A tale of two beaches


Stories about the heroism of strangers can restore your faith in humanity — but strangers are no substitute for public servants.

This summer, a heroic group of good Samaritans rescued nine stranded swimmers at a Florida beach by forming a human chain.

Initially, two young boys were stranded in the ocean by a rip current. As adults swam out to try to save them and couldn’t return to shore themselves, the number of people in danger grew.

The same day, on the opposite coast, I went with a friend and her kids to the beach. She had to stay on shore to care for her baby, so when the older children asked me to go in the water with them, I agreed. Even though my friend would be watching them from the shore, it seemed safest to have an adult with them in the water.

We hadn’t been in the water five minutes before a lifeguard approached us on a jet ski. We were swimming in a rip current, he said. We needed to move. He showed us where to move to so that we would be safer. And we did.

There was no drama at the beach that day. No rescues, no near-death experiences.

Just a group of kids and two supervising adults having a great time in the water and playing in the sand. The kids found seashells and poked at sea anemones in the tide pools. They found a slimy sea slug that squirted purple ink, and saw brown pelicans flying overhead.

Unlike the people in Florida, we didn’t make the news.

The beach in Florida had no lifeguard. That’s why, even after the first two boys became stranded, nobody but other beachgoers attempted to help them out. All nine people were struggling to stay afloat while help was called when the onlookers decided to form a human chain.

It’s the sort of story that restores your faith in humanity — but it’s not the whole story. With a lifeguard present, that day at the beach in Florida would’ve resembled my day at the beach in California, in which the worst thing that happened was that the kids fought over the sand toys.

Life in California comes with liberal “big government” at its finest. The state was the first to ban smoking in bars and restaurants back in 1995. Our cars must pass an emissions test before the state will register them. Warnings that just about everything on the planet might give you cancer are a staple in our lives.

But it’s occasions like this that remind me that it’s worth it.

It’s worth it to pay taxes so that there are lifeguards at the beach. Smog is a real problem here, so I’m even glad our cars are regulated. Without the regulations, the smog would be worse.

Sure, taxes run high. But I’d even be willing to pay more if it would finance more wildfire fighters — or, better yet, public transportation, because wildfires and traffic are two problems that the government could go a long way toward solving if it had the money.

Of course, our regulations aren’t all perfect, and it’s seldom fun to pay taxes or obey rules.

But for those of us who can’t hire private lifeguards to follow us around, pooling resources is a great way to make sure that when you get caught in a rip current — literally or figuratively — you don’t have to depend on the kindness of strangers to save your life.

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OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. Distributed by www.OtherWords.org