American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

Heroes of the Storm

It is a dark night in winter.

You sit at home in your cozy, well-warmed room and listen to the storm outside. You hear the wind as it shrieks about the house top and roars in the trees. You hear the hail pelting furiously against the windowpanes. You know that soon the snow will be flying in flurrying gusts through the air and piling itself up in huge drifts across the roadway. You know that by morning, old Zero will come in the arms of the storm giant, stinging the cheeks and biting the toes and chilling the very blood of every one he chances to meet.

"I pity those who are out of doors to-night," you say; and then you return to the enjoyment of your warm fire and the pleasant companionships of the evening.

Do you know that on such nights as this there are men watching every mile of dangerous shore along the Atlantic seacoast and along the Great Lakes? These men sit by no pleasant fireside; while on their rounds they have no cozy retreat from the cutting blast and the drifting snow. They are on duty, by turns, all night and all day. Even in clear, pleasant weather, they are patrolling the shore from half-past four in the afternoon until half-past seven the next morning. It is their business to aid the shipwrecked, to save lives. They belong to what is known as the Life-saving Service of the United States government.

The stations of the Life-saving Service are at the most dangerous places all along the coast. At each station there are usually a captain, or keeper, and seven men. These men are chosen for their fitness to do the work that is required of them. All know the sea. Some have been sailors on the high seas; some have spent their lives on coasting vessels; but the most have been fishermen. They are quiet, simple-hearted men, courteous and kind. They have entered the service, knowing its hardships and perils, and every one of them is a hero.

There are always two men from each station patrolling the shore. One man keeps a lookout from the lonely watchtower. The eyes of all are upon the sea.

The two men who do the patrolling start from the station at the same time. One follows the shore to the right, the other follows that to the left. Each travels till he meets a man from the next station, either above or below. With him he exchanges a numbered brass check, and then he returns to his own station. After four hours of this patrol work the two men are relieved by two others, who continue it in the same way. Thus, as I have said, the entire shore is watched throughout every stormy night and day.

Besides the patrol work, the men have other duties to perform, and there are stringent rules which they must obey. Once every three months a government inspector visits each station to see how it is kept and how the men are doing. Once each week there is a drill in life-saving tactics, so that in case there should be a wreck on the shore the men will know exactly what to do.

At times the surfboat is taken from the station; it is hurried to the shore; it is launched amid the breakers; the crew push out and perform all the maneuvers they are supposed to perform in actually rescuing the lives of the shipwrecked.

At times there are drills in shooting the life line over a supposed wreck. At times the men are regularly instructed in the methods of bringing to life those who have been almost drowned or who have been nearly overcome by exposure to the cold. Nothing is left undone that is necessary to make the service efficient in every respect.

Should a wreck actually occur, then the real work of the Life Savers is performed. Let us suppose that a patrolman, walking along the shore on this stormy night, descries a vessel being driven into the breakers. His first act is to kindle a red-light which he always carries with him. This red-light burns brilliantly and tells the crew of the unfortunate vessel that help is at hand.

The patrolman then hurries back to the station. Perhaps the men there have also seen this signal, and are putting things in readiness. The surfboat with a wagonload of wreck guns, life lines, and other apparatus, is hurried down to the beach at the point nearest to the distressed vessel. If the sea is not too rough, the surfboat, or in some cases the larger lifeboat, is launched. The keeper takes the helm, and the sturdy oarsmen drive the boat out through the surf.

When the wreck is reached, the women and children are rescued first, and then the other passengers. The crew and officers of the wrecked vessel are taken off last. Everything must be done in an orderly manner, and those who attempt to scramble or crowd in ahead of their turn are severely dealt with by the keeper. No attention is paid to the saving of any kind of goods until after every living person has been landed.

It often happens, however, that no boat can be kept afloat in the furious sea. Then the wreck guns are brought into use. A strong line attached to a shot is fired across the vessel. This line is seized by the people on board. They pull upon it and draw in a rope that is attached to it. Both ends of this rope are fastened securely on shore, and hence the middle of it is drawn up upon the shop and made fast to a mast or some other convenient object. To this rope is attached a life car or a breeches buoy, which the Life Savers operate from the shore by means of a strong line so arranged as to run either forward or backward.

When all is ready, the people are brought ashore—one at a time if by the breeches buoy, but often six at a time if by the life car. They are taken at once to the life-saving station, and there they are cared for until they are able to help themselves.

The wages of the Life Savers are small. They are forbidden to solicit any pay from those whom they have benefited. Their duties call them often into places of great exposure and danger. Their lives are given to heroic self-denial. Yet they go forth daily, cheerfully, to the performance of whatsoever duty may be at hand. There is no record of any life savers ever shirking a responsibility or disobeying a command. Their energies are devoted to the rescue of those in peril, and the nature of their services leads them to forget all selfish interests. The stories that are told of their deeds of heroism and self-sacrifice would fill volumes. In this book I shall relate but one, which I have chosen because it is fairly typical of many others.