His Wide Mouth Home
by J. Augustine Wetta, o.s.b.

Screaming the spring
Over the ancient winter,
He'll lie down, and our breath
Will chill the roundness of his cheeks,
And make his wide mouth home.
For we must whisper down the funnel
The love we had and glory in his blood
Coursing along the channels
Until the spout dried up
That flowed out of the soil
All seasons with the same meticulous power,
But veins must fail.
He's not awake to the grave
Though we cry down the funnel,
Splitting a thought into such hideous moments
As drown, over and over, this fever.
He's dead, home, has no lover,
But our speaking does not thrive
In the bosom, or the empty channels.

–Dylan Thomas

The summer of 1986, I joined the Galveston Sheriff Department Beach Patrol. I got sunburned often. I learned to surf. My nose began to peel, and my body began to turn into something I was proud of. I went girl crazy. So crazy, in fact, that I went on twenty-seven dates that one summer. Kept count of them all. Wrote them all down. Put stars next to each indicating how pretty she was.

That's how I was on July 4, 1986, as I sat in my wooden lifeguard tower, “Jetty One,” radio in hand, buoy at my feet, the sun burning my hair blonder and my toes browner. I hummed “Tutti-Frutti Over Rudy,” played with my walkie-talkie, listened to the gumbo of beach sounds and rotated my head back and forth to count “potential drowning victims.” “Got a girl named Daisy. She almost drives me crazy.”

Jetty Tower was the worst spot on the island. Infamous for being too prone to accidents and too isolated from the other beaches, Captain Wonio had sent me there partly because I was the best rookie and partly to punish me for talking too much. I was the most conscientious and the least mellow of his guards. “A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom.”

So, there I sat weaving my little tune into little thoughts when I noticed a man with a very red face and wild hair running in my direction. I grabbed my buoy and pointed at him. He waved both hands. I leapt from my tower into the hot sand and ran to meet him. People along the beach noticed and stopped what they were doing to watch.

“Back there…” he choked between gulps of air, “someone's… drowning… there.” He stopped running and gestured wildly to the North. Away from the beach, behind the tower. Toward the dunes. To an area occupied by enormous tidal pools left by the Spring rains. Only a few weeks earlier, we had marked them with large red signs which commanded “No Swimming!”

I sprinted in that direction, with this fellow flopping along beside me. “Jetty Tower to Headquarters,” I blurted into my radio.
“HQ Jetty. Go ahead”
“I have… a reported… drowning. Three hundred meters… north… of my… tower.” I gasped between breaths. “In the backwater.”
“Clear Jetty. Reported drowning three hundred north of your tower. 289?
287? You clear on that traffic?”
“289 clear. En route from Tenth Street.”
“287 clear. En route from Tower Four.”

As I came closer to the tidal pools, I could make out a mass of people clustered on the opposite side. A thousand little fears flew through my brain. Adrenaline quickened my pace and I left my companion behind.

Now, when confronted with a real emergency, the EMT, the firefighter, the police officer, and the lifeguard experience a transition of sorts. Every action and every thought is cut down to exactly what is needed and no more. For a short period of time, the rescuer goes into a sort of trance, becoming a machine devoted entirely to the matter at hand. Nothing is sped up. That might lead to error. So everything that isn't absolutely necessary is cut out. Every action is deliberate. Every word is direct. Every thought is efficient.

And so this is how it happened from that point on, the way I remember it: I ran to the side of the pool, stripped off my shirt, and wrapped it around my radio. Last chance to make sure HQ knows where I am. Too late. No time. Just trust them.

I cast my radio into the sand, made sure my buoy was secure on its rope and high-stepped into the water.

Knees up. Long strides. Don't trip. Doing–

All of a sudden, the earth gave way beneath me. I felt myself sinking, sucked downward. A warm, slimy muck squeezed my feet, pulling me slowly beneath the surface.

Don't panic. You have thirty seconds.

I found the rope to my buoy and pulled myself to the surface, wiggling my feet loose from the mud.

So that's how it happened.

I reached the surface and shook the panic from my head.

Swim, now. No time.

I sprinted for the other side, feet churning the water behind me, arms pulling the water before me, thrusting my head under after every breath. Dark green water with death in it. Up I come for air–light, noise, wind, sun. Down I go for more strokes–darkness, silence, cold, a dull throbbing like the beat of the earth's heart, like a threnody for lost souls.

Fear.

I reached the other side suddenly, without warning. My hand hit the sand and I stood up, covered with slime. A dense crowd cowered before me, making noise with hushed voices.

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© Copyright The Abbey of Saint Mary and Saint Louis, 1997. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system now or hereafter invented, without permission in writing from the Publisher.