August 1, 2008

A Near Tragedy In Jacksonville

Some of my recollections of this story, forty years past, are distanced in a summer-like haze, but her name, I will never forget. We went to the pool today after work, which we rarely do, and the memories came back to me as I was walking around in our pool in the early twilight; the stars were just making their faint appearance.

Janet had kept that yellowed newspaper clipping for a time after that summer of 1968. Every once in awhile I would get it out of her hiding place and read it. The cut out paragraph out of a Jacksonville Florida newspaper told of an averted crisis, a little memento, which for us was a moment of first hand high drama.

We came to our annual trip to Florida by way of Hilton Head Island. We had stopped there to pick up Janet, who stayed with a high school friend the week prior. We had spent the night there and then headed to Bradenton by way of Jacksonville, where we had spent the night at a motel. I can remember the usual criteria as we passed the motels. We saw several motels with either a diving board or a pool slide; this motel had both, the perfect motel configuration for the McClain crew.

It was early evening and you could hear the tires whining from the interstate across the motel access road. The narrow motel parking lot surrounded the pool on three sides; the motel office was close by the pool. There was a sixteen-year-old girl with short blonde hair already there in the pool when the four McClain kids walked over in flip-flops and swimsuits. Her name was Becky Buncoe and she was the daughter of the owners of the motel. By such status, we were duly impressed; she could go down the slide and dive off the diving board every day if she wanted.

“You can stick your hand in the drain, it feels neat!” Becky said. She would dive off the board, go down the ten feet to the drain, stick her hand in, and then surface. We were wary of sticking our hands in a black hole at the bottom of the pool.

Janet said “She been down there too long Barry!” I dove down and I could hear Becky screaming through the water, her arm had been suctioned into the drain up to her elbow and she was furiously trying to pull herself free but could not get her legs under her. I pulled as hard as I could but it was impossible. Scared to death, I shot to the surface, ran into the motel office, and yelled that Becky was stuck in the drain at the bottom of the pool. Her father ran out, went down to the pump room next to the pool, turned off the pump, and then dove in the pool, all in a matter of seconds.

Dad helped Becky’s father pulled her limp, lifeless body out of the pool. Becky was on her stomach by the edge of the pool, her father pushing on her back while almost whispering “c’mon Becky, c’mon Becky”, over and over. We were all standing in a knot, off to the side helplessly watching. Becky started coughing and gagging while water started coming out of her lungs onto the pool deck. Her father cradled her head in his arms, she whimpering while her father openly wept. The ambulance arrived and they took her to the hospital for observation.

We saw Becky and her parents the next morning before leaving. Her father thanked us and shook my hand as if I was the one who saved her life. Becky was tired looking from being up most of the night and her freed arm was scraped up to her elbow. She begged us to stay there on the way back.

We stopped at that motel on the way back home and there was Becky, in the pool, just as it was a couple of weeks before. The only difference was the metal grate secured over the drain at the bottom of the pool. We swam, slid on the water slide, and dove off the board. Towards the end of the evening Becky said she wanted to give me a reward for saving her life and told me to go in a store room that I would find unlocked.

I was standing among the shelves of clean folded linens and towels and Becky came in. She looked me in the eyes and thanked me for saving her life and we kissed. She left just as fast as she came and after a minute I left and went to our room. I wish I could’ve seen her before we left but we started too early in the morning. The whole time we were packing the car I was looking for her. I remember looking back at the motel as we drove away, hoping to at least wave her a goodbye.

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