By Brian M. Howle
In this installment of recounting my lifeguard years, I would be remiss not to mention how working for a state entity differs greatly from today’s beach services. As a state employee, were public relations ambassadors as much as lifeguards. I never anticipated that in the long hours that made up the summer days of beach duty, meeting and getting to know the individuals who comprised the throngs of sun worshippers would become one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job. From points far north in Canada, through the upper Ohio valley, along the upper eastern seaboard, from the great plains and the arid southwest – the spectrum of visitors to Huntington Beach State Park is unbounded. When families plan that one week of unbridled relaxation and enjoyment, it doesn’t really matter where they’re from. The concept of having a good time is not tainted by location, social, racial or economic status. Note to would-be political aspirants: If you really want to get the skinny on what your constituents want, spend ten hours a day, six days a week, for three months standing on a state park beach.
We were under the direct supervision of the Park Superintendent, but as in all paramilitary settings, a couple of the park underlings – known to you civilians as Park Rangers – just couldn’t help becoming a little power crazy on those rare days when Mr. Jordan was away. An hour or so before we were scheduled to take up our positions on the beach, we would hear a loud ruckus outside the lifeguard quarters intended to rouse us from our blissful sleep. Alarmed, groggy and confused, we would rush outside to investigate the excitement.
Fifteen minutes later, we found ourselves picking up trash in the parking lots, still groggy and confused but no longer alarmed. This little game went on for about a month, with the Rangers absolutely assuring us that their authority was legitimate and all just a part of the chain of command.
That all changed one July morning when Mr. Jordan returned from a trip a day early – unbeknownst by our Ranger slavemasters – and proceeded to amble on over to where I was picking up the reeking vestiges of a watermelon feast.
“Good morning, son, how are you doing?” was his normally jovial first question.
“Just peachy, Mr. Jordan,” was my less than enthusiastic reply.
“Mind if I ask you something son?” he queried with a rather stern look.
“No sir,” I politely answered, “go right ahead.”
“What the hell are you doing out here picking up garbage?” This was not the question I was anticipating, and I guess Mr. Jordan read it in my face when my expression turned into that “What the hey?” look when it dawns on you that you’ve been hoo-dooed. He broke into a big, wide grin as he motioned for me to come with him, putting his arm around my shoulder and giving me one of those “guy” hugs – real quick, real light, just enough to say “You know, you’re alright’ without having to actually say ‘You know, you’re alright.” We climbed into his big pickup as Mr. Jordan keyed the mic on the two-way radio.
“Gentlemen, your slave labor enterprise does show me some initiative on your part, you know; nonetheless I would like to see both of you in my office in ten minutes.” He pulled up to the entrance of our quarters, putting the mic back on it s holder.
“Go get yourself a nice, cold drink, son, and rest up a little before you guys hit the beach, you know?” he said as I shut the truck door. Then he tipped his hat and sped off to his impending meeting with the Rangers.
At noon that day, we were engaged in our usual round of drawing sea oats to see who would have to haul the big water cooler back to the concession stand for a refill and then back – a task that we unanimously hated and tried to avoid at all times. The mid-day heat made the 300-yard round trip a grueling endeavor capable of evaporating your will to live. But before we had finished drawing oats, one of the guys literally dropped to his knees, uttering “I don’t believe it,” as he stared past the rest of us.
And there, distorted by the light-bending waves of heat rising from the blazing dunes, were the two Rangers, wobbling and struggling to bring the brand new, much larger water cooler. A little daily task that became their implicit responsibility. Courtesy of Mr. Jordan, you know?
Of course, Mr. Jordan’s sense of justice would most likely have resulted in our immediate execution had he known everything that went on.
Unlike today’s entrance to the park, the old entrance used a small gate house at the turn-in lane facing Highway 17. At night, the gates were closed and locked promptly at 11:00 p.m.; anyone arriving after that – regardless of whether camper or state employee – had to wait for the night watchman to return from his constant circuit of the park’s loop of roads. A sweetheart of a man, the watchman was a retired fellow of wonderful demeanor but woefully impaired vision, and not particularly in a hurry for anything. If you pulled up to the gate and saw his taillights disappearing around that first curve back towards the beach, you might as well take a little nap, ‘cause it would be a good hour or more before he made it back.
One night a couple of us double dated with sisters whose family was camping at the park. After a big night of riding the roller coaster, cruisin’ the boulevard, grabbing a burger at Wink’s and all the obligatory ‘we’re at the beach” activities with our dates, my buddy and I returned to the park to deliver these young ladies back into the safe charge of their father. A large, imposing figure of a man, he made clear to us that when it came to his daughters being “home” on time, punctuality ensured our continued good health.
