I cradled the telephone to my ear with my shoulder as I took my notes:
“It’s true.” I told him. “Your father drowned forty years ago because he gave his life preserver to a panic stricken sixteen-year-old boy.”
There was a long strained silence on the telephone.
“I never knew that.” Alan Brockmann finally admitted. “I have been angry for forty years thinking that my father died for nothing.”
Tuesday, July 3rd 1967, the day before the Fourth of July holiday, started out warm and sunny in Charleston, Oregon. Vernon Brockmann, and a couple of friends had chartered a small but sturdy salmon boat for a day of leisurely fishing. It was as much for necessity as for pleasure. The salmon Vern would bring home for his freezer would help supplement the family dinner table through the fall and winter.
Charleston was a sleepy little fishing village north of Bandon, about fifteen miles up the Seven Devil’s Road on a slip of land on the South Slough of the Coos. The captain of the charter boat intended to ply the angry waters between Bandon and Reedsport on the Pacific Ocean, which were renowned the world over for their fishing, and for their unpredictable and capricious storms. But, there was no hint of tempest that day. The horizon was deep, blue and far; the water was clear and calm, the swells gentle and rolling.
By the afternoon, they had caught their limit and were making for the safe confines of the harbor. The captain’s son was at the helm when they were quickly set upon by a vicious squall. Because of the son’s inexperience, or because of the furious sea or both, the little boat was dragged and turned sideways into a deep trough. A great wave broke over the gunnels and ripped Vern, one of his friends and a teenage boy from the deck, smashing them into the awful and hungry jaws of the sea. The captain scrambled through the flooded bilges for the wheelhouse. He knew it would take ten minutes to bring the boat about to get back to the men who were stranded in the cold and bitter waves. Ten minutes in the frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean is a long time for a man who can swim expertly. It’s a lifetime, an eternity for those who cannot.
No one was wearing a life jacket, and Vern did not know how to swim.
In 1968, there was a woman who went to our church named Hazel Lester. Her husband owned a small trucking company and they had a 20×40 foot Olympic indoor swimming pool they would throw open to the church kids and their mothers on Saturdays. My little brother and I would wait all week for the one day we could go to the Lester’s for an afternoon’s frolic in their pool! Boy, was that ever fun! By that time, Mrs. Brockmann had insisted that all her children learn to swim and had taken them to the YMCA in Coos Bay, where they learned to be as fast and slick in the water as fingerling trout.
I didn’t know how to swim- not really. I could get my head under the water and manage a stroke or two before the claustrophobic confines and lack of oxygen forced me to the surface, and I was careful never to get into water so deep that I could not touch the bottom with my head above the surface. Howard and I stayed in the shallow end with a small crippled kid named, Sherman Wigle. Sherman was paralyzed on one side, due to a massive stroke at childbirth, and he could swim but only after a wild and thrashing fashion. He would hold onto the gutter with his good hand and struggle violently along with his twisted arm and leg until he ran out of breath. He was a ‘gamer’ though, and I guess it never occurred to him not to try. I admire him still, all these years later for his unbridled courage and enthusiasm.
One Saturday Vern’s kids- Alan, his younger brother Doug, and his older brother and sister, Cliff, and Brigitte- were splashing around in the deep end of the Lester’s pool, squealing with glee and having the time of their lives. I wanted to go with them. It looked like so much fun! But, I was afraid. Finally, Alan came running down the slippery deck, calling after me.
“Hey, Mitchy!” He panted. “We’re all holding hands and jumping into the deep end! C’mon, it’s fun!”
I was momentarily overcome with Alan’s excitement and glee and not thinking, I exclaimed,
“Wait for me!”
I scrambled out of the safe confines of the shallow end of the pool and ran down the sanded deck after him.
We all grabbed hands, Alan, Cliffy, Briggy and Dougy and me, and stared intently into the deep end of the marvelous blue pool. Cliffy looked us up and down like a drill-sergeant reviewing his troops.
“Okay,” he said, “we go on three!”
We swung our clasped hands back and forth like a Red-Rover line as we counted.
My heart fairly leaped with excitement and anticipation in my small chest.
“Two!” Cliffy shouted.
I looked at Alan and grinned.
We charged forward, toward the roiling water and sprang carelessly into the pool. It was the most free I had ever felt. I was nearly flying as I soared through the air. We all hit the water with a mighty splash. Briggy and Cliffy bobbed like corks to the surface. Dougy and Alan came up next and then I broke the surface of the water. They all immediately swam for shore. I put my foot down to touch the reassuring bottom, but felt nothing.
“Uh-oh.” I gasped, as I sank like a stone.
The water was cold and piercing, and tore at him like a madwoman. He was all turned around and confused. How he had managed to come to the surface, Vern didn’t know but he was managing somehow to keep his head above the water even as every wave that washed over him threatened to drive him to the bottom of the violent green sea. The little ship continued to steam away from them but Vern could see men scrambling on the deck and waving wildly at the wheelhouse. They would turn and come back, of that he was sure but how long would it take? Over the crashing waves and the howling wind, he heard a feeble and terrified mewling. Vern turned to see a teenage boy, thrashing frantically in the storm tossed sea. He was drowning.
“I… I can’t make it!’ He screamed in abject terror.
“Yes, you can.” He called to the boy as he spat salt-water. “Stay calm.” He cautioned gently. “Swim to me.”
It is Vern’s hands I remember most. They were catcher’s mitt big, and could squeeze the life out of any handshake, but his huge hands were never used so well as when they held a crying child. Many were the young and harried mothers of the church, whose fussing screeching babies were quieted after only a few moments comfort in Vern’s over sized hands. There was never a safer or more reassuring place for an angry, anxious or frightened child.
