By Brian M. Howle
In the previous issue, I began recounting my days as a lifeguard at Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet, circa 1973-74. The lifeguard crew consisted of “Daddy” Joe Bouknight, Danny “Joe” Bath. Mike “Joe” Merchant, Mike “Hot Dog” Jordan (but everyone just called him Dog) and myself, Brian “Joe” (or “Brayan”). We established that lifeguarding was one of the best jobs that any guy could ever wish for; that sunburn was an occupational hazard not to be taken lightly; that certain events will never see the light of day in this story; and that one learned all the cool tricks and traits of the trade in short order upon donning the shorts and T-shirts with the big, capital LIFEGUARD emblazoned front and back.
Speaking of which, I don’t know if the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism still sports the same logo as the one we were adorned with, but in light of the recent rash of political correctness sweeping the Country I sure hope so. I just have to believe they’ve changed it by now. The one we had consisted of the SCDPRT words arranged in a circular pattern, within an outer circle that turned downward in inward, tracing the outer circle for the uppermost quarter, then back inward horizontally until the lines met the perpendicular of the initial downline, and running longitudinally to the bottom before stopping short of the outer circle. Which is a drawn-out, Aristotelian logic way to say that this bad boy was way too phallic to escape anyone’s attention. On the other hand, it was a conversation starter.
Despite having a Freudian field day screenprinted on our trunks, T-shirts, hats and windbreakers, we actually took our jobs – the constant vigilance of watching swimmers in the water – pretty darn seriously. In the years before lifeguards were posted at the park, drownings were commonplace, especially on the north end of the park – because where Huntington stops, the inlet in Murrells Inlet begins, and currents in excess of 70 miles per hour are easily produced by the tidal shifts. Unlike the gentle, scalloped slope of the ocean floor on the beachfront, the perimeters of the inlet drop off steeply within a few feet of the waterline, creating it vertical vortex that will pull even the most accomplished body builder under in mere seconds. Large, unavoidable signs with huge letters spelling DANGEROUS CURRENTS – SWIMMING PROHIBITED had about the same effect as those $200 FINE FOR LITTERING signs do on the highways. Once a person stepped off that edge, the only question was where the body would surface – in the inlet marshes to the north, straight out off the coast, or on the shore to the South.
In the years where guards were employed, there were no drownings at Huntington. So keep that in mind as we go along.
There’s not much point in me – or any lifeguard – denying that this isn’t an ego-feeding endeavor. Real or imagined, the responsibility for the public’s safety and well-being imparts the aura of importance on you. However, keeping that aura in perspective can be tricky – and occasionally, downright embarrassing.
Like when the time when all five of us were on duty on a “slow” day, when only a dozen or so swimmers – mostly children – casually splashed along the receding breakers. Even with so few to watch, on this particular day there was an unusual absence of the greatest nemesis of our attention: generously filled bikinis. About that time, all was made right when several very attractive young ladies made their way thru the dunes and onto the beach.
Now, Dog – bless his leetle heart – had sonic behavioral attributes that were the basis for his name. Being the park superintendent’s son, I’m sure he felt the pressure of staying on point as far as protecting the masses was concerned. And overall, he pretty much did just that. But Dog wasn’t the brightest coin in the change drawer, so to speak, and his quest for coolness often resulted in him being his own worst enemy.
So when these ladies made their way past our little picnic table – where we all gathered on light crowd days – Dog’s ears perked up as he went into his “Hot Dog” mode. Two little girls were playing in the surf directly in front of us, and one of them began yelling excitedly. This apparently overloaded Dog’s attention response mechanism as he assessed the situation and sprang into action. First, he bolted upright from his seat, sorta half standing and half sitting, ears twitching, as he let his twirling whistle lose its inertia and dangle beside his hand. Then the hand raised towards his sunglasses – a dead giveaway to the rest of us, as Dog never touched his shades unless an impending water rescue was imminent.
We literally uttered a unison “Dog...” in all attempt to bring him up to speed, but it was too late. In a flash, the whistle and the sunglasses were flying off to his left and right as he took off, full throttle, towards the two little girls in a path which just happened intersect that of the newly arrived bikinis. Everyone froze as Dog covered the forty or so yards to the water, diving headfirst into the breakers between him and the two little girls.
But wait! Now there was only one child visible, as Dog had so astutely observed as the catalyst for his action. Popping up to the water’s surface, he threw his head back to clear the water from his eyes as he frantically began to scan for the missing girl. Back at the table, we exploded in that deep, wonderful laughing that makes you roll on the ground.
Dog was standing in about two feet of water.
