This piece was written for an advanced creative nonfiction course. I wrote it during the first semester of my sophomore year at Western Michigan University (2011). The facts in this story are accurate according to the Herald-Palladium, South Bend WNDU news, information from Terrell’s friends, as well as from my own observations. This is in memory of Terrell Burton and in celebration of his achievements which were inspiring to many people around him.
A flash of red. A color of passion, energy, and anger; all representations of the raging water behind the warning flag being flown. Waves nearly four feet high roll onto the shore with foaming mouths, pulling the snow-strewn sand back into its depths. The dreary colors of the sky spark a sharp contrast against the flag’s burn. Stay away, a storm is brewing. But the impending danger does not hamper the attitudes of the most dedicated beachgoers. It’s as if the natives of Michigan have crawled out of their hibernation hotels and know that this May date marks the end of another school year and the beginning of what has to be a beautiful summer.
Days like today spur my creative edge and I find my common perch among the sand grasses on one of Silver Beach’s dunes. The sky threatens rain but the noise of the waves in calming, even in their ravenous tone. I pull out my journal and begin to scribble unimportant notes for story ideas. I come here to think. Pen bouncing on my knee, I survey my fellow weather-defying peers. One such beach bum includes Terrell Burton, a nineteen-year-old senior from Benton Harbor High School. I do not know him now, but I will learn of his name within the week’s end. He is surrounded by a group of friends as they sit on the sand, close enough for me to eavesdrop, and talk. Graduation is the only impending danger in Burton’s mind. The usual fears from a graduate are circulating among his group’s thoughts: who will be the one to trip, who won’t show for the ceremony, what kind of clothes will such-and-such wear under their robes. Real worries made into jokes. But graduation is still a few days away and the weekend is nearly over, they should make the most of their time.
The group stands and moves towards the pier. A half mile long slab of cement that separates Lake Michigan from the St. Joseph River, that’s a relative description of South Pier. However, contrary to its lack of flowery detail, the pier is a favorite among both natives and tourists alike. During the warm summer days, the cement is used as an exercise track, a fishing dock, a photography studio, and many other occupational developments. It also offers a wonderful place for friends to sit above the water and discuss life’s mysteries, just as Burton and his friends began to use it.
Halfway down the pier the cement drops three feet. As one climbs down the ramp onto the lower level, the blue side-rails disappear. This makes for fishing much easier; but also creates the impression that the water to either side is safe. It is common knowledge that if one were to fall into the river on the right side of the pier, the current would overpower the person, almost ensuring death. However, a thrill for some remains to jump to the left. The lack of handrails offers an easy entrance, and an excuse. Those who try it explain that the handrails are near the shore because if you jump close enough, the water is too shallow and it’ll cause an injury. If you jump from beyond the handrails, though, the water is deep enough and it’s safe into which to dive. And to do so is frowned upon by authorizes. So it’s a definite thrill, to jump into the lake’s fresh water from the pier.
Perhaps this is what Terrell Burton is considering as his group begins to pace in front of the entrance to the pier’s lower level.
A fresh impact was all Terrell needed when he began his second senior year at Benton Harbor High School. For many in his situation, quitting would have been easier, but dropping out was not a choice for him. So he began his fifth year with a new type of determination.
By Christmas, Terrell had made honor roll. A month later he opened a letter addressed to him and found he had been accepted into Southwest Michigan College for fall semester 2011. Only a few weeks ago he marveled the spectators during a mock interview. Terrell Burton’s future was within his grasp, all that stood in his way was graduation. Sitting in class, he spoke repeatedly of the upcoming ceremony and what would happen after it was all over. The weekend marks the last weekend of his high school career, he should celebrate such an achievement with his friends, especially since he’s worked so hard.
Rip currents are not simply waves which a swimmer must fight, but a circulation of fast-moving belts of water that travel offshore. They are unpredictable, forming strongly in some locations and weakly in others. Fighting against waves and wind can challenge a novice swimmer. But even the most experienced swimmer cannot compete with a strong rip current. A red flag can mean several things but they all tie together to make one clear statement: entering the water is at your own risk, and you’re highly advised not to do so.