“See?” Vern managed a weak smile, though he was terrified himself. “They’re coming back for us. Swim here, come to me.”
The little boat began its slow wide turn.
Vernon Brockmann and my father were friends. They both worked the green chain at the Al Pierce Saw Mill and their families went to the same church. Dad was tall, quiet and rail thin. Vern was regally slender, lanky in his arms and legs and soft spoken. His shoulders were square and broad, his hips narrow and his kind oversized hands were gnarled from the years of hard labor. He would come to visit my dad once a week or so and the two of them would share a cup of coffee at the kitchen table of the Nelson House, or by the stove in the semi-gloom of the living room. Neither ever said much in those stolid moments, preferring to let the silence of their shared company say all that needed to be said. Vern was a man of devout faith and spirituality, who never delighted so much in conversation unless and until it turned to his love of Jesus Christ and his salvation and hope, his dream of heaven.
“Help me, please!” The young boy cried out in desperation as the waves crashed over him.
He was loosing his fight to stay afloat. He was flogging madly at the water, not swimming so much as he was sinking. Vern wasn’t doing much better. He had managed to kick and scratch his way to the surface and was staying afloat, if in a Sherman Wigle stroke victim fashion, but the frigid temperature, the storm thrown waves and his water-laded clothes were beginning to drag him inevitably under.
“You’re all right, son.” He comforted the frightened lad as he gasped for air and struggled to stay above the ugly sea. “Come here to me.” He called.
The fishing boat helmed hard over out of the trough. The captain pushed the throttles all open and began to steam hard back toward the drowning men. He called to his son and the deck hands below.
“I’ll bring them to starboard!” He shouted as he spun the wheel hand over hand. “Keep your eyes on them and don’t lose sight of them in the turn!”
The little boat strained against the storm as it climbed the perilous waves. “Toss the vests and rings first and then the buoy line!” The captain commanded.
I could hear the muted excited shouts of my friend and his siblings above me, but I was deep to the bottom of the Lester’s pool. Their voices sounded stunted and far away. I panicked. I didn’t know how to swim and I had just leapt headlong into where I could not touch the bottom and still keep my head above water. Instinctively I began to kick and claw. I was lost in a blue puzzle of foam and air bubbles. I screamed but nothing came out. I tried to breath but only sucked chlorinated water into my desperate little lungs. I couldn’t tell if I was up or down, right or left. I was petrified! Just as suddenly, I was thrust coughing and choking and sputtering into the harsh air and light. Alan, Cliffy, Briggy and Dougy were already scrambling out of the pool for another run at ‘one, two, three!’ No one seemed to realize that I was drowning!
I thought of Sherman Wigle. How did he do it with only one arm and one leg?
Well, to be sure, he was always holding on to the gutter-well with his one good hand, but he was swimming all the same. He would take in a deep breath, tuck his chin to his chest and then splash along like a dog. It wasn’t pretty or graceful but he was moving and staying afloat. I managed to suck in a ragged breath. I tucked my chin down, which forced the air filled lungs in my back high in the water and I began to kick violently. I reached forward with my hands and began to grab at the water and pull it toward me. As I did, I lifted my face just long enough to suck in another short breath of air. Suddenly I hit my head on something hard. It was the side of the pool! I grabbed onto the gutter and held on for dear life. I looked around. No one seemed to realize that I was in trouble. But, what had I done? And, how had I done it?
I watched as my friends leapt yet again into the pool. As each of them bobbed to the surface, they dogpaddled for a few frantic strokes to gain buoyancy, and then stretched out their arms, kicked their legs and began to swim. It didn’t look like it was that hard to do. I pushed hesitantly away from the wall and did the same. In no time, I swam to the other side of the pool. I was swimming! I swam back, and then returned again. It was easy! There was nothing to be afraid of! In that moment, I had learned to swim.
The overwhelming panic was beginning to win against the young boy in the water next to Vern. As so often happens, the fear is greatest and most paralyzing just at the moment of imminent rescue. The boy was drowning. The deck hand threw a flotation ring to Vern, and he caught it with his huge hands. He turned to the boy and shoved it at him.
“Take this.” He said calmly. “You’re going to be okay.”
Vern’s friend and the panicked teenager were pulled safely from the turgid water.
Vernon Brockmann’s body was recovered from the beach a month later, and was positively identified by his military dental records. After giving the drowning boy his float ring, he had slipped unseen and forever silently away beneath the waves.
“I’ll check with my mom and dad.” I told Alan over the telephone. “But, I’m sure of what they have told me; your dad drowned while saving the life of a sixteen year old boy.”
Years later, in my junior and senior years of high school, I became a varsity letterman on the swim team, principally as a springboard diver. But, on one occasion, when the squad was inexplicably a man short, I swam the anchor-leg of the four-by-one hundred freestyle relay. My teammates, Chris Davis, Kevin Kirklie and Ted George- or maybe it was Paul Osterman, I don’t recall exactly- were real speedsters, and virtual dolphins in the water; regular human torpedoes, and Coach Foster knew that if he swam me last in the order, the lead that Chris, Kevin and Ted, or Paul, would build would be nearly insurmountable, and that all I had to do was not drown for us to win.
Because of Vernon Brockmann, because of Hazel Lester’s generosity, Sherman Wigle’s bravery, and because of an innocent invitation to jump into the deep end of the pool with my friend, Alan Brockmann, whose father had died saving the life of a terrified young boy, I had learned not to drown.
As I recall, we won that race.