Robert B. Simpson: I'll say it again

April 12, 2014 

As I've gotten older, I've occasionally been embarrassed to realize I'm telling one of my stories again to the same listeners to whom I've told it before. The small group of friends I have lunch with each Wednesday can no doubt vouch for my doing so. That may explain the glazed look in their eyes as I start in again on something like, "The first year I was in the Army …" or "I don't think I've told you about …" But there are times when repetition is critically important, and this is one of those times. Because beach weather is upon us.

Some may remember that I wrote in the past, more than once, about the near-death experience of my then-three-year-old grandson on a beach in Florida. His parents, his twin brother, and other adult relatives were in a small group, about to set up chairs and umbrellas, when he simply vanished.

Frantic searching, calling for help, and near-hysteria ensued. Some searched the beach, others the surf. A young woman spotted an indentation in the sand, dug quickly, and soon felt the child's hair well below the surface. Others ran up to help, praying as they did, and his father eventually pulled him, still alive, from the sandy grave.

The young woman who started digging in what turned out to be the right spot wrote about the miracle for Reader's Digest. CBS sent a crew to interview the child and his parents, and then ran a special broadcast about the incident and the little-known danger of beach sand holes. I wrote about it. Others wrote about it. It is still too little known. Children, teenagers, and young adults still die needlessly. Therefore, I hereby repeat myself.

Beach sand is like finely milled sugar, and digging in it is a pleasure. Let it fall in on top of you, and it will continue to settle around you, tightening its grip like a boa constrictor each time you exhale. When a hole or a tunnel falls in and covers a beachgoer, the victim has few minutes to live, and rescue is often extremely difficult, even if rescuers are right there when it happens. In my grandson's case, we can only assume that there was a small pocket of air trapped at his face, perhaps with his hand cupped over his nose. He was buried for several minutes in a hole dug by others and left. He'd fallen into it and instantly disappeared. He survived. Many don't. More are killed by sand cave-ins than by sharks, but the beach-going public seems somehow not to get the word.

Other than extreme fear of being shut in any small room or restricted space, a fear that eventually abated, my grandson suffered no long-term ill effects. The family still vacations at the same beach each year, but no one digs holes more than knee-deep to the shortest participant. And everybody watches for the holes dug and carelessly left by others. Otherwise, a good time is had by all. Except for those moments when the adults feel a cold chill at the memory of another beautiful summer day when death silently wrapped its arms around a small child and held him in the soundless dark beneath the sand.

I'd like to write poetically and romantically about an escape from clutching, choking death, but there is neither romance nor poetry in senseless and unnecessary injury or loss of life in the midst of innocent pleasure. And so easily prevented, if only people can be made to understand the danger. Many public beaches now police the area to prevent excessive digging and to insist that even the small holes be filled in at the end of play. Predictably, many of those warned are insulted and resentful.

If you should happen to witness a sand hole cave-in, keep in mind that rescue is difficult, the procedure counterintuitive. When many people rush to dig the victim out, their weight will often cause the sand to continue to cave in as they dig. Better to have one person dig while the others stay behind the digger and remove the dug-up sand.

Better yet, of course, for all of us never to let it happen in the first place.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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