Mysterious rescue on Sullivan’s Island by Dr. E. Lee Spence

Do you know this person's identity?

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Dr. E. Lee Spence writes of his 1965 rescue of young boy in storm driven seas and his efforts to learn the boy’s identity and what became of him in later life. It is a true tale of Spence’s unusual premonition, his efforts to overcome his fears and the boy’s heroism.

© 1993, 2010 by Edward Lee Spence

Having made numerous discoveries, I consider myself quite adept at solving old mysteries, but this time I need help. I am trying to find something more important than gold, or more precisely, someone who has been extremely important to me. Part of this sounds supernatural, but I assure you it is absolutely true.

Has your life ever crossed paths with someone else’s in a way that both of your lives were changed forever? Mine did. As a teenager (17 years old), I saved a young boy and almost drowned myself in the process. Because I never even learned the child’s name (nor he mine), and because of the strange, almost psychic circumstances that led up to it, it has haunted me ever since. I feel compelled to learn his name and see what life has brought him. 

In 1965, within weeks after my family moved to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, a hurricane passed miles off the coast, churning up the waters, turning them a dirty brown, and building the waves into powerful, crashing breakers on the beach. My younger cousin (Chip Knudsen) was visiting, and I suggested that we walk down to the beach. I was too embarrassed to tell him that I wanted to go because I thought someone might be in mortal danger, and that I might be able to save their life. It was a strange feeling, certainly one I had never had before or since. As we reached the beach, I glanced up and down, but saw no one. I was almost disappointed because the premonition had been so strong and compelling.

We started walking towards the south end of the island, and had gone several hundred yards when both Chip and I heard a strange, barely audible cry, almost like the screech of a sea gull, muffled and softened by the wind. It slowly dawned on us that it was a call for help, and we finally spotted the source, a boy about 10 to 12 years old.

He was out past the third set of giant breakers. Caught in a strong current, he was drifting down the beach, and rapidly away from shore. He would sink out of sight and struggle back to the surface, flail his arms, and scream.

Although still a skinny kid, I was in excellent shape and I was an extremely strong swimmer. I raced down the beach, shedding my shirt and shoes. My heart was pounding as adrenaline coursed through my veins. I had no doubt that I could save him. It seemed destiny. However, as I plunged into the waters, and was slammed to the bottom by a breaking wave, I quickly lost my confidence and cocky attitude. Living by the ocean was new to me, and I had not yet learned respect for the immense force of the sea. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like a hero. I felt unusually weak and puny. I was afraid, for myself and for him. The power of the ocean seemed beyond me.

Out on the crest of a rolling sea, I could see the boy struggling for his life. He obviously had seen me and was fighting to stay alive long enough for me to reach him.

Self preservation suddenly seemed the right course of action, and I wanted to give up. But, something wouldn’t let me. I couldn’t let him drown, just to insure my own survival. Instead of turning around and abandoning him. I struggled against my fears, and fought my way through the breakers and out into the Atlantic. I was terrified that we would both die, I prayed that I could save him. I prayed I wouldn’t die in the effort, my life sacrificed for his.

Each time the waves swept over him and he disappeared from sight, I thought he was gone. I didn’t want to have to look for him underwater. Part of what drove me on was fear of what others would think of me if I failed, I didn’t want to tell his family that I had turned back out of cowardice (I definitely was scared), or that I had arrived too late and had watched him die. I also felt that if he could keep fighting I could do likewise. His courage was infectious, each time he found the strength to reach the surface, it gave me renewed hope. There was no “three times and your out” for this boy. He had a will to live and wouldn’t give up.

As he struggled with the seas, I fought with my own fears. Without even knowing each other, we became a team. Each rooting for the other, each finding solace in the other’s presence.

I was exhausted when I finally reached him. I knew that I didn’t have the strength left to fight off a panicked person that might view me as an island of safety. But he didn’t fight. He simply went limp, whether he simply lacked any more strength or whether he was instinctively cooperating, it was the right thing to do. He left getting to shore to me.

He may have felt safe, but my dread increased tenfold, his life was now literally in my hands. I knew I was way past my limit. My muscles ached, my heart pounded, I was out of breath, and gasping for air. My eyes were almost blinded from the salt, and were closed to narrow slits. A powerful undertow had us both, and was trying to pull us back out to sea, but by swimming diagonal to the current and pulling him along with me, I slowly made progress. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead. He seemed lifeless, but I knew I couldn’t let him go, not at this stage. As we reached shallow water I drug him up the beach and collapsed next to him in the sand, the waves washing and tugging at our feet, as though trying to pull us back out. I didn’t even think to check to see if he was still breathing, but a choking cough quickly told me he was alive.

A very pretty dark haired girl, between thirteen and fifteen ran up. She was probably his sister. As he cried, coughed and sputtered for more air, she put her arms around him to comfort him. She didn’t speak, but her emotion filled eyes exposed her feelings. She was grateful. I was embarrassed. I didn’t feel deserving or worthy of thanks, I knew how close I had come to abandoning him, both before and after I reached him. I was no hero, he was. He deserved all the credit. I was ashamed. At most, all I had done was what was right. He was the one with the internal strength, he fought for his life and it was only because of his courage that I was able to help him. Without even asking their names or telling them mine, I motioned to my cousin to leave. I slowly rose to my feet and stumbled off, still trying to calm down and catch my breath.

Because of the inherent dangers in my occupation (underwater treasure hunting) and because I am an action sort of person, I have since saved at least a dozen lives, sometimes at great risk to my own. But those were ordinary occurrences, there was no premonition. I was simply at the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time. None of those rescues affected my life and soul the way that saving that child affected me. I have also faced many dangers (trapped underwater, run out of air, etc.), but somehow I have survived them all, each time vividly remembering the small boy who wouldn’t give up. In effect, his courage has saved my life many times.

Within hours of walking away, I wished I had talked with him and gotten to know him. I described him and his “sister” to my friends and asked if they knew them, none did. I believe their family was vacationing on the island, as it is unlikely that a knowledgeable local would have dared the foreboding waters of that day. I think of him frequently and I wonder what eventually became of him. I wonder why he was on the beach that blustery day, and I wonder what caused me to have the premonition that brought me to his rescue. I wonder what propelled me through the waters, in spite of my fears, and what was inside him that kept him fighting for his life. I wonder how he felt when I finally reached him. I wonder if he knows how scared I was. I wonder if he recognized his own courage, and whether he grew up good or bad. It has now (in 1993) been over 28 years, and I still wonder about that day.

Please help me find him. Please help me thank him for what he has given me.

{Note: The rescue took place in 1965, and the above article was published in the “Moultrie News” in 1993. It is now 2011 and I still, after 46 years, have no clue as to who the “boy” was. Please “share” this with your friends on Facebook, MySpace, etc. If enough people read this, perhaps someone will know him. Thanks, Lee.} 

Another Note: As mentioned earlier, over the years I have saved more than a dozen lives and a few of those were at serious risk to my own. For instance, I took a sawed off shotgun away from a man just as he swung it up and pulled the trigger to shoot someone. Another time I wrestled a knife away from a person who attacked a clerk in a store. But none of those affected me like saving the boy did. His courage and trust has been something that I will always remember and it has meant a great deal to me. By the way, I had my own life saved a few times (twice by Captain Jim Batey, once by Captain Jack Parker and at least twice by Captain Steve Howard). I wrote about what Jack did and I posted in on the main Hunley group on Facebook, as it took place while we were working on that project decades ago. For an account of Captain Jack Parker’s rescue of me see “Discovery can be dangerous” at http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=49462872435&topic=9095