JONESPORT, Maine — It’s been more than 40 years since Alvin Beal drowned on Oct. 17, 1972, at the age of 17 while rescuing his father from a rogue wave off Great Wass Island that capsized the fishing vessel his dad had hand-built for hand-pulling heavy wooden lobster traps.
The family somehow endured the uncertainty of days of searching before divers discovered the boy’s body. It was five days of agony for the teenager’s 14-year-old sister, Mercy Beal, who then, as now, adored her brother “Pidge.”
“It was devastating,” she said Wednesday. “I have never gone through anything worse than those five or six days. If there is such a thing as hell on earth, my family lived it.”
Friday, March 8, 2013, would have been Pidge Beal’s 58th birthday. Instead it will mark this tight-knit fishing community’s celebration of his life and his heroic demise. At an 11 a.m. ceremony at the Jonesport Community of Christ Church, U.S. Coast Guard officials and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins will gather to present Beal’s family a posthumous Certificate of Valor for the teen’s last-gasp efforts to drag his father to the safety of the overturned hull of their boat before Pidge went under, within 100 feet of shore.
“My father said he saw this tall wave coming, but didn’t have time to warn my brother,” Mercy said. “He told me the last conversation he had with my brother was Pidge asking if Buck, my oldest brother, would be coming to get us.’’
He wouldn’t, as it turned out.
“Of the five kids, I was probably the closest to my brother, but after it happened we weren’t allowed to bring it up in the house. No one spoke. No one cried. We suppressed our feelings. Years later, when my father was diagnosed with multiple melanoma, I became very depressed and sought help. My counselor said that I was never able to express the emotion that my brother’s death triggered. At one point, I was suicidal. Since then, I’ve come a long way emotionally.
”Over the years, I’ve had people come up to me, mostly summer people, and say, ‘Too bad they didn’t know how to swim.’ Well, for us, water was work; we didn’t play in the water. It was not that they were inexperienced; they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, heading home after pulling traps along the Cape Shore off Great Wass Island.”
Mercy Beal, now 55 and working as a licensed practical nurse at the Sunrise Care Facility in Jonesport, says she’ll never forget the overcast morning on the day her brother drowned. Nor will she forget her last glimpse of him from the school bus, as he was firing up the 18-horsepower outboard on the 16-foot skiff for a long-anticipated day of pulling traps with dad.
“My sister, Inez, and I came down, ready to catch the school bus, and my mother and father were arguing over something, which was a bit odd,” she said. “Normally, my mother would kiss us on the cheek as we went out the door, but that morning she didn’t, and she told us just to to go up the road to the school bus. My father said that, too. They were arguing about the fact that the night before my mother dreamt that my brother drowned, and she didn’t want them to go out. My mother then was a woman who was afraid of lightning and thunder. I remember my father saying, ‘It’s only a dream. We cannot keep the boy captive.’”
Her mother, Margaret, now 80 and living at a local residential care center, will attend Friday’s public service and a private family gathering afterward, Mercy said. Her father passed some years ago due to complications from cancer.
“I don’t think anyone in our family was the same since this,” Mercy said. “We’ve gone our separate ways. My two brothers will not be attending. My mother, I’ve felt, blames herself, but there wasn’t anything she could do to stop it, beyond insisting that they stay home that day, which didn’t happen. We’re not sure how she’s going to be [at the ceremony]. Between this and my father’s cancer, where he was given four years to live and lasted 15 with her at his side, she’s had a lot to deal with. It’s gonna be tough.”
Mercy said she initiated the process of having her brother honored posthumously as a hero after seeing recent media accounts of the U.S. Coast Guard recognizing the heroic efforts of a young Washington County man who rescued his grandfather under similar circumstance. He, unlike her brother, lived to tell about it.
“We want people to know who he was,” she said of Pidge. “To the Beals community, he’s a household name, like Elvis. We want him to be remembered as the hero that he was. There’s nothing we can do to change the pain of the loss of him, but we hope this ceremony will encourage people to treasure each day, to live life to the fullest and to give with all your might.
“That’s how my brother was.”