When I was 12, I learned something I didn’t know at all. I learned that some people would do anything to save their own skin. It came as a real shock to me.

I was vacationing with my family on the coast of Italy at the time. We went to a pristine beach that day, shielded by two enormous man-made barrier reefs, designed to protect people from the rough ocean waters that frequented that stretch of coast. They were hundreds of feet long, perhaps 60 feet wide, composed of barnacle-encrusted boulders. There was a jagged gap between them that was approximately 40 feet wide.

I couldn’t really swim. I have never been a “water person”. I love the way water looks, I love the way it feels, but I really don’t enjoy trying to stay alive in it. So I was quite happy in the calm waters provided by the reefs. My idea of a good time in water was laying on an air mattress, paddling with my hands, occasionally rolling off of it to cool off and then climbing back on. Dead lazy, I guess. That always struck me as a bit odd because I come from a family of strong swimmers. Oh well.

Anyway, I met a kid on the beach. He was 17 and a bit of an orphan. We’ll call him Alex, though I can’t remember what his name was. He just appeared out of nowhere and invited himself to lunch, so we let him tag along. A couple of hours later, he and I were in the water together, sharing my air mattress, though he could swim and swam well. We were playing about, climbing on and off the air mattress, splashing each other, this and that. And then the tide changed.

The tide was going out and without realizing it we were being pulled by the current toward the opening between the reefs. My recollection is a bit hazy, but it seems that there was a moment when I looked up and I could see the barnacles on the rocks and I knew that this was not good. So I yelled that we should turn back.

I knew I couldn’t swim well enough to make it back to shallow waters. So I hung on to the air mattress with one hand and kicked for all I was worth in the opposite direction to tow us both to safety. Alex froze. I mean literally. He was hanging on to the end of the air mattress staring at the rocks, doing nothing to help. The current was very strong and I could see that the sea was very rough on the other side of the reefs, so I put all of my energy into getting away from the opening.

It was futile. The air mattress was both our flotation device and a cork carried by the current. We were swept through the opening between the reefs into the rough sea beyond them and the first of many, many huge waves rose and broke over my head. It was a nightmarish experience. With only one hand hanging on to the life raft, the weight of the crashing waves pushed me down. Even now, without closing my eyes, I can see the sunlight reflecting off of countless tiny air bubbles and remember the sting of salt water in my eyes, my lungs burning. Then coming up for air, trying to turn the air raft toward the opening, kicking, and kicking to save both of our lives.

In the midst of all of this, it dawned on me that Alex was turning the air mattress. It’s easy to turn an air mattress, even in a situation like that. All you have to do is press down. The other end will lift and swing in whichever direction you want to turn it. I was very small and very light for my age so I was of little resistance. And where he turned it was toward the reef we were closest to.

Amidst those relentlessly crashing waves, I had one of those split-second moments of crystal clear understanding. He was doing this because he was convinced we would both end up being swept onto the reef, cut to ribbons by the barnacles. I would go first and he would land on top of me; something to cushion the blow, so to speak. And I knew there was nothing more that I could do. I was sinking into waves of despair and waves of water, half dead and ready to give up.

And then I heard a shout. It was faint, but distinct:

“What are you doing there? Get out!”

Another wave crashed over my head. I struggled to the surface, turning in the direction of the voice. It was my 17-year old sister. She had climbed the “safe" side of the reef and was standing on it, screaming at me. Sounds now suddenly became really important. I could hear her screaming and I could hear whistles blowing. I looked left and right and saw that there were lifeguards standing in boats at either end of the reefs, but they didn’t dare come closer for fear of being smashed on the rocks.

I looked up at my sister helplessly as another wave crashed over my head. When I surfaced for air, she was beside me.

She towed the two of us back through the space between the two reefs, into calm water. When we reached shallow water and stood up, I saw that her legs were cut and bleeding. She had clambered down the rocks and cut her legs badly on the barnacles. She still has faint scars from that.

It was a full three days before I could close my eyes without seeing waves and air bubbles and feeling raw terror.

That was 35 years ago and I will never forget the debt of gratitude I owe my sister, even when she ticks me off. Or the lesson I learned from Alex, who would do anything to save his own skin.

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