While swimming laps (width-wise) at the Howard Johnson's, I noticed a
flowered bathing cap bobbing in the water like a spastic buoy. A
middle-aged woman, flapping her arms and falling backwards, was muttering
"hel-pep, hel-pep. . ." in the pathetic way humans do when something is
happening to them over which they have no control.
Moving swiftly, I placed my hands on the woman's back and gave her a
powerful shove towards the shallow end. With both of us safely standing
in three feet of water, I asked if she was okay.
"You made me swallow water," she said, with the same bewildered tone she
had used to cry for her life.
"You made me swallow water."
My mother, who had witnessed the entire event poolside, interceded on my
"So what, you're alive, aren't you?" she said.
That summed it up for me. I went back to my laps, pushing myself even
harder, and dreaming of the $2.99 "All-You-Can-Eat Fried Clam Dinner" I
would be having at the HoJo's restaurant that night.
If I was piecing together a rosary of saves so that I would have something
to hold onto later in life, the first bead was dedicated to my mother, who
always supported me.
My second save occurred under nearly identical circumstances as the first,
except that as I darted to rescue the floundering lady, I was hit by a
debilitating toe cramp. I've discovered over the years that the only way
to alleviate a toe cramp is by guzzling Yoo-Hoo. With no Yoo-Hoo handy, I
gutted it out. I'm the first to admit I overcompensated because of the
toe cramp, and gave the woman a good shot to the shoulder blades, causing
her to clumsily flip over the safety rope. Considering that I had saved
her life, however, her ingratitude was mystifying.
"You made me swallow water," she said.
This time I was ready: "Not as much as you would have swallowed if you had
"I also got a rope burn," she whined in the direction of my mother, who,
as usual, was seated poolside with a pińa colada and The National
"So what, at least you're alive," my mother said, having no patience for
the woman's foolishness.
I didn't doubt her skin got chaffed, but she showed absolutely no grace by
denying me the opportunity to explain about the toe cramp. Instead, she
gave me a dirty look and stormed out of the pool. I concluded that
Baywatch had unrealistically raised the public's expectations of real
The next bead was for my father, who, five years before that second save,
spent two hours wrapping four blood-soaked towels around my bleeding toe,
cut by the broken tile of that very same pool, the whole time shielding me
from the worry which had sprung up from the carefree chlorinated fountain.
My third rescue occurred at a majestic, Aztec temple-style hotel in
Acapulco, Mexico. Unknown to the naïve guests, there was a powerful
undertow in the gulf that had been surging all morning. Sitting on the
beach and thoroughly enjoying my book, Foucault's "Discipline and Punish,"
I heard the screams of lost souls getting pulled down in the water. Unlike
stacked milk bottles at a boardwalk game of chance, every person in the
water tumbled over. I set my sights on rescuing a woman who held a
coconut shell rumrunner drink with both hands and wore a yellow visor and
oversized glasses. She was only in ankle-deep water but a riptide brought
her down hard; the coconut shell knocked her indispensable eyewear into
the vindictive surf. Totally unprepared for life, she didn't stand a
Another Good Samaritan beat me to her, however, and grabbed a hold of her
arm. Something of a Family Vacation Zelig, I recognized the Samaritan
from the breakfast buffet, the bullfight tour, the hotel disco, and the
cliff divers' show. A large, lumbering man with disheveled white hair, he
looked like the actor George Kennedy -- "Naked Gun" George Kennedy, not
"Cool Hand Luke" George Kennedy.
Before he could complete the rescue, a powerful breaker knocked George to
the ground. Too heavy to carry, I dragged him to safety. Once the dust
(sand actually) had settled and the shouting had subsided, I deduced that,
at the moment I interfered, Mr. Kennedy was performing his own rescue
procedure -- apparently some type of "fall down and get your ass kicked"
maneuver of which I was unaware. He made it quite clear that, having
fought in World War II, he did not ever need to be rescued by anyone
younger than himself.
This time, with the rescues being commonplace, my mother didn't get
involved. I did, however, receive an empathetic look from a little person
who had heroically stepped in and saved the Visor Woman while I was towing
George Kennedy through some kid's sandcastle.
At something of a makeshift Mass the hotel held in a conference room the
next morning, both the little person and George Kennedy were seated in the
row behind me. When it came time to exchange handshakes during the "Peace
Be With You" part of the Mass, the little man heartily shook my hand, but
George Kennedy snubbed me, first kissing his wife, and then clasping his
hands together and bowing his head in the direction of an Asian man
standing in the row in front of me.
Many years passed following the Acapulco save and my prayer rope was stuck
at three. I had begun to fear that I had lost my touch, along with my mom
and dad, who were both gone. I made my way to Miami Beach some fifty
years after they had honeymooned there, my mother at The Saxony, sipping
coffee from rose pedal-decorated china, poured by a monsieur from a silver
pot with a spout so long it reached to the middle of the table where it
intersected my father's loving gaze.
Not only was The Saxony still there, it was easy to find courtesy of a
$300 million renovation that took the old girl's "We Honeymooned at The
Saxony Swizzle Sticks" and transformed them into Cipriani style residences
and boutiques. That made me smile. Maybe one day I will be guiding a
tall brunette through the crystal-etched door there as she switches her
exposed back to whisper that no other guy has ever brought her to such a
Strolling South Beach the next day, perpetrating a tan, I observed a stout
but elderly Cuban man go down in the surf, clutching his chest. Three
hulking young squires -- who I assumed were his sons -- quickly supported
their fallen father in a three-point "King's Throne" carry, his left leg
flopping like a limp party favor. Before I could get there, a young man
who looked a lot like me, only younger, latched on to the patriarch's
dangling appendage as the sons, doing all the work, carried their father
to safety, their muscles already atrophied by worry.
Once it was clear that the old man was only having cramps, the young poser
returned to his spot on a Ritz Carlton chaise longue where his Red
Bull-sipping, bikini-clad girlfriend looped her arms around her hero's
"You know that doesn't count as a save," I yelled to him.
"You can't count that as a save," I repeated, this time making sure the
girlfriend heard me as well.
I was determined to have my say, but spotted a mother and grown son sea
shell collecting duo walking backwards with their heads down, about to
trip over some Sea-Doos moored in a tide pool. I squared my shoulders and
aimed for the small of their backs.