I almost drowned three times before I turned 5. The first near-miss happened when I was only 3 and my father was carrying me out to the big surf, as I had begged him to do. An enormous wave tore me from his arms and into the crashing sea. It felt as if I had […]
By Edie Clark
Aug 24 2017
I almost drowned three times before I turned 5. The first near-miss happened when I was only 3 and my father was carrying me out to the big surf, as I had begged him to do. An enormous wave tore me from his arms and into the crashing sea. It felt as if I had been propelled into the spin cycle of my mother’s washing machine, hitting the ocean floor and then bouncing upward again, over and over. My father tried to grab me, but a lifeguard got there first and pulled me to safety. It took my mother weeks to get the sand out of my scalp and my bathing suit.
Then came the riptide incident at Shelter Island. I was paddling in the shallows when I realized that the shore was drawing farther and farther away from me. How could that happen? I wondered. As hard as I tried, I could not change direction. My mother was on the shore, waving her arms and calling me to come in. Another lifeguard was on the way, and pretty soon we had joined my parents on the beach, where they hovered over me anxiously.
Finally, there was the time when we were all swimming in my aunt’s pool, and I was in a plastic ring meant to keep me safe. But while the adults were standing knee-deep in the water, talking intently, I slipped through the ring—so easily, as if it was meant to be. All the grown-ups rushed to my rescue. I coughed and spat out the taste of chlorine, everyone patting me on my back and later taking me out for ice cream.
You’d think I would fear the water after that and never again go swimming. But then we moved to a house next door to a neighbor who had a large pond. My sister and I called this neighbor Uncle Jack, even though we were not related. The pond was spring-fed and 16 feet deep, and the water had a beautiful green color to it. All summer we could be found swimming in the big circle of its embrace. No waves threatened us.
Uncle Jack was the local sheriff, which gave him some distinction. When on duty, he wore a badge and a special broad-brimmed hat, which sat on his head at a tilt, as well as a stern look that could be fearsome. He had grown up in rural Georgia and had only one arm, with just a stump sticking out from his other shoulder. As a boy, Uncle Jack had taken lunch to his father at the cotton mill and, while walking past the spinning wheel in those pre-OSHA days, gotten his sleeve caught in the big machine. He was young, maybe not yet 10, so he had many subsequent years in which to teach himself to do things with one hand, one arm.
During Uncle Jack’s workday, the stump was hidden by the sleeve of his jacket or shirt, but when he swam with us it was unavoidable—just a swirl of underarm hair and the results of what must have been a primitive surgery in the early 1900s. It took me two years before I could look directly at it.
I used to watch Uncle Jack from the kitchen window as he worked on his little “plantation,” as he called it. What he could do with one arm was incredible in my eyes. He could cut down trees, drive his tractor, and rake leaves like a well-oiled machine. There was no mention of handicapped or disabled. He was not, he seemed to be saying, any different from anyone else. Sometimes I would hold one arm behind my back and try to do even the smallest tasks with the other. There was no way.
When difficult times come and riptides pull me in the wrong direction, I think of Uncle Jack the sheriff. I know that some feared him, but I loved him, because of what he could do.