Cocoa Beach, Florida is a wonderful place to
die. Dying might not be such a bad thing, I discovered there. There
are resources hidden inside us, and I believe, angels hidden without
us, that appear when summoned to our moment of need.
I love those warm sunny stretches of white
sand and warm ocean. We were there on a temporary mission, an Air
Force exercise. We couldn’t wait to finish our assignments and head
for the beach right across the highway. Most of us were strong swimmers,
and ignored the little white sign that warned, “No swimming after
5PM. Dangerous undertow.”
Roberta was a coworker and friend; we sort
of liked each in possibly romantic ways, I think, but we never got
around to doing anything about that. We were just having fun together.
The tide was coming in, and the waves were growing higher and thundering
louder, and we body surfed for over an hour. We were exhausted and
We were standing where the surf was breaking,
in the shallows. Many of our friends were laughing and playing on
a sand bar further out from shore, about 200 yards away. Roberta and
I decided to join their fun and set out together. The water was clear,
wonderfully warm, and deadly.
We plunged into the deep channel that separated
us from the sand bar, and quickly discovered the meaning of the little
white warning sign. The surf crashed over our heads – and the undertow
pulled us down into the depths. We fought back up, and traded notes.
We decided to head back to shore but the Atlantic Ocean ignored our
plans, pulled us back into itself, further from shore, and sucked
us down, over and over. We were trapped and soon, completely exhausted
from constantly battling our way back to the turbulent surface. We
cried for help.
At some point I remember, looking about me
in the depths, watching the bubbles and the hissing, swirling current,
thinking about a saying; “Going down for the third time.” I thought
it was funny because, although I admit I wasn’t counting, it seemed
more like thirty. Once again Roberta and I thrashed our way up, crashed
through the boiling surf simultaneously, and looked at one another.
We saw the terror and despair in our eyes, and we screamed, and down
we went again.
Again I was down below, watching the swirling
bubbles, listening to the thundering far above me, and felt my entire
body trembling from exhaustion. All the adrenaline that had been fighting
for life, was gone. Strong as we might be, we are insignificant creatures
when faced with the inexorable tug of millions of gallons of falling
water. I suddenly realized the ocean could kill me, without a thought
for me, just doing what it naturally does, following gravitational
effects of the moon. It was impersonal. I shall drown.
“It’s nothing personal,” sort of captured me.
I felt a sorrowful kinship with all other drowned souls throughout
eternity, who faced this massive, impassive, unstoppable murderer.
At some point, you must let go, and go with the flow. No fight is
left in your body, and the last decision you can make is when to finish
this present business, and meet your Maker. I was there, ready to
exhale, and go swim with the fishes.
Suddenly I was grabbed from above by my foot,
and dragged upwards. I decided to wait, and see what happened. I felt
surprised and skeptical. My friend Greg had found me, another man
had found Roberta. We both arrived again almost simultaneously to
the surface, sputtering, in nearly identical condition – very frightened,
greatly surprised, completely exhausted, and gratefully alive.
The ocean was furious no doubt, but these two
men were very strong swimmers and former lifeguards. They put us in
the usual lock – used to prevent panicked swimmers from fighting and
possibly drowning rescuers. We were both far too tired to do anything
but collapse in their arms, relax, enjoy the ride, and look with joy
at the warm sun we had given up all hope of seeing again.
Greg had heard our unison scream of terror,
looked, and watched us disappear. He immediately knew what was happening,
and quickly marshaled our friends into a search and rescue party.
How they found us both almost simultaneously beneath that boiling
surf is a mystery and I believe, a miracle.
I shall hug that man if we ever meet again.
I want to hug the earth for being so solid and predictable. I still
love oceans and the sunny beaches that surround them, but I have a
new respect for little white warning signs. The experience gave me
a deepened sense of love for life, somewhat less fear of death, and
a very high regard for lifeguards, God bless them, every one.
Cocoa Beach is Copyright David M.
Pickens. This is a true story that happened during a temporary deployment
to Cocoa Beach, Florida in 1978 of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Squadron
(F4-E) from Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina. I visited that
same beach and location in 1990 and the little white warning sign
was still there. It was after 5PM. No one was swimming. We didn't
go in, either. Mebbe we're all getting smarter.