An Important Letter, Never Delivered

Lee and I stood on top of the hot sand dunes. The sun beat down mercilessly on our deeply tanned skin, while a cool wind graced our sweaty faces. Our well-calloused feet sank into the burning hot sand grains as the dunes swallowed them up to our ankles. We looked down, quickly scanning the horizon, noting where the sand ended, and the frothy, white surf began. The breathtaking blue-green waters below stretched out as far as the eye could see. This lake was paradise to us, and we could not get down to that water fast enough.  

My brother, Lee, two years my senior, and I exchanged impish glances, smiled joyfully, and took our first steps forward. Down, down, down the tall sand dune we ran, as fast as we could, aided by gravity and the feeling of euphoria that I can still remember to this day.

Lee, with much longer legs than I, was way ahead of me as we ran for the water. He was the first to splash joyfully into the lake, our beautiful Lake Michigan. At that time, we did not understand how polluted it was. This was 1968, when pollution was still largely unregulated. For decades, Chicago and Gary, Indiana had spewed their industrial and municipal wastewaters into the lake, not far from where we swam that day.

Each summer, for several years, our family of seven piled into the station wagon and took off for a weekend at the Indiana Dunes State Park (now National Park). During the days, we would all hike to the lake and enjoy swimming and sunbathing. At night, we would sit by the campfire and sing songs together to pass the time. These were joyful, happy times for our family. Here we could be together in one place, all enjoying nature, and each other in the years before my oldest sisters moved out to established their own lives away from home.   

Lake Michigan was one of my favorite places to swim. Water was always central to my life, inspiring me to study water resources management in college and to spend the better part of my career trying to protect it in state and federal agencies. This place, in addition to living on Salt Creek, near Chicago, and camping on Apple River, in northwestern Illinois cemented my love of all water environments. Looking back, it is amazing that I continued to love them so much – especially since it was water that almost killed my brother and me on a gorgeous summer day at the Indiana Dunes. If not for the help of two strangers that day, I know, without a doubt, that my brother and I would not have lived to see another day.

For many years after that near-fatal event, I stuffed the memories deep into the recesses of my mind, blotting the experience out completely. My brother and I never talked about it until many years later when we had the maturity to fully understand the gravity of the situation we experienced that day. Once I was able to release those memories, I have always felt regret that I have never been able to thank the two people that saved our lives.

Here is what happened that day:

My brother and I spent a great deal of time together as children and as young adults, so it was not surprising that we would be swimming together that fateful day. It happened to be an exceptionally windy day. There was no lifeguard on duty as I remember it, however, there were a fair number of vacationers also enjoying the water.

At that time, there was no public understanding of the dangers of rip currents, and certainly no warnings posted for beachgoers in most areas. We went into the water unaware, as were my parents. Only in recent years did I read that the beaches at the Indiana Dunes are particularly prone to dangerous rip currents. Nowadays, there are many warnings posted on beaches across the country to protect swimmers like us when conditions are favorable for rip currents.  

Lee and I were usually quite confident in the water, even at an early age, as my mother insisted that we take swimming lessons during the summers, beginning in elementary school and not ending until we had at least passed the Intermediate level of swimming instruction.

The winds were high and the waves huge that summer day. The noise of the waves hitting the beach drowned out voices and other sounds. Lee and I were swimming by ourselves in waters up to our shoulders, enjoying the waves, doing flips and underwater handstands. My parents and siblings were farther down the beach playing on an old, inflatable army raft my father had muscled through the woods to the beach. Everything was wonderful until it wasn’t.

Without warning, the sand beneath my feet disappeared and the water became too deep for me to touch the sandy bottom. Suddenly, we had been transported much farther from the shore. It was all a blur as we tried desperately to dog paddle and swim back to where we had been. Now, I know that this was the worst thing we could have done. Our efforts were futile, and we continued to get further from my parents and the safety of the beach. We both started to tire, and then sink, then desperately try to get to the surface for a breath of air again. At that moment, I became terrified that we might drown. It became obvious that I could not win this struggle with the lake for my young life. I was 9 years old, and Lee was 11.   

When I finally was able to swim to the surface again, I began to scream for help several times in between my gasps for air. In the process, I swallowed a huge amount of water. I caught a quick glimpse of my brother – he too was screaming for help. I went down under the surface again. Noone was going to hear us screaming for help, I thought. Our voices will be drowned out by the crashing waves. At this point, I completely lost my bearings of what way was up, down, toward the shore. All I wanted was a breath of oxygen, but I had no more strength to get to the surface. I thought that this was the end for me at least, maybe Lee, too.  

They say that when you are dying, your life flashes before you. Yes – it happened to me that day. As I was going down for the last time, I began to see the short 9 years of life in short video-like clips, one after the other. There was our house, my bedroom, my classroom and so on. I felt peaceful somehow seeing it all together, and I knew I had no more fight in me to save myself.

Suddenly, someone grabbed me by the arm. It was a very strong arm. The arm of a man. A man I did not know. It was not my father. I was being dragged from the water at the moment when I was going to die. I took a large gasp of air and wiped the water from my eyes. I could see that a woman had grabbed my brother and had her arms around him, consoling him. He was in shock, like me. They walked us up onto the sand and reassured us. By that point, my parents saw what was going on and met us on the beach blanket. They thanked the young couple for what they had done, and then Lee and I sat in a stunned silence on the blanket for a long time, coming to terms with what had just happened to us.

I looked out at the lake in front of us. The lake that I had loved so much, that gave me such pleasure and fun a few minutes earlier, had suddenly turned sinister in my eyes. It had nearly killed us in a few short minutes. This terrifying body of water was out for our blood, no question about it. Nothing could have dragged me back into the water that day. So, Lee and I built sandcastles on the beach instead.

Because Lee and I never talked about this incident until decades later, I don’t think my parents really understood how close they came to losing two of their children that day at the beach. Probably best they didn’t know. Later in my life, I began to reflect on that experience, realizing just what those two total strangers had done for us and our parents. I asked myself if I would ever be so brave as to dive into wild water to pull out two children I had never met before. I wonder what made them make that split-second decision to save our lives?

This all happened at a time when there were no cell phones or viral videos. No one was there to record the incident. The heroes of the story were simply thanked and then went on their way. No newspapers extoled their heroism. There were no medals or citizenship awards given them for their bravery.

If I only knew their names, perhaps I could even find them all these years later, with the help of the internet. I could finally, belatedly, enthusiastically tell them with deep gratitude, “thank you, thank you, thank you” for my wonderful life. I only wish I could have written it in a personal letter, written in my best prose and cursive writing, and of course, sealed with a kiss.

So, I send this now, without any fanfare to my two heroes. It isn’t perfect, but perhaps wherever they are in the wide universe, they will know and understand my deep appreciation for their selflessness, bravery, and goodness that day–for going above and beyond the call of duty in order to save two young souls they would never see again.