Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | September 21, 2009


Whenever I see Harrie, which isn’t very often, he brings it up: the time I saved his life. I’m amazed that he can remember it, since he was only about three and a half when it happened. I have grown convinced that what he really remembers is hearing other people talk about it, or his mother telling him about it. Then again, I guess having someone save your life would be a pretty memorable thing – as things go.

Now he’s a grown man, over six foot tall, and lives up in Beaverton, Oregon. On those increasingly rare occasions when we see each other, the usual weddings and funerals, he always brings it up.

“You know, Joey saved my life one time when I was a kid. Tell ‘em ‘bout it.”

And I tell ‘em ’bout it – just like I’m gonna tell you – even though some of ‘em have already heard, just like some of you have. I hope however, to offer herein some fresh details, as best I can recall them.

It was 1973 in Curry County, on the southern Oregon coast – late autumn.

Danny and Laurie on the log. Michael and Harrie off to the right.

Danny and Laurie on the log. Michael and Harrie off to the right.

We, being Danny (19), Laurie (25), Michael (about 4 ½), Harrie (about 3 ½), me (almost 21) and Merlin, Laurie’s big, black, sweet-tempered, Labrador retriever, had decided to go to the beach for a picnic. It was probably warm and sunny up on Carpenterville road where we lived, but down at the beach it was grey, overcast and definitely on the cold side. The photos, both Laurie’s and mine, show us bundled up in sweaters and coats in the bad light. My photos seem slightly fuzzy, as though shot through air dense with moisture – as indeed, they were.

Laurie parked the van in a small clearing on the ocean side of Rt. 101, between the highway and the cliff, a few miles north of Lone Ranch State Park. We had driven past Lone Ranch itself, rejecting it as being more tourist-oriented than we wanted, even if less so than Harris Beach, which was on the very outskirts of Brookings and the most developed and most visited beach in the area.

The place Laurie chose was a hidden beach toward which we climbed down a steep trail the beginning of which could not be seen from the road. Then, from the trail’s end at the beach, we hiked a short bit south and climbed over some big rocks to a private little cove. It was a cathedral-like formation of towering, nearly perpendicular dark rock wall, topped with dense green vegetation, forming a half circle facing west. The grey, roiling ocean water churned up the sand and pebbles of the small beach with a constant muffled rattling sound, like mumbled vespers echoing through the cold stone labyrinthian passageways of an old, decaying European church. For a midwestern catholic boy only recently transplanted to the west coast this was a spot nearly religious with beauty and mystery. I loved it instantly.

Harrie in the foreground, Michael climbing the rocks behind.

Harrie in the foreground, Michael climbing the rocks behind.

It was down to this place that we carried all the makings of a grand meal to be cooked over a driftwood fire. We walked around the small area and talked in various configurations, communing with nature and each other. We built a big fire, made lunch, ate it, watched over and played with the kids and the dog.

From nearly the middle of this short crescent of rocky beach there emerged a long line of large rocks reaching out into the water. One could, by stepping carefully and jumping the occasional short distances, walk out into the ocean as though across the remains of an ancient crumbling stone dock.

After lunch we all, as a group, walked out to the end of the rock dock – as far as we could get from the beach and into, no, onto the water. Stepping large rock to large rock, some so big we could all, dog included, fit on them at once. The wind blew steady, but not too hard, flinging salt spray into our faces. Eyebrows and lashes and hair grew crusty with salt. It accumulated in the curving hollows of our ears. Eyeglasses got misty. The salt gathered on lips and moustaches, moved from there to tongues where it transformed into taste uniting us with the sea in a way mere observance could never achieve. We had walked onto the water and remained ourselves. We had walked onto the water and found connection.

Joe on the left, Danny on the right, Michael & Harrie with their backs to the camera.  You can tell that the wind was really blowing that day. - Photo by Laurie

Joe on the left, Danny on the right, Michael & Harrie with their backs to the camera. You can tell that the wind was really blowing that day. - Photo by Laurie

This far north, and especially at this time of year, the water lapping against the rocks at our feet was very cold. We were grateful that the waves were not breaking so high across the rocks as to soak our shoes. In defiance of all cautious warnings about sneaker waves, we stood our ground, daring the sea to take us, unaccountably confident that a truce of some kind has been struck and we would be safe.

Then Harrie decided he was ready to go back to the beach. Something about the waves disturbed him, or maybe he was hungry again, or thirsty, or felt restless, or wanted to sit down. He turned and started back. Danny and Laurie were having a romantic moment together at the end of the rocks, Michael and Merlin safely with them. So I turned and followed closely behind Harrie to help him over the gaps that needed to be leaped.

Harrie was walking just a bit in front of me, stepping carefully from rock to rock, when I heard Merlin bark and come running, four-legged fast, back toward the beach. He passed me, brushing against my leg and hit Harrie, who he knocked into the water, without noticing, and kept on going.

