By Brian M. Howle
As the rat-a-tat-tat, fast paced delivery of the local news reporter chatters in the background, I mundanely go about my housekeeping duties, alternating my attention from the dish washing to the television to my constantly inquiring cat. Somewhere between the casserole dish and the twenty-sixth demand to be fed, my ears perked up when I realized the reporter was relating a story about Horry County’s program to certify lifeguards. With the drying rack and the cat’s tummy both full, I reposed to my little room to gather up the memories of my lifeguarding days.
Long before the masses became enthralled with those who risk life, limb and implants on “Baywatch”, the whim of the whistle cast its evolving spell over me. Years of attending Boy Scout summer camp resulted in a preponderance of aquatic merit badges, and somewhere along the line a Red Cross lifeguard certification. I never gave it much thought until the country club outside of town built their pool, necessitating the need for a lifeguard. Three or four of my Scout buddies and I rotated on the duty roster, which was a good thing when we realized how painfully boring the job was. We opened the pool in the morning, checking the chlorination system and taking ph levels, vacuuming the bottom, skimming the top and, of course, emptying the bug collectors. Then we would open the snack stand, power up the equipment, stock the drink machine, date the member register book, slap on the zinc oxide and clamber on up in the stand.
Perched a lofty eight feet above the water’s surface, we were afforded a Kingfisher’s view of the pool’s L-shaped layout: To the right was the shallow end and the kiddie pool; to the left, the foreboding deep end, replete with the ominous Alfred Hitchcock-Stephen King Memorial Diving Board. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard “Mommy, Mommy, look at me!” followed by the unmistakable crack of a fracturing bone. Note to would-be deep pool owners: If you just have to have a diving board, set it up for the least amount of spring possible and then have it welded in place. And have at least eight feet of open pool on either side of it. Just trust me on this.
Miles of sutures later, my initial enamorement with this field of work began to fade, and I left the profession to find a job with less cursing, screaming and open head wounds.
Naturally, it would end up being pulpwooding, where statistically there is hardly a blip on the radar when it comes to cursing, screaming and open head wounds.
I was a “piler”, heaping the lops after the saw operator cut the tree down, then cut it into 6-foot sections. To give you an idea of what a pulpwood crew is like, just think of the character Jar Jar Binks from the Star Wars prequel, and then imagine 8 or 9 of them. Keep in mind, at least three of them run the chainsaws with the three-foot blade.
On the plus side, I bulked up on pure muscle for the first and only time in my life. On the minus side, my chainsaw operator nearly dropped an 80-foot loblolly on meesa, whereupon meesa began to thinksa about another linesa of worksa. How rude!
A grueling year of hard studying in college followed my Paul Bunyan days, so when the next summer came along, some of my friends convinced me to apply for a lifeguard position at Huntington Beach State Park at Murrells Inlet, where most had already worked at least two summers. My roommate, Danny and my friend Joe – both from Andrews – were going to work there again, so I dusted off the ol’ Scout papers and headed over to see the Park Superintendent, Mr. Lee Jordan.
Now, for months before the interview, I had listened to my friends relating their exploits as lifeguards and thought, “Yeah, sure, that could happen.” I also heard a thousand renditions of their impersonations of Mr. Jordan. He seemed to have a proclivity for using the old “You know?” to the beginning, middle and end of just about every sentence. And he had one of those great, gruffy but lovable voices that was easily imitated.
My buds were by my side as I was led into Mr. Jordan’s office, where he smiled at me and motioned for us to sit while he closed the office door. He began by apologizing for a small delay in our meeting.
“Well, Brian, these boys speak mighty highly of you, you know?” was his first sentence, and my friends were sitting on either side of him, slightly behind his field of vision.
“THANK YHA HA HA HA HA…” was my first impression on Mr. Jordan.
Thirty minutes and about 79 “You know’s” later, we convinced Mr. Jordan that I was indeed qualified for the daunting task that lay ahead. On June 1, the SCDPRT would employ a full crew of five lifeguards for Huntington Beach State Park. Thus began the best summer of my life.
