I had to beg my mom that sweltering summer day to let me go swimming with my neighbor friend, Melinda and her family. Mom finally relented.
Melinda’s mom drove us. Her sister, Cindi and their Uncle Sid rode along. We headed several miles inland from our coastal home town of Newport,
Oregon, and then turned north towards the small town of Siletz, with the same-name river running through it.
The swimming hole we chose was a popular one. When we arrived, a small crowd was already enjoying the sunshine and cool water. But only one of the strangers can I clearly remember. Him, I will never forget. He was wearing swim trunks, sitting beside a woman on the rocky, sloped river bank. He was shirtless and had the torso of a body builder. To a nine-year-old, he looked like a circus strong man. Other than a glance in their direction, I paid the couple no more attention; the swimming hole beckoned.
Melinda and I jumped into the water and started splashing around. I fancied myself a fine swimmer. In reality, I could only dog paddle and do a poor imitation of the breast stroke. I floundered my way out to the deepest part of the swimming hole. Suddenly, something sucked at my feet. What was it? My mind struggled to figure it out. Fresh water eel? Giant leech? Lochness monster? I tried to kick and paddle away. But the creature swirled and sucked harder at my feet and legs, like a great underwater vacuum.
I didn’t know anything about undercurrents then and didn’t realize that is what was pulling me down river, out of the swimming hole and away from the other swimmers.
“Help!” I managed to yell. I tried to call again for help, but the water was over my chin, pouring into my mouth, choking me, gagging me.
Melinda and her mom swam out to help. By this time, I was in complete panic mode, still not sure what had me gripped by the feet and legs. I grabbed onto Melinda’s long hair as if it were a lifeline – which in this case, was exactly what it was.
The undercurrent was pulling at Melinda and her mom, too. Between that and my desperate clinging, they were also in danger of drowning. Exhausted, they had no choice but to return to shore.
Melinda’s uncle and sister swam out next to try and save me. By this time, I was barely able to keep my face above water. I was beyond reason – survival instinct told me to grab onto anything solid. I scrabbled and clawed at them, scratching their arms and faces. The swirling water sucked at their limbs, trying to drag them under with me. They also had to pull back and retreat to save themselves.
I had fought the undercurrent as long as I could. It was too strong. The river pulled me under. No matter how hard I clawed at the water, no matter how desperately I kicked my feet, I couldn’t get my face to break the water surface again. Energy spent, I felt my mouth, nose and throat slowly fill with water.
I looked up through the water, watching the last bubbles of air leave my body and travel in a zigzag pattern to the surface. Rays of sunshine refracted
through the green and blue hues of the water. It looked eerie, yet strangely beautiful at the same time.
“I’m going to die,” I thought. I didn’t feel anymore panic at that point, just resignation.
The moment before I drew in a huge lungful of water, I felt a strong arm wrap around my waist and hoist me from the river’s depths. At first I thought it was God, lifting me up to heaven. But the arm didn’t lift me heavenward. The arm carried me swiftly through the water. It wasn’t until we reached the shallows that I realized the arm of steel was attached to the strong man I’d noticed earlier sitting on the bank. When the man was able to touch the river bottom and wade, he flung my limp body over one of his broad shoulders.
As he carried me out of the river, I tried to thank him. I mouthed the words, but no sound came out. I was too exhausted, my nose and throat too full of water – I couldn’t pull in enough air to make a sound. The man set me down on the sun-warmed river rocks along the shoreline.
Melinda and her family immediately gathered around me. “Danita? Danita? Are you all right?” they asked.
Someone slipped a towel under my head. Someone else covered me with a blanket. I coughed and sputtered for a while. When I had enough strength to sit up, I looked around for the man who had jumped into the river after me. I still wanted to thank him. But he was gone.
“Where’s the man who saved me?” I asked.
Nobody knew. No one had seen him leave; he just vanished. It was almost as if he’d never been there.
Melinda’s family and I left for home as soon as I was able to stand and make my way back to their car. It was a quiet, sober trip home. My thoughts were filled with bubbles taking a haphazard path to the river’s surface, along with curiosity about the stranger who’d risked his own life to swim out and rescue me.
It was more than 30 years before my curiosity about the stranger was finally slaked.
After I’d recounted my near-drowning experience to my husband, Rick, he asked if I’d ever considered that the strong man might be my guardian angel. I had never thought of the stranger that way. But hearing the suggestion flicked a switch on in the back corner of my mind. It was as if a light bulb had been waiting there for years, swinging patiently on a rusting chain. The revelation sent goose bumps skittering along my arms and up the back of my neck.
It also brought with it a great sensation of peace and comfort.