A day of swimming! My friend Melinda and I giggled as we splashed in the swimming hole of the Siletz River in Siletz, Oregon. Her mother and uncle waved from the bank.
We weren’t the only ones who’d decided to make the best of a sunny summer afternoon—the swimming hole was crowded with adults horsing around in the water or dangling their feet over the edge of the rocky Siletz riverbank. One couple in particular caught my attention. They were sitting on the rockiest slope, and the man was wearing swim trunks. I’d never seen a man so muscular! To a 9-year-old girl like me, he looked like the circus strong man.
“Come on!” Melinda called as we splashed. “Let’s swim out a ways.”
“Okay,” I said, “follow me!” I dog-paddled furiously into deeper water. I thought I was a decent swimmer, even if my dog-paddling and poor imitation of the breaststroke made up my entire swimming repertoire.
Melinda and I paddled about happily until I felt a suction pulling at my feet. It was as if something was trying to drag me under. My mind raced for explanations: Eels? Giant leeches? The Loch Ness monster!
Whatever it was I wanted to get away from it—fast. But when I tried to tighten up my dog paddle the invisible creature pulled at my feet even harder, like a great underwater vacuum. I didn’t know anything about undercurrents, or how quickly one could pull a swimmer beneath the water and downriver. I just knew I was in trouble. “Help!” I yelled.
Water poured over my chin and into my mouth. I gagged and spit. Melinda tried to help me. In my panic I grabbed at the first thing I could—Melinda’s hair. I dunked her under.
“Help!” she screamed. “You’re drowning me!”
Melinda’s sister and her uncle ran from shore and swam out to me. Now I was truly desperate. I clawed and scratched at their faces and arms, trying to attach myself to something solid. The undercurrent pulled at them. They were no match for its vice grip. They couldn’t save me! I was so scared I barely knew what was happening.
All I knew was I couldn’t fight any longer. My arms stopped flailing. I relaxed my head. I sank below the surface and began a slow descent to the bottom. I watched the last of my air bubbles float to the surface, where the sun was turning the water a beautiful green hue. I’m going to die, I thought.
Just then an arm wrapped tight about my waist. My body was yanked up through the water. In seconds I was breathing in air and looking into the face of my rescuer. It was the circus strong man! From the riverbank! He flung all 80 pounds of me over his shoulder like a sack of feathers.
When we got to shore everyone was waiting: clapping or holding their breath or sighing in relief. I opened my mouth to thank my rescuer, but when I tried to make a sound I could only wince and clutch at my raw throat. The strong man laid me down on the dry riverbank and Melinda’s family covered me with a blanket.
“Are you all right, Danita?” someone asked. “Thank God that man was here today,” someone else said. I lay on my side, coughing up water. Between coughs, my eyes searched the crowd for the strong man. But he was nowhere to be seen.
As soon as I was able to stand, we all got in the car to go home. On the ride back my mind was full of questions: Who was the strong man? How was he able to save me when no one else could? And why hadn’t the man stayed around for me to thank him?
Throughout my childhood I thought often about that day on the river, and when I grew up and got married I told my husband about the experience. “Have you ever considered that the strong man could have been your guardian angel?” he asked.
“But I saw him on the beach,” I said. “Everyone did.”
“He was on that beach for a reason,” my husband said. “Don’t you think God put him there?”
A man acting as a guardian angel? I’d never thought about it that way before. Many people tried to save me and failed. Luckily there was a man on the river that day, with the strength of an angel.
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