Wait. Traffic whistles?
The sound came again, shrilling over the water.
Not a traffic whistle – a distress call. We leaned over the railing, searching for the source.
It was 8:46.
Carter was arrowing towards a pair of divers about 200 yards from shore, one foot sticking up in the air as he paddled with both arms (why? we wondered irrelevantly. To help him steer or balance? Or is it some kind of lifeguard cuteness-enhancer?)
As he neared the pair of divers the whistle sounded again, this time with a somewhat aggrieved quality. If that whistle had words they would have been, “Not THEM, you doofus! Over HERE!” Carter locked in on a second group, maybe 50 yards further on. Arms began waving, people reaching. A jetski approached from the Shores. Flashing lights behind us signaled the arrival of EMTs, who began methodically unloading gear and carrying it down to the sand.
In a flash the drama wound down. A diver was helped onto the back of the jetski and brought back to the Cove. Whatever the cause of her distress, she was able to shed her fins and get the last few yards to the sand under her own power, where she disappeared behind a phalanx of EMTs surrounding her like seagulls closing in on an unattended sandwich.
It was 8:52.
I’ve long been fairly fatalistic about ocean swimming. I’m a strong swimmer, but I am also well aware that things can happen out there. If something did happen – an accident, a cramp, hypothermia – well, I’d wave for help and my swim buddies and the lifeguard would do their best. But hundreds of yards offshore, I figured, there really isn’t much that can be done.
It had taken Carter maybe a minute and a half to reach the diver after the first whistle blast; perhaps another minute before the jet ski and the EMTs converged on the scene. In a situation where seconds matter, these folks had worked quickly, efficiently and effectively. I had heard about rescues and seen accounts on the news (plus a few episodes of Baywatch), but I had never before seen these guys in action start to finish. It took my breath away.
It’s easy to focus on the things in our world that don’t work and the things that can’t be done. But every now and then I am struck by the things that DO work, and remarkably seamlessly. It has struck me in airports, where hundreds of people—from ticket agents, baggage handlers, mechanics, flight crews, and security guards to magazine stand clerks and the guy waving the signal wands—take part in the project of getting us from here to there. It has struck me in hospitals, where uncountable layers of knowledge, technology, expertise and human compassion combine to bring care and healing. And it struck me that morning at La Jolla Cove, when a woman walked away from the beach and returned to her life and her loved ones.
That afternoon I bought myself a dive whistle.