The boy struggled with a cart filled with beach stuff as he dragged it down the boardwalk. It was fish-tailing behind him and I almost told him to push rather than pull, but decided to mind my own business. I was pushing a small load myself, my sleeping grandson in a stroller.
He was with a girl a few years younger, a woman who looked to be a grandmother, and several small children. His role as pack-mule got further complicated when the woman tried to buy beach passes at a cash only entrance and pointed to the pavilion, three blocks down. I heard the boy grouse about how far it was, the woman told him to stay put, and that was that. It took all of 30 seconds.
I’ll admit here the family stood out to me because they were African-Americans, and you don’t see many on Spring Lake’s beaches. No reason, in particular. You just don’t.
Right after I saw the family, I took a photograph to send a friend of blue umbrellas from the Breakers Hotel, all tilted down to protect the people behind them from strong winds roiling the surf. There are days on the beach when wind is the greater hostile force than sun, and this was one of them.
When I look at the picture now, I see the yellow caution flag among the downed umbrellas. I didn’t notice it when I took the picture but looking now, it is an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come, when I would learn his name was Josiah Jeremiah Robison.
I grabbed a bench down the boardwalk from where the boy and the other children waited, only because it was the pre-arranged spot where I would meet my son and daughter-in-law. As we walked down the boardwalk, I passed the woman and girl, on their way back from the pavilion. I also remembering looking at the ocean where I have swam for most of my 62 years and thought, “Not today.”
We got to our spot in front of the pavilion and settled in. A short time later, people began standing and looking up the beach. At first I thought it was a shark sighting, especially when the lifeguards began whistling everyone out of the water. When the crowd of people thickened we, too, got up to see lifeguards by the dozens going into the rough surf to form a human chain. The guards at front were 100 yards out.
More lifeguards came and formed a second chain and at the point I realized this was not a rescue, this was a recovery. There were about 60 in the water and reinforcements came in two trucks from Belmar. A small boat and a Manasquan Lifeguard jet ski towing a swimmer appeared, then the first of two Coast Guard vessels and finally a State Police helicopter to hover as boats scoured the coast.
I texted a friend who is lifeguard captain in Manasquan to see if he knew what was going on. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was manning the rescue jet ski. He got back to me when the search was suspended and gave me details before they hit the news.
The victim was a 15-year-old African-American boy who disappeared in the undertow just out of reach of the lifeguards who saved his younger sister and another family member. He described to me the stricken family and I knew it had to be the boy I saw on the boardwalk only moments before.
The capriciousness of life. It is the yellow flag in the back of our minds, when we hear of unexpected death -- those tragedies that seem to pick us at random. Car crashes. House fires. Homicides. “There but for the Grace of God go I.” Or a loved one.
Yes, some are avoidable, but anyone who has truly lived has put themselves in position for tragedy, be it hiking on a mountain, walking in a bad neighborhood, going out on a boat or climbing on a motorcycle.
That yellow flag is up in our daily lives, and Josiah Jeremiah Robison ran past one into the ocean on Sunday, not to die but to live. To splash in the salt water and feel the thrill of the waves pounding the shore. To really live.
The ocean took him, as it has swimmers and sailors and fisherman for all time. He was publicly identified Monday as the search for his body continued, and this morning, the ocean returned it to his family on a beach in Spring Lake four blocks north of where he disappeared.
At the Spring Lake boardwalk pavilion at Newark Avenue on Tuesday, his grandmother maintained a vigil, awaiting for her grandson’s return. Community members dropped flowers and gave their condolences.
Beach people know the unyielding power of the ocean and the swiftness of its violence when it is angry and turbulent. They know, “there but for the Grace of God …”