Well, as we pulled up to the locked gates and watched the tail lights of the night watchman fading out of sight as he began his rounds, a rather unpleasant mental image began playing in our minds that basically consisted of a large, imposing foot and our backsides. Although the gates closed at 11:00 p.m., our dates’ curfew was 11:30 p.m., allowing us a final stroll on the beach before saying goodnight. However, it was already 11:15 p.m., and the prospect of stopping outside that camper at 12:15 p.m. made us sit lightly and on the edge of our seats.
At the time – 1973 – Huntington Beach State Park was in the process of becoming the beautifully maintained grounds that you see today. The landscaping around the entrance was old and a bit overgrown, and without any real definition as to composition or design. Creosote posts fanned out on either side of the gates, about four feet apart and linked with thick, heavy steel cable. After pacing back and forth a few minutes – and with my backside already experiencing anticipation pains – I wandered just a bit further to the left side of the gates. In the warm moonlight, I realized that there were no posts beyond about a twenty-five foot span. There were two large pines on either side of a group of azaleas, and my blueprint tracking program immediately deduced that my little Ford Maverick would make it between the pines with inches to spare. I tried to take the time to evaluate data and formulate a plan, but when I saw my watch showing 11:23 p.m., the plan clearly became driving that puppy ‘tween the pines.
I must confess to feeling a twinge of remorseful guilt as I savagely – but mercifully quickly – mowed down the azaleas in cold-chlorophylled murder. But, no time for remorse when it’s 11:24 p.m. The twisting, winding road into Huntington was not built for road course racing and required complete concentration in order to transform the normally ten minute drive to the campsites into a six minute sprint.
The sisters were hugging their dad goodnight at 11:29 p.m. Of course, I probably took two years off of everyone’s lives with the tire-squealing blur through the park, but our backsides were intact.
My buddy and I returned to the quarters to join our colleagues in recounting the evening’s events over a cold beer before going to sleep in preparation for another big day on the beach.
Around 12:30 a.m., one of my friends awakened me from a deep sleep. As I fought to clear my head, I became aware of muted, halting whispers, steeped in the intonation that signals alarm. My buddies were at the windows, which were positioned high on the twelve foot walls of our quarters – formerly the garage and before that, the stables – located at the rear of Atalaya. I saw the random beams of many flashlights flickering through the darkness beyond the windows, and heard the muffled voices of men.
Scampering to the windows, I perched on the top rail of a bunk bed and peered over the sill to the ground below. For an instant, sacrificing my backside to an irate father seemed like a preferable option.
The grounds around our parking area was swarming with a variety of law enforcement officers, along with Park Rangers, the night watchman, and some old guy were never saw before.
They were, of course, searching for the gate crasher. Solving the crime was of paramount importance, as the State of South Carolina would not be denied its $10 camping fee. One of the guys NOT in my car earlier in the night ventured outside to ascertain exactly how many years in prison I might be facing, while three pairs of very wide eyes observed from above. He spoke to one of the men for a few minutes, then nodded his head in agreement and headed back inside, where we circled in anticipation of his report.
“Well, they know someone crashed the gate.” was the first sentence.
“How do they know?” I asked in bewilderment, “There’s no way the watchman would notice the murdered azaleas in the daylight, much less the night.”
‘He didn’t,” came the reply in a tone which was increasingly cloaked in seriousness, “The night watchman from Brookgreen Gardens saw the car drive around the gates.’
The old guy we never saw before.
“And they want us to help them search for the car.” It was the proverbial nail in the coffin, the irony of all ironies, that I would be in the middle of the posse when the guy would finally spot my little white Maverick. I envisioned his excitement: “Yep, that’s it! That’s the varmint!” I could see him running his hand over the hood. “Yep, still warm, too.” The rattle of chains and the reverberation of locking cell doors began to echo in my mind.
“Well, Brian, grab a flashlight and put on some shoes,” mv friend matter-of-factly droned on, ‘We’re looking for a yellow Mustang.”
“What?” I stammered, still confused but beginning to understand, as the cell door magically clicked open and the chains fell to the floor.
Fortuitously for my friend and me, the Brookgreen guy had even worse vision than our watchman, combined with a complete inability to distinguish current makes of automobiles. I attribute the color discrepancy to the mercury vapor lights beside the guard house at the gates.
And so, we gleefully joined in the search, side by side with a blend of park Rangers, County police and Highway Patrol officers. An exhaustive effort, we even combed the beach while pursuing the evasive yellow Mustang. After an hour or so later, the group agreed the culprit had made it to the beach and headed for North Litchfield Beach, so they rounded up the wagons and headed off to continue the search.
And yes, lest you think I came away from this without learning anything, I did learn a very important lesson that night.
Stay the hell away from azaleas at our state parks.
– Next Issue –
The Best Perk Of All
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, July 15, 1999.