A Drowning


(submitted July 20, 2014)


It was a beautiful morning in early July, a day I had looked forward to as my family was to visit Bergen Swamp with a group of neighbors. I was a ten-year-old who loved Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan stories and I foresaw this as a trek into the jungle where we could meet snakes and bears and I might even have vines to swing on. I could barely contain my excitement as I sat at the breakfast table with my mom and dad and brother.


But then suddenly our world was turned upside down. The doorbell buzzed stridently and a childlike voice cried out, "Vernon, Vernon," my brother's name. When my dad opened the door, there was our neighbor, Mrs. Bullock, sobbing violently.


"Can Vernon help?" she urged, "Gail fell into our pool."


That immediately drove all thoughts of the picnic from our minds and we ran across the street into the Bullocks' beautifully appointed yard where this tiny child now lay cold on the grass. I knew her as a blond three-year-old with rosy skin but today her arms and legs were white as parchment.


Mrs. Bullock was right to call on my brother. Although he was only a high school senior, he was an eagle scout trained in artificial respiration. And Vern immediately took charge. He rolled Gail onto the blanket my mother had brought, cleared the child's tongue from her throat and began the then form of systematic pressure designed to restore breathing and bring this toddler back to life. Vern was six years older than me and we didn't get along all that well, but I was very proud of him on that morning.


My dad went off to phone for help and my mother had me join her in rubbing the child's chubby hands to try to get her circulation going. As my brother squeezed the little doll, water and mucous drooled from her mouth.


Mrs. Bullock was, of course, distraught. "I was right there in the kitchen and Gail was playing with the ducks. They must have led her to the pool, but why didn't I notice?"


The pool was a fish pond, at most two feet deep and only spanning about five by eight feet. The window to the kitchen where the mother could hardly be faulted. She had been drying breakfast dishes no more than twenty feet away.


Lily pads covered part of the pond's surface and a half dozen goldfish swam about, occasionally nosing up as if hoping to be fed. One of the family's pair of pet white ducks now paddled quietly in the water while the other waddled about the lawn looking for bugs. I remember thinking, "Did these stupid birds purposely lead this baby into the pond? And why didn't they sound the alarm having done so."


We were getting no response from the child when, after about ten minutes, police and fire department personnel arrived with their heavy equipment. They immediately relieved Vern from his responsibilities and affixed an oxygen mask to Gail's face.


Now we simply stood by with the growing group of onlookers. I could see some of the adults' lips moving as they prayed silently. But as time inexorably passed with no response from the little girl, many in the group were crying and I found myself sobbing as well. I couldn't stop and even today, over seventy-five years later, I think back at my feeling of terrible constraint. Couldn't we do something, anything? Couldn't we make some personal sacrifice to bring back to life this defenseless child?


As the time dragged on, it became clear that nothing would suffice. Gail was lost to her family and to all of us who knew her. Until that realization I had only thought of her as a cute little child who was, unlike me, a neighborhood favorite.


Even now all this time later, that episode continues to awaken me at odd moments from sleep or daydreams. I can go months without recall but then suddenly I find myself startled by that mother's plaintive calls and I start to jump up to respond.


This is not a pleasant story to tell and I do not offer it to frighten anyone into overprotecting children. But if it will make guardians check on their charges a bit more often especially around water, this column will have served its purpose. I don't want anyone to have to share my nightmares.-- Gerry Rising