97: The Voice

97: The Voice

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Touched by an Angel

The Voice

The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.

~G. K. Chesterton

Nothing tastes as bad as the Indian Ocean. Not turpentine. Not rotten eggs. Not even cod liver oil or mud. Especially when you are in the middle of it, choking and swallowing large portions, and mercilessly drowning in it.

And that’s where I was — although not really in the middle of it, but only a few miles from shore off the coast of Mogadishu, Somalia in 1974. Struggling to breathe and stay afloat, and fighting desperately for my life. And slowly, inexorably drowning in the beautiful, sunlit waves of an inhospitable sea.

My ordeal began when suddenly, and without warning, a surge of stomach cramps hit me. Seconds later the first wave of surf struck and I was sent spiraling to the cold depths below. But I quickly resurfaced and was ready to do battle with this monstrous element. For I was young and in the prime of health and physical condition. And being young and cocky, I felt indestructible and was scared of nothing.

Serving on Marine Security Guard Duty in East Africa, I was one of a group of young marines assigned to protect the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Somalia’s tiny, poverty-stricken nation. This was many years before that poor country made headlines and saw other young Americans embattled and struggling for their lives there. It was a time when there was still infrastructure, a centralized government, numerous businesses and even occasional tourists. There were even friendly nightspots to wine, dine and dance the humid evenings away, as well as a fair number of Italian farmers and Americans and Europeans of various business interests and occupations with whom to socialize and enjoy the yearlong sunny, sandy Indian Ocean beaches.

But there were no sunny beaches or friendly tourists for me this morning. And no one three miles away on shore — even with a good set of binoculars — would spot me writhing and wrestling with the sea. Nor were there any nearby swimmers or sea vessels to come to my aid. I was totally alone.

Having resurfaced, and with barely time to take a breath, another swell — larger than the first — appeared from nowhere and forced me under again. At the same time, another wave of cramps — this one also worse than earlier — came upon me. As I was sent twisting below the surface, I felt my body grow slack and begin to lose what I always had assumed was a boundless strength and vitality.

A whole minute passed before I resurfaced. Somehow another swell failed to roll in and punish me. So, although I was exhausted, I started for shore. Then, and again without warning, another wave slammed against me with even greater weight and force. I was sent below the glaring surface a third time, coughing and retching on the brine I had already swallowed. But I was also struggling not to gasp for air while submerged, for I had only exhaled a tiny breath before again submerging.

What were only seconds seemed like hours this time. But I had little to contemplate or to reflect upon except the stark realization that I wasn’t an atheist and did believe in God. And now would be a good time to pray.

But I had no time to pray. No time left to reflect upon my brief, uneventful life. Let alone time to ask God — whom I seldom prayed to — for divine intervention. I was drowning and about to die. I had swallowed a sea of saltwater and despair, and was physically depleted and spiritually drained.

Then, unexpectedly and not knowing how, I was once more above the surface, coughing up water and gasping for air. But I was barely afloat, and unable to move a single muscle. The end would come soon now, and I had no idea why it already hadn’t. Then ultimate despair turned into ultimate terror: out at sea, not more than thirty or forty yards distant, another gigantic wave was heading towards me. And at a hurtling pace! It was at this moment I heard The Voice.

But no, it was more than a voice. Gentle in tone, and powerful and confident in inflection, it was at the same time a soothing whisper and a mighty clarion: both comforting and commanding. It said, “Relax, let go of yourself. And fall back upon the waves and lie still. I will save you!”

I did as I was told and let myself become limp and ceased further exertion. Suddenly, I was on my back, stretched out and calmly floating upon the tossing surface. Then a tide — of a momentous size — loomed above me… but only for a second. The next instant I was riding its crest and being ferried towards shore.

During this not unpleasant ride to shore, I had a sensation of floating on a cushion of air or reclining in a soft bed of flowers. Overhead, all I saw was a perfect-looking noonday sun as well as some scattered, friendly-looking clouds. But in my mind all I heard and kept rehearing was The Voice that spoke to me: its firm, gentle words, and nothing more. And then I was delivered to the shore and crawled out, where I sprawled for an unknown period until my strength and senses returned to me.

This was over thirty years ago, and much has happened in my life since then; some things bad, but many things good. And though I have no physical evidence of the event — no film or tape recording or eyewitness, and sometimes even forget that it actually happened (as I often forget to be a prayerful person) — I know that it did. Especially on lovely sunlit days and whenever I am near the ocean. I also know that it really happened because I am still alive.

Someone or some thing spoke to me in angelic tones one day when I was drowning in the Indian Ocean. It told me that I would be saved. And I was.

~Patrick P. Stafford

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