ZONE DEFENSE: Where is Elliott?

Sep 13, 2022 by

ZONE DEFENSE: Where is Elliott?

by Scott Orchard

“Zuma” Beach is located in Malibu. It’s listed number “6” of the 33 state and local beaches within Los Angeles County. They count down from the north near Ventura County Line’s “Leo Carrillo” State Beach. Moving south, down Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll pass them all on your way to “Peninsula” Beach near Long Beach Harbor. 33 beaches, spanning 88 miles of Los Angeles County’s southern California coastline. 33 beaches, each with a story to tell from this life-long SoCal resident and Grandparent for nearly a decade. But this story, is all about the grandkids. Particularly my eldest grandchild, 9-year-old Elliott.

My son, Tommy, and I, both had a rare, coinciding Sunday off in early April, so we decided to take his three kids to Zuma. It was a picture perfect, sunny day and a perfect chance to let the kids run off some youthful energy and give their mom a much-needed and well-deserved break. It was also still early — before beach season — so parking would be easy. And with less crowds on the beach, a much easier task of keeping two sets of eyes on three kids running around the sand in three different directions. For those of you that played football, you know, when you’re outnumbered, you can’t cover defensively “man-for-man.” You need to run a “zone” defense. When a kid leaves your “zone,” you let the other “player” pick up the coverage and vice-versa. Well, enough with the football analogies, because as you’re about to discover, zone defense didn’t serve us too well.

Tommy picked me up in his family’s mini-van. As I jumped into the front passenger seat, I turned to see that all-too-familiar seating arrangement. 2½-year-old Felix and his 5-year-old sister, Ruby, with curly headed cherubic faces smiling at me from car seats directly behind me. Their older brother, 9-year-old Elliott, was strapped in and craning his neck from the seat in back. As we cruised down the 101 to Las Virgenes (Malibu Canyon) exit, we stopped at a convenience store to pick up some snacks. We gave Felix one Oreo cookie for the ride (…ONE!) and he spit it up almost as quickly as he gobbled it down. When we finally completed the 40-minute trip through Malibu Canyon and found a place to park, Tommy cleaned up Felix while I started walking the two older siblings down to the sand with my arms full of blankets, sand toys, food and drinks. Naturally, they made a bee-line for the water. When I felt they were getting out of range, I dropped the stuff in the sand and ran after them. Tommy came along with Felix and the beach chairs and set up our spot while I played with the kids along the water’s edge. We were situated perfectly for child safety, right between two elevated light blue-colored lifeguard towers, the main lifeguard station directly behind us and a lifeguard patrol boat in the water directly in front of us. Plus, your assortment of lifeguards cruising the sand in their yellow four-wheel drive Nissan trucks accompanied by an occasional L.A. County Sheriff piloting a “quad” all-terrain-vehicle slowly though the sand. Think the ‘90’s T.V. show “Baywatch.” Yeah, for those of you not living in southern California, it’s really like that. (Though today, there was no sign of Pamela Anderson!)

Felix got a little tuckered out and settled in on my lap. So, I smeared some sunscreen on his fat little cheeks and wrapped a big beach towel over his shoulders. Ruby settled down too, somewhat. In her little one-piece bathing suit fixed with some sort of a pink ballet tutu, she alternated her activities between playing with the sand buckets and tormenting the seagulls with a full can of Pringles she lifted out of our snack stash. Elliott was a bit further away, but stationary. He was sitting in the sand at the water’s edge directly in front of us, content with the seafoam washing over him. He was easy to spot in his dark brown Beatles’ circa 1964 haircut, his stars and stripes tank top and “Captain America” board shorts. We got lucky. All three kids were playing in our zone. We had coverage at all times on all three kids. That, combined with being surrounded by a small militia of County Public Safety and Law Enforcement officials both on land and sea. (I half expected to see an escort of F-18’s patrolling the coastline) Nevertheless, with all that “firepower,” …we lost Elliott!

