A holiday story with a wonderful and happy ending

Sunday, December 26, 2004

I generally write political columns, and I have written a lot about the need for different kinds of people with different backgrounds to focus on what we have in common, not on what divides us.

I think the following example, sent to me by Amos Kamil in Jerusalem, captures the true holiday spirit in all of us:

"Last month, we were at a beach north of Tel Aviv with a group of Israeli families. There were soft waves, a gentle breeze, a campfire and an idyllic moonlit Mediterranean night.

"After dinner my 7-year-old daughter, Maia, and her friend entered the water for a twilight swim. Perhaps 20 seconds later I followed them into the sea with Lea, my 4-year-old, in my arms.

"By the time I was waist deep, a riptide had pulled the two older girls about 30 yards from the shore. They screamed for help as the rough sea wrestled them further and further out.

"I stepped out and extended my hand. But the riptide was fierce and sucked Lea and me right out with them. Out here the waves were choppy and tumultuous, and the three girls shrieked in panic.

"With Lea clinging to my neck screaming 'I'm scared! I'm scared!' I tried calmly -- and to no avail -- to push the older girls alternately toward the beach.

"A dark man, roughly my age, appeared seemingly from nowhere. I could tell he wasn't a strong swimmer, but together -- both grunting and gasping -- we tried pushing the three girls ashore.

"As we pushed one girl, one of the other two would submerge gagging under the tide.

"I have lived through many things (including the mayhem of 9-11), and no fear in my life has come close to the thought of one of these three girls (or myself) dying just yards from the beach.

"Close to three excruciating minutes later, the stranger and I managed to push the two older girls to the safety of the shallow water. The two sprinted to the beach, screaming for help, as the riptide continued pulling the stranger, Lea, and me back out to sea.

"I tried in both Hebrew and English to summon help from my friends on the beach. The sea was deafening, and no one heard.

"Suddenly the stranger began waving his hands and shouting for help -- in Arabic.

"Within 20 seconds a line of seven or eight men formed a human chain on the beach. A dark-skinned teenager scurried out on a boogie board. A proprietor from a nearby falafel stand darted into the waves with a lifesaver in hand. With the total coordination of the entire assembly, the falafel stand guy grabbed Lea, now hoarse with terror, and pushed her onto the lifesaver, and the human chain dragged the three of us back to the shallow water.

"After the trauma there were slaps on the back, thank yous and hugs. It was only then that I learned that the stranger was not only an Arab from a nearby village, but also that he didn't know how to swim. I learned, too, that the human chain that brought the five of us back to the shore comprised almost equally Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. The Arab stranger and I both agreed that the situation could have ended up much worse.

"He said, 'Baruch Hashem!' -- Hebrew, not Arabic, for 'Thank God.'"

Howard Dean is a syndicated columnist.

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