Once a rip current has a hold of someone, it doesn’t let go easily. To be released, you must remember to swim with it, meaning, swim parallel to the shore until able to be free from the current. Remembering this guideline is not always helpful, however. Swimming with the current may still pull you under the water’s surface. Or you may swim for such a length of time that you cramp. Either case has the same horrific ending: drowning. And this is if you remember to swim with the rip current. For most, the fear of being pulled away from shore would stir such a frenzy that they wouldn’t be able to think straight. “Go back to shore, swim back to shore,” would outweigh any other thoughts. This is the reason why the United States Lifesaving Association estimates that more than 100 people die each year due to rip currents.
Had this thought crossed Burton’s mind, it was not apparent. Taking off his shirt, he smiles at his friends and points, saying words lost to the blowing wind. His gesture is towards the water, and is returned by the group with laughs and applause: motivation. Terrell throws his shirt to one of his female companions and runs without looking back. His dive shows a lack of skill. He falls beneath the rough surface of Lake Michigan and the splash is hidden by the waves crashing against the pier’s cement sides.
Meghan Pelkey wiped off sand from the back of her legs at the top of St. Joseph’s bluff. A mile away she could see sand mix with water. The bluff offered a great aerial view of Silver Beach. She could see specks of people along South Pier, and she wondered why they weren’t also leaving the open area. It was hard to tell where the water and the sky separated; they both were the same shade of gray. She had journeyed to the beach with her dog, Gabe, but upon realizing the forecasted rain was nearer than she thought, they began to rush back home. Since school was about to end, Meghan had wanted to enjoy the Sunday with thoughts of summer. Looking out towards the lake, however, she realized spring wasn’t yet ready to give up its hold on Michigan.
Home for Meghan was nearly ten blocks away, so with a pull on Gabe’s leash she directed him towards downtown. As they continued, raindrops began to fall. Only a sprinkle, but enough to make her pick up speed. Wishing she had brought an umbrella, Meghan stopped to dig into her pocket for her cellphone; maybe her sister was close enough and could come pick the two hitchhikers up. As she waited through several rings, a series of emergency vehicles passed in front of her. She watched as their lights turned down Main Street, and heard their sirens shout into the darkening sky. It sounded as if they were heading towards the beach. Wondering what excitement she had missed, she took a step back towards the way she had just come. Gabe’s resilient pull in the opposite direction, and her sister finally answering the phone brought Meghan back to her present predicament and the question was quickly forgotten.
Meghan was a friend of mine from school. Neither of us had seen the other when she ventured down onto the beach, but we recounted our experiences of the day to one another on a later date. Thanking God that our positions were not reversed, Meghan says she had the feeling that something wasn’t right, that the day had a sense of foreboding to it. She is glad that Gabe’s persistence forced her to hurry home and not to return to Silver Beach where all hell was setting loose.
The boy’s disappearance wasn’t much of a surprise at first. I had seen my fair share of jumpings, heard boastful tales from friends, and knew that a lot of “pier jumpers” liked to stay under a few extra minutes just to scare their entourage. A small crowd had formed, mostly teenagers wanting to catch a glimpse of such a thrill-devil, and perhaps wondering if they dared to try such a feat. When he finally resurfaced, the lack of a smile was enough to shock anyone into attention, however. Applause began as the boy broke the surface of the lake, but was quickly diminished when his sputters could be heard. Waves tumbled over him, plunging him back underneath their angry rolls with a surprisingly hateful spite. His own group stepped forward, yelling his name, “Terrell! Terrell, man, swim to the ladder.”
Either unable to hear their instructions or too afraid to cognate what they meant, the boy continued to thrash, attempting to stay above the waves. Doing so, though, caused the waves to push him towards the cement pier. Upon his first crash into the cement, two of his friends ran towards shore. Tripping over the sharp rocks which compose the shallow water underneath the pier’s hand-railed level, the two boys called to the pier jumper, motioning for him to swim towards them. He tried, but the waves held him back, moving him away, continuing to throw him into the pier’s hard side. His undefined swimming technique didn’t help matters, even if he had the strength, the water would continue to overpower him.
