Swimming Beneath the Waves

by Rev. Jon Turner.

In January 2010, a very large and dangerous rain storm was pounding the southland. There was serious flooding and the Los Angeles River was raging like the ocean with powerful currents and large waves crashing along the cement walls of the aqueduct. Everyone had been warned to stay away; everyone except for a lone German Shepard near the town of Vernon, the nickname that would eventually be given to this poor, lost dog. “Vernon” had fallen into the river and was clinging to both the aqueduct and to his very life.

Someone noticed Vernon and called the Los Angeles Fire Department. They responded immediately with over 50 firefighters along with a helicopter. The plan was to lower a firefighter from the helicopter down to the dog via a harness. This was very dangerous due to the wind, high waves and this very large, frightened German Shepard. The dog was shivering and his ears were pinned back.

This was all captured on live television. The dog did not have much time before it would be swept away to its death. Suddenly, dangling from the helicopter was 25-year veteran firefighter Joe St. Georges. He knew that he had to get a muzzle on Vernon but there was no time. The only thing he could do was to just go for the capture. But Vernon was frightened and as Joe grabbed him, Vernon bit down on his hand with all his might.

Joe and the dog were now dangling over the river as they were being hoisted back up to the hovering helicopter. Both were immediately taken to the hospital – one for humans and one for dogs. Joe’s hand was seriously injured and Vernon was suffering from exposure.

Joe had fractured his thumb and lost a nail from the bite. Joe had his hand in a cast for several weeks and, during that time, Vernon was also being cared for. Later Joe said that he "didn't really have the time to establish any rapport with the dog. He's cold, he's wet, he's scared, and then here's this stranger jumping on his back … and he did what dogs do."

This hour long rescue was both famous and infamous. Joe – still wearing his cast – and several of his fellow firefighters even appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Vernon was also becoming quite famous. Many of the viewers wanted to adopt him. However, some also questioned the risk and expense of saving a dog. Many felt that both were far too high for the rescue of “just” a dog. They questioned the priorities of the LA Fire Department.

Fire Captain Steve Ruda responded to these concerns by saying that the rescue was not as extravagant as it may have appeared. All the firefighters were fully trained, already on duty. The rescue also did not affect their response times to any of the other emergencies that day.

I had watched all of this with my son Teag. He was 20 years old at the time and a California State Life Guard whose goal was to become a fireman. So this story was very personal for me. I love dogs very much. They are by far my most favorite animal. I even began to tear up a bit as I wrote this essay. But I also love my son very much and wouldn’t want to have him placed in grave danger even for a dog.

I felt very conflicted so I looked at Teag and asked him what he would do if he saw a dog drowning in the Santa Ana River during a storm. This isn’t really a hypothetical – Teag often lifeguards where the Santa Ana River empties into the Pacific Ocean near Brookhurst and PCH.

 Without hesitating Teag said matter-of-factly that he would just take off his shoes and pants and dive into the water and save the dog. He then turned the question around on me and asked what would I do? Without thinking, I said that I would try to stop you. This may not the “right” answer but it is an honest answer; the answer of a father who also loves his son very much.

Teag then looked at me, smiled and said “Dad you don’t understand. Some days the surface of the ocean is safe and calm while on others it is rough and dangerous. But the ocean is always calm – every day. This is where the lifeguard swims. We rely on the depth of the ocean not on the surface of the water.”

I was stunned. For Teag, my question had nothing to do with dogs or danger. The premise of my question was flawed. First, lifeguards just save lives: human or canine is irrelevant. Second, there is no danger or safety. There are only rescues. The victims are in danger only because they are fighting the ocean. It is the lifeguard who pulls them out of this fight. I was no longer worried about Teag. I would no longer try to stop him. I was relaxed about his safety. I was calm.

I began to think more about this idea of surface versus depth as it relates to Buddhism. Life is also like an ocean; one which we only experience on the surface. This is where things are impermanent and full of risk and danger. This is where life is suffering. We are greedy for things that make us feel safe and are angry with the things that make us feel anxious. But this only occurs because we are unaware of the depth of our lives; a depth that gives us permanent support. If we can realize this depth in the here and now then we will no longer suffer. We will be calm. We will only be living; no longer struggling with life and death.

Sometimes life is good and sometimes it is bad but this is only on the surface. The depth of our lives will always be calm. It is this depth that one may always rely. In our tradition we call this “Namuamidabutsu.”

In gassho,

Rev. Jon Turner