Harrie was in the ocean, all three and a half years of him, panicked and flailing.

I don’t know what got into me because I didn’t even stop to think – I jumped in after him.

I can’t swim. But that didn’t seem to matter. Holding onto a rock with one hand, I grabbed him with the other while my feet were feeling their way below. I found that the bottom was close, my feet settled in the shifting sand. The water appeared about chest high, that, of course was my chest – for Harrie, it was way over his head and the gentle swells seemed to reach for my chin.

I got Harrie onto my back, his arms wrapped tight around my neck, and climbed up the rock out of the water. I don’t think either of us realized how cold we were until we got out and I stood up. The wind, which had seemed like a mere breeze before the dunking, fully asserted itself then to shiver-inducing effect. Or maybe those shivers were my own dawning fear as I realized what I’d just done and that, had the water not been fairly shallow, had the swells not been easy and low, we might have both died; drowned and broken against the sharp coastal rocks.

By this time Laurie, Danny and Michael were all standing there. Laurie was upset, terrified that one of her children had come to irrevokable harm. She tried to take Harrie off my back, to hold him and make sure he was alright. But Harrie clamped on and wouldn’t let go of me. She kept touching him, talking to him to make sure he was OK. Then she looked to me, her luminous blue-grey eyes looking straight into mine asking me if it was OK for her baby to stay where he was for a while.

I think I may have simply nodded. Yes, of course it was OK.

Danny was watching all of this, holding tight onto Michael now that the idea of a child falling into the water had been proven a reality.

There was no discussion. Laurie took hold of Michael and we all made our way back to the beach. Everything was quickly packed up and readied for leaving.

Harrie still would not let go of me. He’d wrapped his legs around my waist and was holding on for the duration. But that was alright – I wasn’t sure I was ready for him to let go yet. It felt good to have him there wrapped around me where I could make sure he was still safe. A reminder of how close we had come to losing him.

The whole time he held on to me I talked to him, quietly. I don’t remember what I said and don’t recall him saying anything in return, except “no” when I would ask if he wanted to get down yet. And the others were talking to him as well. Now that it was over we could joke about it, and we did.

Every now and then I would catch Laurie looking at us, to make sure things were still cool.

It was awkward climbing over the rocks to get out of the cove with him on my back. And the steep climb back up the trail to the van certainly seemed steeper with the added weight. But even with that I’d not have set him down until he was ready. Which he finally was when we got to the van. I set him down inside.

Joe, before my dip in the Pacific.  Photo by Laurie

Joe - before my dip in the Pacific. Photo by Laurie

Additional details of this story seem to run away from me the harder I try to pin them down – and I want to pin them down. Almost as if they were resisting being written. Hell, even what I’ve already written suddenly feels odd, uncertain, when I read back over it. I stare into the cold white light of the computer screen, as though it were the fierce white light of truth itself and wonder: Did I really jump into that water? Or did I just reach in and pull him out? No. I remember searching out the bottom with my feet while I held onto the rock with one hand. But for some reason I can’t remember being completely wet. Did we have help getting out of the water? That certainly seems likely. What about the camera I always had on me? Wouldn’t it have gotten wet too, ruining the photos. But I have the photos. Did I leave the camera in a bag on the beach? I don’t have any pictures of us out on those rocks.

There were witnesses; what do they remember? I sent an early draft of this story to Danny, to get his feedback, his memories of that day. But he had nothing to add; he did not remember the day at all. And Laurie, who would surely remember her youngest son nearly drowning, died in 2004, just before I wrote the first draft of this story. And Michael and Harrie were so young.

What difference does it make now? What could further precision clarify?

There is this: Every time I see Harrie he brings this story up. And there’s one other thing he does every time I see him, but not when I’m telling the story. Hours later he finds me, gives me a big hug and thanks me.

And that feels real good. Reminding me that, if nothing else, I have done at least one truly decent thing in my life: I saved Harrie.

Santa Rosa, CA
revisions 09/11-20/09
Sebastopol, CA


  1. That was sweet Joe and how great to still know the 31/2 year old, Harrie after all this time. You took pains to avoid making more of the story than was truthful. I like that. Enjoyed seeing you as a much younger man than the Joe A. I’ve known. It makes me recall my time in Oregon in the late 70’s. I look forward to reading more of your stories. Joe Balestreri

  2. I hadn’t heard this story before…how remarkable, and how brave you were! I think it’s the angels who help us ‘jump into the water’ to rescue those who need rescuing…before we have a chance to think about it. We just do it. And I love that photo of you…the Joey of my youth! You just erased 40 years from my life, which is important now that I’m knocking on 50’s door. Love you!!! xoxoxo

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