It is not clear to me now what the lifeguards saw that summer afternoon in 1962;why four of them leapt from their high white stands and dragging ropes and floaters headed for the water.As they ran, everything seemed to stop,the cries of children,music from transistor radios,the languor of the beach itself,was swept away.
Other lifeguards raced to put up green flags as warning to call swimmers out of the water.A sudden undertow had developed in the surf and like a beast was clawing at the sand and pulling everything out and out and under.The man they saw was helpless, overcome and under.
As they brought the man out of the water, a hushed crowd assembled ,drawn by the impossible.This was Jones Beach and this doesn't happen.A corridor in the midst of the crowd was left for the lifeguards to bring him up and try to revive him.
Near where I was standing, a young woman in her late twenties stood up and started to turn in circles crying,"That's my husband,that's my husband."Out of the crowd,five strangers moved towards her as if summoned.We took her hands and gently lead her to sit in the sand and one young man began to pray the rosary.We all joined in, over and over, the Our Father ,the Hail Mary.The woman had her back to the man and the lifeguards as they worked .They had him over a big blue barrel and kept pounding and pushing ,sea water spewing from his eyes,mouth and his ears.I watched to see some ,any ,small movement,a hand thrust up or a turn of his head, but there was nothing.
I don't know how long we stayed with her as they worked until she saw two people walking our way.She recognized them and ran into their arms.The small circle of strangers got up and without a word or a nod ,walked away.My friend and I left the beach.Our 20 minute ride home was somber.The next day, I read that the man had indeed drowned,the first person to do so at Jones Beach.I thought of those well trained ,dedicated lifeguards and how diligently they had worked to bring that man back.How they must have felt about this first drowning on their watch.
But now, from a distance of more than 40 years ,I also think of those five strangers who happened to be the same religion as the victim's wife.Who stepped out of the crowd and held her together until she was with friends when she finally learned the truth.I think of the old hymn."You are the Body of Christ"and believe that,by grace,on that day,we were.