Scouting October 2000

Saving a Life

By Chris O'Brien
Illustrated by Richard Sparks

Aiding a young swimmer in distress prompts an Eagle Scout to recall the leaders whose dedication helped him learn water rescue skills.

"...together we pulled a 9-year-old up on the beach."

It all happened so fast. One moment I was using my video camera to film my children on the vacation shores of Nags Head, N.C. The next, I heard urgent cries from the ocean and spotted two boys about 50 feet from shore.

I hesitated, not certain what was happening, until a man next to me started to take off his sandals to run into the waves. I threw my camera to a woman standing nearby and raced into the surf with the other man.

As we pushed through the waves, I yelled: "There's two of them! Which do you want?" He responded that he would take the one closer to shore, so I began to swim toward the boy farther out, now about 100 feet from shore as the riptide carried him out.

As I swam furiously, two thoughts went through my head: "What did I learn about lifesaving in Boy Scouts?" and "Isn't it always the guy who swims out who winds up drowning as he saves someone else?"

I tried to ignore my fears and concentrated on reaching the boy, who was desperately trying to keep his head above water. Just as I got to him, he slipped beneath the surface.

The boy had an expression of hopelessness on his face that I will never forget. I reached down under the water and caught him under the arm, bringing his head back above the water. I reassured him that he would be O.K. and asked him if he could swim at all. When he said no, I told him I would swim him in.

About halfway back to the beach, I began to tire and shouted for more help. Luckily, as the other fellow came running back in, I touched bottom and together we pulled a 9-year-old up on the beach.

The boy's mother mumbled a quick thank you as she led him away. As I stood there winded and bent over, I realized just how lucky that little boy was that I had been a Boy Scout. Twenty years ago, the Scouts had taught me how to swim and how to rescue.

That little boy will never know Scoutmaster Don Hourigan of Troop 104 of Kenmore, N.Y. He'll never know volunteers like Ed Hess, Ray Howard, and A. J. Block. And he'll never know my parents, who drove me to Scout meetings and swimming lessons when I was growing up.

But that little boy is alive today because Scout volunteers, leaders, and parents gave their time unselfishly, without asking for a thank-you.

I was angry at the boy and his mother afterward. Where was my thank-you? Didn't she realize how close she came to losing her son?

It was only when I began to write this that I realized that the thank-you isn't owed to me. It is owed to all those who offer their time to the Boy Scouts, to teach boys how to swim, how to give to their community, and how to be good citizens.

Those people were with me as I swam out into the Atlantic. They were there as I supported the boy's head above the water, and they were there as I used the kick I had learned 20 years ago to bring us into shore.

So to those volunteers of Troop 104, on behalf of one small boy's family, thank you. For all the people who have helped other Boy Scout troops, please know your time does make a difference. And for all of you who have ever thought about volunteering, please join the Boy Scouts in teaching young boys how to become responsible adults.

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