Like any grandparent, I am tremendously proud of my grandchildren. To me, my two grandsons, fraternal twins, are talented, witty, well-mannered, and wise beyond their years. They get along together much better than I ever did with my siblings, while at the same time each is a unique personality, pursuing some of his own interests. They read, write stories, play games, play baseball, play the piano. One is a Boy Scout, one isn't. No danger that either will be a carbon copy of the other. As if to emphasize that point, their hair is of different types and colors, their eyes are two different shades of blue, and one is 4 inches taller than his brother.
If not for a miracle, the taller twin would not exist. The story has been told before -- by me, by Reader's Digest, by my daughter, by CBS News -- and I don't repeat it to bore you, but as a reminder during this season of beach visits. Because it might save the life of your child or somebody else's child.
It happened exactly 8 years ago today, as I write this. The 3-year-old boys and their parents, along with other relatives, had just gathered at a spot chosen for their chairs and umbrellas to be set up. My daughter's gaze moved away from her son as he stood near her, then moved to her husband, then back again. In that instant, young Rob had vanished. No sign of him on the beach, no sign of him floating away on the waves. Nothing.
Frantic, terrified searching, shouting for help, racing back and forth looking for the child, yielded no clue. My daughter wept, the other twin wept, the father raced into the water, looking in vain. A young woman turned and looked back at the area near where the family had first gathered. She saw an indentation in the sand, ran to it, knelt down, and began digging. In a few moments she shouted that he was there. She had dug until she felt the golden curls 8 inches or more below the surface. Young people ran up to help dig, some praying aloud. Soon my son-in-law was able to pull the boy from the sandy grave, his mother unable to look, certain that with the time he'd been buried, he could not be alive. But he was. Rushed to the hospital, he was cleaned up and examined, and found, despite having been underground long enough to have suffocated, to have sustained no apparent lasting damage. Not counting an extreme fear of being enclosed in small spaces with doors latched, a fear that would eventually subside.
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It turns out that this was not an isolated, once-in-a-lifetime event. Young children especially, but also teenagers and young adults, die from sand hole cave-ins on American beaches each year. The silently sliding sand, grasping its prey like a dusty, gritty anaconda, hugs tighter with each attempted breath and each straining movement until life ends in terror, darkness, and suffocation. More people are killed or damaged by beach hole cave-ins each year than by shark attacks. Older kids and even some adults dig caves or tunnels in this most unstable soil. Small children dig holes deeper than their height, or, as happened with my grandson, step or fall into a hole dug by someone else.
Some public beaches now require that all holes be filled in before they are left. Beach-goers are asked to have children dig holes no deeper than waist deep. As you can imagine, rules and suggestions are too often resented and flouted. You may risk an argument, an insult, or a fight if you ask the family right down the beach from you to please fill in the holes they've dug when they leave. But you may risk the life of a child if you don't.
My grandson is none the worse for his terrifying experience. Grown well past 5 feet now, and still shooting upward, he and his brother both look forward to an exciting and fulfilling life. But it is only possible because of a miracle 8 years ago on the beach. Sad to say, there are other children who won't be granted such a miracle.
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."