had an opportunity to warn the sisters of anything.

But there is still the eerie feeling of premonition. The life ring I thought about pointing out had come into use not long after I left. And it wasn’t just my imagination alone that led to the assumption that the person being hauled away was dead. Everyone around me thought the same thing.

So Lake Superior got a little creepier that day, like it does every day. This experience gave me another lesson in how it might be helpful to speak up and make sure others know the potential danger they might get into. In reality, though, I’ll probably continue to just nod and say hello. That’s what I did one week later when the red flags came out again and I saw two kids swimming with boogie boards.

“They have boogie boards,” I said to my wife as we walked away. “They’ll probably be fine.”

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