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An Old Lifeguard Looks Back

Posted on 12 August 2010

by Jim Marquardt

A quiet summer morning, already hot. I’m crouched in the meager shade of the lifeguard stand trying to get over too many beers from the night before. I glance occasionally at a small group of nuns dunking in the modest waves. They’re from the parish school up the street and always come to the beach early in their voluminous, black bathing dresses that cover them from neck to knee. Suddenly I realize that one of them is frantically waving at me and pointing farther out in the water. The undertow had pulled one of the nuns into deeper water. She was over her head and panicking. I jump up, run through the breakers and plunge into the surf. She isn’t very far out and I reach her quickly. We had been trained to turn victims onto their backs and use the “cross-chest carry” to pull them to safety, a maneuver that involved a certain amount of body contact. As I scissor-kick towards shore, the nun is pushing me away to keep my arm from circling her. I think this is taking modesty way too far. I finally succeed in getting her to the shallows where a couple of the sisters take over and lead her sputtering and coughing onto the beach. Later I joke with my partner that rescuing a nun must be worth a few extra points in the ledger upstairs. In the afternoon, one of the nuns shows up at the lifeguard stand with a box of brownies.

The New York City Department of Parks hadn’t covered the unique problems of rescuing nuns in the course I had taken during the winter. If you applied for a life-guarding job at a city beach, you had to attend training sessions in a big Manhattan pool and pass a tough test at the end. We were timed on swimming speed, the proper approach to a victim, breaking any panic-stricken holds they might put on you, and towing them the length of the Olympic-sized pool. We also practiced “artificial respiration,” as it was called then, in the early 1950s. Today’s techniques no doubt are a lot more effective. I was in college, not exercising, smoking too many cigarettes and barely passed the final test.

The Parks Department assigned me to a section of Rockaway Beach, ideal because my family lived there year round. If you asked, probably nine out of ten Sag Harborites would tell you they grew up in Brooklyn or Queens and took the Green Bus Line or the IRT Subway to Rockaway during their teenage years. We dubbed them DFDs for “Down For the Day.” My duty was at 129th Street in a neighborhood called Belle Harbor. Most of the bathers in that area were residents and understood the dangers of the ocean, so it wasn’t a demanding beach for a life-guard. The biggest problem for DFDs were the jetties, barnacle-encrusted wooden structures that jutted into the water to keep the sand from eroding. Current sweeping around the ends of the jetties scoured holes in the sea bed and swimmers who got too close would suddenly find themselves in deeper water. The guards knew the hazard and tried to whistle bathers away from the jetties, but they didn’t always take the advice.

One afternoon in late August the prevailing southwest wind was blowing hard and creating a confusion of waves. I had strolled to one of the jetties and was gabbing with the guard from the adjoining beach. His name was Hughie, a tall fellow who played basketball for Georgetown University. Against the brisk, cool breeze we both had donned orange parkas and long pants over our uniform swimsuits. As we talked, a young boy began paddling from Hughie’s beach toward the jetty. Hughie blew his whistle and waved but the boy was oblivious.

Hughie and I began discussing whether or not we would have to rescue the boy. It meant divesting our warm clothes and jumping into cold water. We decided one of us had to go in and I told Hughie, he’s from your beach, that makes him your responsibility. We argued the point, but Hughie was a little older and a college athlete, so finally I deferred, threw off my parka and pants and dashed into the surf. When I reached the young boy, he was still dog-paddling, unaware he was headed for trouble. I spoke quietly to avoid alarming him, convinced him to roll over on his back, and began a difficult tow through the choppy waves that were breaking over us. I was making slow headway when I suddenly felt a lift. Hughie’s conscience had bothered him and he decided to join in the rescue. With his string-bean height, he soon was able to walk me and the boy to where we could stand.

One day, during my partner Patrick’s lunch break, I swam out to rescue a girl who had let out a shriek that jolted me from the stand. When I finally pulled her near the beach, Patrick appeared, took her from me, and carried her ashore in his arms in the classic life-saving pose. Someone on the beach snapped his picture. I wasn’t even in the scene. Well, I figured my unheralded save would add another few points on the plus side of the ledger.

We often were pestered by young boys who put the guards at the level of Captain Marvel. When they started asking too many questions, we’d send them to the guard station a few blocks away to ask the chief lifeguard for the “jetty stretcher.”

We all traded stories in the shack at the end of the day, some of them slightly exaggerated. But this actually happened to me. As I stood at the edge of the ocean on a Sunday, an elderly man sidled up and asked, “What’s the name of this lake?” Another guard supposedly was questioned “How high above sea level are we?” To which he replied, “How tall are you?” 

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