For holiday, learn from mistakes of others

This column has run in this paper before. Each time, however, I hear from people who are reading it for the first time and appreciate the message. We all learn best from our own mistakes, but it’s a lot safer to profit from others’ goof-ups. And this was a big one:

A statistic. That’s what I almost was.

It is a cold way to look at something so personal, so human. But maybe it is the only way to think about the prospect of accidental death without sinking into useless, horrified introspection.

Certainly I won’t ever be able to explain why I ignored every precaution, every inkling of good sense, every warning, to dive into trouble that I’m flat-out lucky to have escaped.

It was a warm, pre-Memorial Day Saturday on a beautiful Minnesota lake. Good friends had brought their new powerboat and we had spent a balmy afternoon towing the kids around in one of those inner-tube deals and just basking in the sun. The water was cool and inviting.

Looking back, I still can not remember what motivated me to join them in the water. Although I’ve logged thousands of hours in canoes and sailboats, I’ve never enjoyed actually being in the water — getting wet is just the price to be paid for paddling and sailing, not something to be enjoyed.

But for some reason I jumped in anyway. Not just any jump, but a graceful dive of the sort that I had never before achieved. No belly-whack on the water, just a clean, smooth slide down and out, out, out further into the lake.

When I popped to the surface 30 feet later, sputtering in the deep cold of the northern water, I knew immediately that I had made a mistake. Fact is, I can swim from one side of a small, calm swimming pool to the other — but in cold water, with two-foot waves and a brisk wind pushing the boat away fast, I was in way over my head. That jangling internal warning bell — “You are in big trouble!” — was going off.

“Hey, someone toss me a life jacket here,” I yelled. Though the others looked my way, I could see they weren’t paying much attention, didn’t understand what a stupid mistake I had made. I attempted my feeble dog-paddle stroke, but could see there was no way I was going to catch the quickly drifting boat.

“I need some help right now!” I screamed, already out of breath from the unfamiliar exercise. At last, someone tossed a life jacket. But the wind batted it right back to the boat.

“For God’s sake, start the boat and come get me!”

I was struggling just to keep my head out of the water and I was giving myself desperate pep talks. “Just keep going. This is no harder than running. No harder than lifting weights. It’s just exercise. Just keep going.”

The boat surged up almost into my frantic reach, but immediately began drifting away again. By now my head was sliding under repeatedly and I was choking on lake water, panic-stricken.

Finally, finally, a passenger jumped in with the towing inner-tube and its welcome grab-handles.

I clung to the inner tube and then to the boat’s ladder until someone finally grabbed me and hauled me aboard, too tired to move, stunned by the adrenaline rush of fear, the shock of my own stupidity.

As I calmed, I started to assess the depths of my error: Weak swimmer, lifejacket off, strong wind, cold water…a dozen things that I knew and understood but, amazingly, failed to consider. The saving grace was that we had not been drinking; a few beers and I would have been much weaker, the response of my rescuers much slower.

This, I realized, is why people drown every year. Normal people. People who know better. It takes only one second’s unthinking action to create an emergency, one that can leave children without a parent, a spouse a widow.

Drowning is the No. 4 cause of accidental death in the United States. That’s the statistic, and one I now understand much better.

I didn’t enjoy writing this column; no one enjoys exposing their own stupidity. But if it scares one person into thinking before they leap, it was worth it.

Think about the statistics. Think about your family and friends. Be safe.

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