Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 16, 2012

Kathy Gibbons: Numbers don’t reflect close calls

By Kathy Gibbons, Columnist

---- — It was beautiful Labor Day. The sky was blue, the breeze just right.

We drove out to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the afternoon, plopped lounges in the sand at Glen Haven and tried to hang on to the last little bit of summer.

The beach was crowded with families and couples. I'd never heard so many foreign accents and languages on a local beach before. People have said that being voted "Most Beautiful Place in America" by viewers of ABC's "Good Morning America" has created bigger crowds — and from all over. It was plainly evident that day.

After we got settled, a couple arrived with their young son, a very rambunctious 3-year-old. They spread out a blanket next to us and went into the water, where the dad swam around in shallow water with the boy on his back. I saw the child return to play in the sand as the dad swam off into the deep water.

I was just starting to doze off when I heard a man's voice saying "Help!" above the din of children squealing, people talking and music playing. I absentmindedly thought to myself how people playing on a beach, maybe being thrown in the water or getting mercilessly splashed, holler "help" and there is no way to know from the sound if it's serious — though it probably wasn't.

Then it came again.


There was panic in the voice. Alert now, I sat up and looked in the direction of the sound. It was the dad from the neighboring blanket, a ways out, but not too far from a sandbar where some adults were standing and talking. He'd bob to the surface, scream and go down again.

His wife, holding tight to the hand of her son, was shouting to him. He wasn't answering, just pleading, "Help!"

She was beside herself, saying to the air, "You've got to be kidding me," and starting to pace, a now very silent child beside her. A bystander took to the water to swim to her husband's rescue.

Shortly, her husband found his footing and made it to where the group was standing on the sandbar. The darkness that had seemed to briefly take over the day dissipated as people wandered back to their blankets and she and her son sat and waited for his return.

When he came in, finally, he talked about how he had begun swallowing water, couldn't touch bottom and panicked. The little guy never moved far from his father. It wasn't long before they packed up and left.

Reading in the paper about what seems to be an epidemic of drownings on the Great Lakes this year — some close to home — I couldn't help but think about how things can change — forever — in a second.

And how sometimes, by some sort of grace, they don't.

Kathy Gibbons can be reached at