Here in New Jersey, Memorial Day — that annual kickoff of the unofficial summer season — is just two weeks away. Although summer doesn’t really begin until three weeks later, this is the start of both the locals and the Bennies backing up the Garden State Parkway on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, in their quest to be first on the boards or the beaches up and down the Jersey coastline. Summers at the Jersey Shore are a tradition, handed down from generation to generation, as sure as the beach badges, Kohrs cones and muscle tees.
The kickoff to summer also means that backyard pools get uncovered, refilled and, for those lucky enough, heated, with pH levels checked, pool chairs inflated and badminton nets strung from well-placed saplings or fence posts. Summer in Jersey can be one of your best golden memories. Don’t let it turn into your worst nightmare.
As a former lifeguard, I can tell you stories about the stupid things people do in and around pools. While I was an apartment and summer camp lifeguard, my sister was a beach guard, so I heard some of the idiotic, and sometimes fatal or near-fatal, things people do in and near the ocean, too. For me, a “floater” was more likely to be of the No. 2 variety than a person, while she had her share of the real thing.
I’ve rescued two people from drowning during my lifetime, and those were two too many. Let me tell you with absolute certainty: The look in a drowning person’s eyes will haunt your dreams.
Drowning in real life looks nothing like drowning as you’d imagine it. Instead of the thrashing and splashing and yelling that you see in the movies, somebody drowning essentially slips silently, and relatively quickly, under the water’s surface. In an uncrowded pool, chances are you’ll notice. In an overcrowded pool, you likely won’t. In an ocean, the spot where they slip under is not the spot they’ll end up.
Don’t ever leave a child alone in, by, or within range of a pool. Don’t think “swimmies” or other flotation devices replace adult supervision. Don’t lose track of your toddler on the beach. Don’t bring your kids to a pool party and then seat yourself somewhere you can’t see the pool or sit with your back to the pool. Better yet, accompany your children into the pool or at least sit on the edge of the pool if they’re old enough to swim on their own and you don’t feel like going in. All of this seems so very obvious, but believe it or not, not everybody does it.
Doug and I always tag-teamed the kids if we went to a pool or the beach. At least one of us had to be there with the kids, within arm’s length. When the kids were very young we actually passed on a wonderful house we were considering buying not only because it had a pool (fenced in), but because you had to go through the pool enclosure in order to get to the rest of the backyard. We would never leave the kids alone in the bathtub (don’t!), let alone have a pool as the central part of the yard.
I was terrified of the kids drowning, having had to rescue a 3-year-old boy when I was only 17 and lifeguarding alone. One minute the little voice inside my head was saying, “Oh, look at Jack (name changed simply because I don’t remember it). He swims pretty well for a 3 year-old” and then my little voice was screaming, “JACK CAN’T SWIM!” as he slowly smacked one arm and then the other on the surface, in a grotesque parody of freestyle. His mother had simply abandoned the child at the pool without telling me. I looked away, distracted by some kids talking to me and, when I looked back, he was in the pool, starting to drown. He hadn’t slipped fully underwater yet. I managed to get him out, get the water out of his chest, and get him breathing again. The shaking and tears (both mine) came later.
The next time was just a few years ago. I think that once you’re a lifeguard you never fully stop being a lifeguard — I’ve always been on alert near water. This time, we were at a pool party. Nobody noticed the kid going under. Nobody noticed me rush over to see if he was okay. Nobody else saw that look of absolute fear and helplessness in his eyes, or saw me slipping into the pool fully clothed, to grab him and pull him out. Nobody saw a damn thing; especially the person who had accompanied him and was supposed to be watching him. I was angry, really angry.
It’s an anger, tinged with extreme sadness, that I also feel every time I read about another child drowning in a pool because they were left unattended or they wandered out and were able to climb into the pool enclosure. Unfortunately, accidents happen. But too many of these accidents could have been prevented by more attentiveness.
Don’t leave your child alone anywhere near water. Make sure your child knows how to swim from as early an age as possible. If you don’t know how to swim, you can’t protect your child when they’re near water, so make sure an adult who can swim is there with you. Finally, learn the signs of drowning.
And may you never need to use that knowledge.
©2016 Rachel L. MacAulay All Rights Reserved