Sirens sounded behind the crowd and an assortment of emergency vehicles pulled onto the pier’s upper-level. Police, medics, and Coast Guard officials joined the ranks of the growing crowd. I notice several people in the crowd have cellphones out and I am impressed at how quick help has come. I continue to watch, a feeling of shame silently picking at me for not even dialing 9-1-1. The boy struggled to hold onto the last ladder of the pier, but the waves threatened to push him out, past the pier’s boundaries. The girl who held his shirt spoke in tears to a man in a Coast Guard uniform, pointing again towards the boy. I imagine the Coast Guard officer as my cousin, Brandon, who once served on the force. Seeing Brandon consoling the girl comforted me for some reason. I didn’t even know Terrell but my heart was aching for him. I was anxious. But I stayed seated on my dune, tying sand grass blades into small knots. The two friends, who came to realize their instructions were not working, were being tended to by medical personnel for minor scratches on their legs and feet.
As I watch the scene unfold from a safe distance, a man seems to appear out of nowhere. Wearing a neon orange life floatation vest, he runs full force towards the end of the pier and jumps. Without my realizing it, the boy had let go of the ladder and was lost from sight. The orange vest could be seen making surface dives a few yards past the pier, but after nearly twenty minutes of hopeless searching, the man is picked up by a Coast Guard boat. Rip currents account for over eighty percent of rescues by beach lifeguards. The man’s attempt was heroic but shows that even had lifeguards been on duty the likelihood of success would be virtually obsolete. The lake’s rage influenced by the angry weather made the endeavor impossible. The boat’s rocking above the tall waves makes me seasick. Those on the boat can be seen doing numerous exercises, but nothing seems to be working. What started as a sprinkle has turned into a full out monsoon, and the water’s surface yields a spiteful reaction. Water that should be a picturesque blue now is the best example of black. Each raindrop creates a ripple on top of the already choppy water, making everything seem as if it’s breaking the surface, but at the same time nothing. Searching is futile.
Time passes slow on a variety of occasions: work is boring, the professor is monotone, you’re looking forward to a semester break. The hour and a half in which the small Coast Guard boat battled against the might of Lake Michigan was another such example. It felt as if days were passing as more and more people began to crowd the pier. More emergency vehicles arrived, and rumors began to circulate among those standing there.
“It’s been too long. There’s no way he’s alive.”
“The water is only sixty degrees, what was he thinking?”
“Isn’t pier jumping illegal?”
“His friends said he didn’t know how to swim anyways.”
Finally, a sign of relief was marked by the return of the Coast Guard boat. From my view on the dune, I noticed the man who had dove in to save the boy was Brandon. I irrationally feel a surge of pride for the man. Those on the boat communicate with those on the shore. Quick reactions happened next: the EMT’s run to the boat with a make-shift gurney, carried it down to the boat, and brought a blanketed body onto it. The face was covered, but it was obvious what happened. The pride diminished, replaced by a heavy shadow of dread.
As news came through media means, rumor turned to fact. The allegations of Burton’s swimming ability were correct; he had no strength for it. I work at the local Dairy Queen with Justin Williams, a peer of Terrell’s at Benton Harbor High School. Justin swears Terrell was the best person he had ever met, a truly good person. I can’t help but wonder why Terrell Burton would take such a chance with his life, especially after he had done so much to reinstate his good name. Perhaps the thought of developing yet another name for himself outweighed his judgment of what he truly was about to do. “Terrell Burton is a brave man,” his friends would say. “Terrell Burton jumped off the pier, rode on some seriously high waves, and survived to tell the tale,” would be his bragging right. He had proved himself in school, creating a fresh impression of himself among his teachers and peers. Now he would have even more to add to his success. Yet the distinguishing traits by those who did not know him will actually tarnish who he had become.
The youth in the world believe they’re invincible which also can mean immortal. Reckless and juvenile are characteristics placed upon Burton during conversations concerning the incident. I’ve heard my own parents say such things after reading the Herald Palladium’s account of the ordeal. Terrell may have made a foolish choice, but it is not how he should be remembered. Those who knew the boy know the truth: Terrell Burton had turned his life around, was on the path to success, and merely wanted to start his summer with a fresh thrill.