At first, we just thought they were waving. People take those little boats out on the water all the time -- they paddle around for a while, and then they paddle back to shore, while the rest of us sit on that tiny little beach with our blankets and our coolers and watch the show.
So that's what we thought was happening, and we waved back. Except that they kept waving -- two little kids, and their mom -- and the waving got more and more energetic, until somebody finally figured out that they were in trouble. The current had turned or something, and no matter how hard they paddled, they weren't any closer to shore than they'd been a few minutes ago.
A few of us ran out to the end of the pier to see if maybe we could pull them in from there, but they were just out of reach. We even made a kind of human chain -- there wasn't a halfway decent swimmer in the whole bunch of us -- but they were already too far away, even with the mom stretching over the side of their boat with her paddle out for us to grab onto.
We shouted back to the beach for the others, but by then the little boat was even further away, and riding lower in the water. The mom had gone back to paddling, and the two little kids hadn't ever stopped, but there was something frantic in their strokes now, and their paddles slapped the water as often as they sliced it.
"We need a rope!" somebody shouted, but we had no rope. Then somebody pointed.
"What about The Cottage?"
There was a bluff just above the beach, and perched on the highest part of the bluff, a single house. "The Cottage," everyone called it, although it was anything but a cottage. It was a grand old house, with weathered shingles and brightly painted gables and nautical touches everywhere, and it had been there forever.
"They'll have a rope! Somebody go!"
So two of us went, while the rest stayed on the pier and shouted encouragements toward the little boat. We raced back to shore and over the sand and the sea grass until we reached the little footpath worn into the bluff. Up we climbed, and around one last bend, and ran smack into a man in a guard's uniform.
"Private property," he announced. "You can't go in there."
"We need a rope!" we gasped. "A life preserver! Do you have a life preserver?"
"Private property," he repeated.
Our words came in bursts, as we tried to explain. Surely he didn't want that mom and her two little kids to drift away and be lost forever. Surely the owner, whoever he was, could spare a life preserver, or even just a length of rope, for such an emergency. Couldn't he at least go back and ask the owner for this one small contribution?
"He's already contributed enough. Too much, if you ask me. If he gives something to you, he'll have less for himself."
"But they're drowning!"
"You want him to violate his principles? No. New. Contributions."
"Can't you even ask?"
Then the guard told us how it works: If he goes back to the house to ask, he'll interrupt the owner, who's a very busy man, and he'll only say "No" anyway, because of his principles.
But if he doesn't go back to the house to ask, and doesn't interrupt the owner, the owner will keep working at whatever it is he does, and he'll make even more money and build an even bigger house up on the bluff -- and maybe someday he'll even build a longer pier. Then people who are drifting off in their little boats can climb onto the pier and be safe.
"But they're drowning now!"
"That's not our problem."
Down the bluff and across the water, they were almost out of sight.
Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at email@example.com.