My friend, Joe Bouknight, was Head Lifeguard by virtue of seniority and the ability to annoy the hell out of you until you capitulated to his point of view. We revered him mightily, and were quick to respond to his every command.
We came to look upon our friend Joe not as Head Lifeguard, but as a father. He was our daddy.
And it would naturally follow that if he was our daddy, then we were all his little doting sons.
Danny Joe, my roommate and best friend during college and for several years after.
Mike Joe, a previous guard from North Litchfield attending Newberry College.
Dog, who was the Superintendent’s son, whose name was Mike, but we already had a Mike and besides, this guy was a hot dog when it came to trying to pull macho on the beach bunnies so they had already named him Hot Dog. But everyone just called him Dog.
And yours truly, Brian Joe, although a few weeks later my name sorta changed when, after receiving a box of misprinted checks from my bank, I attempted to pronounce the mistake while we were having a kegger, and the “Brain” on the label just kinda came out “Brayan” and for whatever reason, Brayan has followed me to this day on reunion occasions.
First thing I learned was: being blonde and freckled is a bad thing when you’re out in the sun all day. Now, when I worked at the pool, I had an umbrella overhead, and when no one was around (on those wonderful 100+ degree days) I would hang in the cool snack bar. I never really had a chance to over do it.
Lifeguarding at an ocean, however, is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. I thought I had applied enough sunscreen to do the job, but after the first two days the painful reality of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree burns began to set in. My feet and knees were most vulnerable, and let me tell you, those feet and knees do a lot of bending that you probably take for granted. You get burned like I did, you won’t take it for granted ever again, I promise you.
So for a few weeks, I pretty much got the much coveted “chair” assignment – staying the entire day in one of two guard stands – and kept my knees and feet covered with white towels and quarts of zinc oxide. My buddies had to pick me up and put me in the car and then back out when we went out at night, and I cried myself to sleep a lot, but other than that, it wasn’t that bad.
There were many indoctrination ceremonies that had been handed down from year to year in the Lifeguard trade, so the first month was a little strange. The statute of limitations thing prevents me from disclosing any of them, unfortunately, but take my word for it – most of the stories you’ve probably heard about lifeguards are mostly true.
We were housed in the former garage of Atalaya, the massive mansion built by philanthroper Archer Huntington for his sculptress wife, Anna Hyatt Huntington. They more or less threw in a half dozen metal bunk beds, a couple of closet units and an old, rusty, deathtrap of an electric stove, which was fortuitously located right beside the entrance to the bathroom/shower where the constant pool of standing water just dared you to connect the dots.
But, hey, it did have electricity (which meant we could set up our 1,000-watt stereos to maximize that cave echo effect from blasting tunes in an all-brick room), and hey, it was free. But Lordy, if those walls could talk.
When fully healed and able to wander the miles of beach that make up Huntington, I learned all the obligatory tricks of the trade.
The Whistle Twirl: (an absolute must, there is no cheating on this one) where one twirls the lanyard around one’s hand until the whistle comes to a snap in the palm of your hand, perfectly, and then the twirl is reversed for a back side move.
The Babe Alert (acoustic response): A series of monosyllabic grunts, coughs and whistles coded for “Must See T&A”.
The Babe Alert: (telepathic response): Not unlike many of nature’s animals, lifeguards have the innate ability to sense the presence of greatness.
The Frisbee Skip: The skill to casually toss a frisbee to anyone – from any angle, in any wind speed conditions – and hit them right in the palms.
The Frisbee Decapitation: The skill to launch a fris with the velocity of a jet, intended to do bodily harm to smartass dudes trying to poach in Guard territory.
The What A Cute Dog Response: Piling it on the honey with the butt-ugly dog.
The Don’t Bother Me With Stupid Questions When I Have A Hangover Response: Utilized sparingly, it would normally go sorta like this:
Stupid Tourist: “What are those guys doing?”
Bleary Lifeguard: “Fishing.”
Stupid Tourist: “ What are they fishing for?”
Bleary Lifeguard: “Fish.”
Yeah, if those walls could talk, I know five guys who would put out a contract on them.
– Next Issue –
Where The Rubber Meets The Beach
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, June 17, 1999.