One look at Waikiki Beach and I felt like a new man already. Sunshine, sand and tropical sea—a welcome change from the workaday world I’d left behind in Pennsylvania. “Paradise,” drawled Tex, my longtime friend from the South. We’d met up in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1962, with our wives for a vacation. My pal and I were already in our swimsuits.
“Let’s go surfing,” said Tex, his eyes daring. “What do you say?”
Neither one of us had ever surfed before. “Sure,” I said after a moment. “How hard can it be?” Tex and I were both close to 50. He was six four and powerfully built. I was barely five ten, in good shape but no athlete. I looked at the waves crashing against the shore. Can I really do it? I wondered. Then I dismissed my doubts. I’d never been the kind of guy to say no to a challenge. “Let’s go!” I said. We rented surfboards from a tanned beach attendant. Tex hoisted his like a pro. But the board was heavier than I’d expected, and it towered over my head.
As we walked down the beach, Tex said, “We’ve got the place to ourselves.” I waded into the surf, relieved to put my heavy board in the water. Tex and I plopped down on our stomachs, and started paddling ourselves out to sea. I was a strong swimmer, but my arms and shoulders soon ached from the effort. We had to go a long way before we could catch the waves, and I was glad to have the board to get back to shore. It was a far trek for a swimmer, even a good one like me. Lying on the board, I raised my head to look around. No other surfers were in sight. Nothing but God’s endless sky and mighty sea.
The waves were enormous, roaring around us like white tornadoes. “Let’s try this one!” Tex yelled as a frothy monster roiled to our rear. We thrashed our arms into the water, aiming our boards for the curve of the wave. Whoa! No luck. The sea was too strong for us. We were both thrown off our boards.
Too proud to be defeated, we climbed back on and kept trying. Wave after wave, we got buried in the surf every time. At one point Tex glanced in my direction. “Want to go back?” he yelled. I grinned, shaking my head. I didn’t want to give up. I’m man enough to do this! Once more, I pushed my board into an oncoming swell, but I was battered into the sea again. I came up gasping for breath, groping through the water for my board.
“Okay, I’m beat!” I shouted, finally willing to admit it to my friend.
I pressed my face against the board, feeling defeated and foolish. What was I trying to prove out here? God, forgive me. I gripped the board and closed my eyes. “Lord, have mercy,” I prayed. “I’ve never needed you as I need you now.”
To my astonishment, I heard a voice. “Hey, mister!” I opened my eyes and looked up. Swimming at my side was a brown-skinned young man, muscles rippling in his chest and arms. He was obviously an islander, at home in these waters. “Need some help?” he said.
“I sure do,” I gulped. Where had he come from? And how could he swim so far out and not be tired, or winded at least?
The islander leaned on my board and grasped my arm. “Lie still,” he said. “I’ll take care of you.” Then with a quick burst back into the sea he swam around behind me. I felt his strong hands grip the surfboard, and I was thrust forward. My board sliced through the waves like a rocket. Where does he get such strength? I marveled. I felt another powerful push as the swimmer caught up with me. He propelled me through the water. The shore of Waikiki came into view.
Soon I spotted a small fishing boat, and as we got closer, I saw two men aboard, and Tex waving his arms. A few more vigorous thrusts from behind and I reached the boat. My mind swirled like the waves. I climbed onto the boat and collapsed, exhausted. The outboard motor chugged into action, and I began to rally as we were ferried to shore. All I could think of was the brown-skinned man who had suddenly appeared and ultimately saved me.
“Out of nowhere,” I said.
“He must be the strongest swimmer in the islands,” said Tex.
I wanted to find him and show him my gratitude. The attendant who rented us the boards claimed to know everybody, but had no idea who the mysterious swimmer was. Further inquiries led nowhere. I finally had to accept that there was no way to track him down.
Over the years I have wondered if God sent an angel to rescue me. Tex and the fishermen saw him, but given the circumstances, none of us could quite believe it. But it doesn’t matter. God gave me a powerful push that day, and I’m a better man for it.