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of missing a kid at a beach, park, mall or grocery store, you know how it goes from concern to sheer bloody terror in nano-seconds. The problem with losing one at the beach is you look left, you look right and there is no point of reference in the way of a unique, recognizable landmark. Just sand, row upon row of blue lifeguard towers evenly spaced in both directions as far as the eye can see and (…gulp) the deep blue ocean. Immediately Tommy ran up to the nearest lifeguard tower to make the report.

“You can’t miss him” Tommy exclaimed. “He’s tall for a nine-year-old, has kind of an early Beatles’ haircut and he’s wearing red, white and blue summer wear!”

The lifeguard seemed truly unalarmed by Tommy’s report. “Yeah, parents’ lose kids all the time. He’s definitely not in the water. They usually turn up in a few minutes” explained the lifeguard in his best [Fast Times at Ridgemont High] “Jeff-Spicoli-surfer-dude” dialect.

“Usually….USUALLY??” asked my son with a slight raise in his usually measured voice.

Meantime, I stayed near our spot and watched the two little ones. At about this time, both kids (oblivious to our emergency) got quite a bit more active, abandoning their beach towels and beach buckets for a run through the sand, in two different directions. Of course, we didn’t know which direction Elliott headed for in the first place. So, I caught Felix, scooped him up in my arms and then chased down Ruby, while Tommy wandered up and down the beach in search of Elliott.

Finally, I did the inevitable: I raced back to our beach “base-camp” with Felix in one arm and holding Ruby’s hand. I sat them down on the blanket, grabbed my cell phone and called 911. After speaking with the dispatcher, I hung up. Seconds later I received a call back from an L.A. County Sherriff who informed me that he and “several units” were en route to our location.

As I stood there, inspecting the coastline in both directions for Tommy, Elliott or Police, while forbidding the two children from stepping foot off the blanket, I flashed back to the time I lost Tommy when he was about four- or five-years-old. I had taken him and his two sisters to see the latest “Disney” animated feature at the movie theater located inside the local mall. During the movie, I sat in the middle with his sisters to my left and Tommy seated on my right. When the movie ended, we filed out to the left with the girls in front of me and Tommy directly behind me, or so I thought. It wasn’t until we reached the bright lights of the lobby of the multi-plex that I realized my son was nowhere in sight. There were movie-goers flooding out of several theaters simultaneously and the line at the concessions counter was packed. I could not spot my young child anywhere. Finally, I approached a theater usher for assistance. He suggested I report the loss to the customer service desk just steps outside the theater entrance within the mall.

Clutching the hands of my two daughters, I made my way in a panic to the mall’s information desk. As we approached, there was Tommy. He was sitting on top of a desk behind the counter with his characteristic “un-phased-out” expression. He gave me a nonchalant wave and the customer service attendant handed him over. It was the longest 8 minutes of my life! Nonetheless, I could only hope that his son Elliott’s recapture would end as well and be that expedient.

At last, Tommy came into view just a few hundred yards up the beach, walking casually, while holding the hand of our missing Captain America/Beatle-boy. As they came closer into view, I could see that Elliott had something in his free hand. He was sipping a juice-box.

“Where was he?” I screamed

“He made it all the way down past three towers. The lifeguards picked him up and gave him a ride back to the tower where I made the report.” Tommy explained with equal parts of relief, anger and humor in his voice.

I was so relieved, I could feel the air go back into my lungs, the lump in my throat slowly subside and blood flow back through my body. I almost forgot, but I did remember to redial 911 and call off the emergency.

“Where’d you get the juice-box buddy?”

“Steve [one of the lifeguard’s] gave it to me!” answered Elliott matter-of-factly as he handed over his prize for me to share a sip.

We thought about giving him the lecture of taking gifts and rides from strangers but decided that was a lesson best taught another time. With all the excitement, the last 15 minutes being the most exciting of the four-hour beach visit, we were all ready to go home. On the drive home, I looked back and saw all three of my grandchildren sleeping in their seats with sand all over their feet and the corners of their mouths. I smiled and let out a sigh of relief as Tommy turned up the music slightly while shaking his head and rolling his eyes. So much for zone defense.

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