We like to be among the first out on the beach. Sometimes in summer than means walking out by 6am. This week low tide is after noon and we began our morning walk on the road, the last half mile north on the rocky shore and then home. We note how the sand moves, the gravel shifts into rolls and then is buried under larger stones, the new and broader rivulets of runoff, the places where shoreline vegetation is undermined, and where high banks have failed entirely this winter in the unrelenting wet.
Yesterday two children, girl and boy—seven, eight years old?—walked well out on the sand, following the retreating waves and then the boy was into water up to his shins. In mid-winter. In an outgoing tide.
Two children wearing only shorts and t-shirts and barefoot. Their parents were dressed quite differently, in gear you’d expect for February on a 40-odd degree blustery morning. The parents stayed high up shore, as did another couple who had been soaked when they could not outrun an incoming wave. The children were playing in the ocean. In an outgoing tide.
I broke my own rule about not talking to tourists in order to warn the father that the child was in danger, that if a wave came and took his child, they would not get him back. “I am local, I have seen it.” Dad seemed amused by my concern. He walked closer to hear me better; I backed away. I told him children had drowned. I told him the water was stronger than he knew. I begged him to get his child out of the water.
Today they were back out again. The boy and girl had come onto shore wearing boots which they promptly kicked off, and they ran off to play in t-shirts and shorts, nothing else. I cannot help wondering: Who allows their children out in such weather clothed like that? The parents wore boots and long pants and padded jackets both days. The kids were dressed for a summer swim and they remained on the beach for nearly an hour. The girl, at least, was cold by the time her turned back, wrapped her in a towel, and carried her.
I am reminded of every story I know about people who have drowned on these beaches. I am reminded of the father new to Seaside who sent his two children out to play on the beach in wool coats and rubber boots and only one returned, of the local teenager who was a strong swimmer but a wave caught him and he drowned before anyone could get to him, of the surfing teenager who lost his board and was swept over a mile south before the Coast Guard pulled him out of the ocean. That last incident was in summer and right in front of our house. The boy was wearing a wetsuit; he lived. I’ve seen men using a throwing stick to force their dogs well out into the surf after a ball. Some like to “exercise” their dogs that way and the dogs are trusting. They keep going after the ball, “ball dogs” being what they are. I saw one dog knocked over and rolled under a wave and then refuse to chase the tennis ball again. The owner yelled at his dog.
Sometimes I feel out of step with the world. Interfering? Worrying for nothing? Gary says it’s because I was a teacher for so long, that I can’t help myself. I don’t like to think of myself as an alarmist or a busybody. But there is that too.
I was a Mandatory Reporter as a school teacher. Maybe that started the habit of interfering. I was required by law to report any suspicion of a child at risk. The rules were very specific: it was not my job to determine if anything bad was really happening; it was my job to report any suspicion of something bad. I did my job. The senior talking of suicide, the one who spoke of being hit, the girl who admitted she’d been gone from school for three days because “my father beat me up” and showed the bruises still hiding under her bangs, the girl who was suddenly wearing baggy clothing and so very-very thin, the athlete whose behavior was dangerously aggressive on steroids. The local police were not always discreet. Early on, I learned not to entrust what I was told to coaches or counselors. I was careful about how and who I reported to. I called parents whenever I could. I worried. My reports were supposed to be confidential, but kids usually knew. One boy I had previously clashed with asked me if I’d been the one to “tell.” After that we got on better. Another student never trusted me again. I was deeply sorry for that, but I do not regret doing what I was supposed to do.
You can’t expect me not to care.
Medical people are mandatory reporters too. When my mother was physically frail enough to need a walker and “in the early stages of dementia” I wish her doctor had cared enough to report her as unsafe to drive. Instead, Gary and I created excuses to keep her out of the driver’s seat. (Years before, an elderly driver had driven right into my car when I had both our young sons strapped in the back. The driver was over eighty and I wondered later if her doctor, too, feared alienating his patient more than what errors she commit do while on the road.)
Doing the right thing is not at all the same as the easy thing, in my experience.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.—The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.
In college, Gary and I had dinner with Tom and Rene who also lived in our somewhat less than humble apartment building Big Pink. (We were fond of their cat, Slump.) Tom and Rene had both recently returned from service in the Peace Corps. Maybe they were grad students in the University of Washington’s School of Social Work? I don’t remember, except they were older than we were. In the course of the meal, the conversation turned to human rights violations against women in a particular country they knew well. I was distressed, angry. Tom said, “Why should you care? You don’t know those women.” I was just out of my teens, but my reasons for distress seemed obvious enough to me at the time. It was a few years later I wondered if he had been challenging me in order to establish a baseline of empathy. I like to think Tom was that smart.
Another friend said almost the same thing in quite different circumstances. We were driving from Seattle to Colorado snd the driver was smoking. He kept tossing his the end of his lit cigarettes out the window. I said it was dangerous to do that, he could start a fire. We were driving in Wyoming at the time. “What do you care? You don’t live here.” It was a response without morality. It still angers me today to think of it. Thousands of acres of dry grass on either side of the freeway at the tail end of summer.
By contrast, Tom’s challenge has helped push me to do the right thing, the difficult thing, ever since.