The two girls were playing a standard game of “Let’s See Who Can Hold Their Breath The Longest,” and everyone on the beach was aware of it.
Except poor Dog.
Head hung low, Dog slowly made his way back to the table, where we were fighting as hard as we could to stop laughing. There is that decorum among friends, after all, that discourages rubbing it in. Dog returned to his seat, silent and sullen. After a few minutes, he glanced around, dropped his head again, and muttered a barely audible expletive.
“What’s the matter, Dog?” someone felt obliged to ask
“I lost my whistle and shades in the ocean,” same the disgusted reply.
Another explosion of hoots and guffaws ensued, and Dog just wandered on off to the southern limit of our watch area, where he stayed most of the day, whistleless and squinting.
In fairness to Dog, the rest of us had our own moments of not thinking it through. Every morning, we left our quarters in Atalaya and made our way to the beach, stopping by the concession stand between the parking lot and the beach to lug out the big, heavy first aid kit provided to us by the SCDPRT. About the size of it small suitcase, we hauled the weighty metal box onto the beach, set it down on the table, and then hauled it back concession stand each day, mindlessly and automatically. We never had it reason to open it – until one day in August.
In one of nature’s countless cycles, August signals the peak of the jellyfish population. Ordinarily, you’ll see several dead jellyfish washed up on shore or in the lapping waterline. But a mere 50 to 100 yards behind the breakers, there are literally hundreds of thousands of the gelatinous critters. The most feared of these is the deadly Portuguese man-of-war, capable of more than just a painful sting. These suckers can inflict severe injury upon contact; entanglement in the many stinging tentacles ensures a trip to the emergency room.
One sweltering August afternoon, a couple of guys disregarded our warnings of jellyfish infestation and plunged headlong into the breakers, whereupon one of them received a full facial wrap from a man-of-war.
The resulting wounds had the appearance of third-degree burns, and we at long last cracked open the big first aid kit and retrieved the baking soda and Solarcaine. We knew he was bound for the emergency room, but this poor guy needed immediate relief – no matter how slight – to his agony. We dressed his wounds as best we could and his buddy spirited him off to the hospital.
Now, to this day, I honestly don’t know if this particular first aid kit came from the manufacturer equipped this way or if someone in previous years “upgraded” it, but as we went about repacking the kit we made an interesting discovery.
I know, I know … we never really figured it out either. In all the first aid courses I attended, I never saw condoms among the gauze and alcohol swabs. But there they were, of the generic variety, in plain white plastic wrapping with only the word “condom” printed on the front.
Well, after the man-of-war incident, the beach was pretty much deserted, except for two or three families who set up their chairs and umbrellas against the duneline, as far from the water as they could possibly get. The only thing I know for sure about what happened next is, as Bart Simpson would say, “I didn’t do it.”
Still engrossed in trying to re-pack the kit as we had found it, I detected the sound of air being forced, followed by muted giggles. I turned towards the sounds, only to have a now-inflated condom bounce off of my forehead. The unison of cackles abruptly gave way to a combined group gasp of things gone terribly wrong as the semi-transparent balloon caught the ocean breeze, racing quickly over a brace of outstretched hands and heading for the dunes behind us. Everyone had begun to leap towards it when the collective realization snapped in that it was descending directly towards the family that had set up shop right behind us. There was a momentary freeze followed by a synchronized resuming of our seats. No one moved. No one said a word. An eerie silence fell over our usually raucous picnic table, interrupted only by the sound of the two small children playing at their inattentive parents’ feet.
I mustered up enough courage to take a painfully slow peek over my shoulder, which was quickly followed by an even more painful attempt to restrain an outburst of damning laughter. As it turned out, my colleagues had all made the same decision.
While his parents had their faces buried in their newspapers, little Junior was repeatedly batting his younger sister in the face with our latex Hindenburg.
Oh, the humanity!
The five of us fanned out in formation that would have made the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds proud, and at about the same speed. Since the ocean was essentially deserted, it seemed like a good time to close the beach and call it a day. After it few minutes, we regrouped – far from the table – and realized that the kit would have to be retrieved. In a process we often used to determine who would get a weekend day off, I drew the short sea oat. As my very good friends snickered behind the duneline, I walked rigidly and quickly to the table, grabbed the handle on the kit, set my eyes straight down to the sand in front of me and made a beeline for the pathway between the dunes. About halfway there, the relaxing cadence of gently breaking waves was broken by a very loud “POP!”
I still wonder if those folks ever finished their paper.
– Next Issue –
Official Gate Crashers
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, July 1, 1999.