I saved a boy from drowning once.
Our eldest son had just turned six; his kindergarten teacher had a tradition of inviting all of her students' families to her farm at the end of the year, and so one fine June Saturday morning we headed out for the wilds of New Hampshire. I was working hard on a project at the time (was there a time in my life then when I wasn't?) and I was in a foul mood because this outing interfered with the rest and recuperation the weekend usually afforded me. And indeed the affair was just as I had feared -- a bunch of noisy kids running around wildly, and their equally noisy parents chasing after them and imploring them to behave. And it was hot, very hot, the first heat wave of the year and of course no one was prepared for it yet. All I wanted to do was lie down in the shade and take a nap, but there was too much activity going on, and of course I had my own kids to chase after. I remember wandering down to the river for a while but it was too hot, so I eventually ended up by the pond by the side of the house. There were several kids wading and splashing in the pond, and I was just sitting there sort of dozing off when suddenly a woman started screaming. I looked up and one of the kids was flailing away in the middle of the pond, and as I watched he disappeared beneath the surface. Everyone around the pond seemed frozen, and I remember feeling annoyed that no one was going to go get this kid out of the water. I remember feeling particularly annoyed at his mother, that all she could do was scream instead of going after her son. I and thought "Shit, looks like no one else is going to get him out of there" and the next thing I knew I was up and running through the water and grabbing him and the bottom dropped out from under me because it was really deep out there, and then I was kicking as hard as I could and holding him up with one arm while swimming towards shore with the other and then I got my feet back under me and then someone else had waded out and grabbed him from me and I stumbled back to shore.
And that was it. The kid was fine, I was all wet, everyone had a good time the rest of the day. Later one of the parents came over to me and said "There were about five or six of us there right after you", and this was probably a good thing because in retrospect what I did was very foolish. I'm not that great a swimmer, and I've had absolutely no lifesaving training, and the way the bottom dropped off and the trouble I had keeping the two of us afloat we might both have drowned out there. So it was a good thing there were others there to pull me out just in case. But at the time I didn't think about it at all, even though it I write it as if I did. I looked up, saw this kid was in trouble, did something about it, just like that. It was all over before I could really think about it.
This past September and into October I've been reading in the newspapers the memorials for the people killed in the various planes hijacked on September 11; it's been sort of an obsession with me, probably because I was supposed to be on a flight from Boston myself that morning and I can't help identifying with the victims. Our town lost three people, and the local paper carried the full text of the eulogies. I was reading what one mother said about her son who had been on the flight from Newark to San Francisco, the only flight that hadn't reached its intended target. He had just graduated from college the previous spring, had taken the summer off to travel, had been in New Jersey to visit his girlfriend, and was flying to San Francisco to start a new job there. She said, "He loved swimming", which was funny, she said, "because when he was young he almost drowned while playing in a pond". And I realized, this was the boy I saved.
And I thought, what was the point of saving him only to have him die in this terrible way? And I thought, thanks to me he had an extra sixteen years, but now his mother has to live the rest of her life without him. And I thought, something good has been taken from me, something precious in my life has been made into emptiness.
But I also like to think that this boy, this man, may have made a difference that terrible morning. His flight was the only one that didn't kill anyone else, that didn't fulfill the hijackers' terrible purpose, because his flight was the only one where the passengers fought back. And I like to think that the boy I saved saw what needed to be done and did it, without thinking about the consequences. And I like to think that perhaps he remembered the man who once pulled him from the water, and saved him so that he, too, could in turn save others.
I'll never know.
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