At eight o'clock in the morning on the second sunday in June, six lean young men and women toe the edge of the outdoor swimming pool at Jones Beach's East Bathhouse. The only spectators are a handful of suntanned middle-aged men fingering stopwatches. The swimmers are about to take the first and easiest part of the notoriously difficult Jones Beach lifeguard-hiring test, which also includes an ocean swim, a beach run, and a cross-chest carry.
At the sound of a whistle, they plunge into the pool. Some of the hopefuls have the distinctive stroke of the competitive swimmer, a fluid roll to the shoulders. They hit the far wall of the pool, snap arrogant flip turns, and sail back across the water. The others struggle to make up for their lack of skill with sinew, chopping the water with stiff arms, gasping for air, then chopping some more.
The cutoff time for the 100-yard pool swim is a modest one minute fifteen seconds, a breeze for any competitive swimmer. Justin Lynch, 18, perhaps the best high-school swimmer on Long Island, is understandably confident. A pool rat who longs for the open ocean, Lynch is the ideal Jones Beach lifeguard candidate. He can turn a 46-second hundred in the pool, but he's taking the test in surfer trunks instead of a Speedo to show his dedication to salt water. He swims it in :51. Todd Trotman, 35, also passes easily. Like Lynch, he has been on swim teams all his life, but he's bored of spending his summers watching over the same lifeless water at the same pool in Hempstead. He's hungry for a job with broader horizons and higher stakes.
By 9 a.m., about 80 of the 126 applicants who took the pool test step onto the damp sand of the East Bathhouse beach. Sets of icy black waves march in from the horizon through the morning fog. The Atlantic is a bone-chilling 61 degrees. Lynch knows that if he beats the ocean, he has a job for life. He also knows that the first leg of the swim, the 200-yard stroke out to the first buoy, is more than half the battle. After that, the eastward sweep will help him the rest of the way. He dives in and slips through the breakers like an eel. He rises out of the brine to get a sight on the buoy, then begins to grab great armfuls of water, leaving yards of ocean behind on every stroke.
Swimming in the next heat, Trotman doesn't know about the sweep. Six-foot-three with shoulders like wings, he scampers into the breakers with a dozen other hopefuls. He porpoises once or twice before beginning to swim out, but he's stunned by the cold and can't catch a full breath. He's pummeled by one crashing wave, then another. As he fights his way farther away from the beach, danger signals pop off in his brain. The mental image of himself floating high above the sand in a sunlit chair gives way to one of a man choking beneath dark water. Finally, Trotman turns back for shore. He climbs out of the surf, slowly shaking his head. Back up on the sand, another dripping dropout stares at the roiling ocean. "This ain't no swimming pool," he mutters to himself.
"This job is a gift. I get in my car in the morning and I see all those career guys in their suits goin' the other way on the parkway, and I feel sorry for them because I'm not going to work. I'm going to something, but it's not labor."
An hour and a half later, the 62 applicants who passed the test mill about the bathhouse patio waiting for their assignments. "Justin Lynch," yells out one of the test directors. He's calling the names of the applicants in the order they ranked on the test. There is a smattering of applause. "Central Mall," Lynch answers, taking one of only nine coveted spots on the ocean. He and the eight others who win jobs on the ocean, where hesitation or slowness can mean the difference between life or death, are the elite, the swimmers who can run, the runners who can swim. Most of the others who passed will spend their summer guarding the docile waters of a pool or bay.
For a few of the nine ocean guards, the job won't merely pay part of their freshman tuition or win them a temporary reprieve from a first nine-to-five lockdown; it will change their lives. Jones Beach lifeguards often stay on the beach for 30, 40, 50 years and beyond. Before Bill Higbie died a few years ago, the tall, raven-haired lifeguard arranged for his ashes be thrown into the surf off Jones Beach. Billy Reed and Howie Havermeyer are out there, too.
I passed the same test in 1966 and worked as a Jones Beach lifeguard for the next twenty years. It wasn't a job, it was a calling. When I was a kid in the fifties, my parents took me to Beach 6 every summer weekend. I used to watch the guards plunge into the water with their rescue buoys and stroke out to make saves. Then I'd push my way through the silent crowd as they strode out of the water with sputtering victims. On days when hurricanes whipped the ocean into a frenzy, the guards ran so hard they had to kneel in the sand, chests heaving.
My first assignment was at the East Bathhouse ocean under Bob Davison. Silver-haired and lean as a spear, Davison, an ex-Marine, wore an indecipherable tattoo on his left tricep and almost never spoke. My first week, on the day I was assigned to open the beach, I got caught up in a conversation and forgot to put up the red and green flags that demarcate the swimming area. When the beach captains showed up, they noticed dozens of people in the water but no one on the stand. After they read Davison the riot act, he turned and glided across the sand toward where I sat on a wing stand and motioned for my attention, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. "When you open the beach . . . open the beach," he said. Then he walked away. Later that summer, when I lost my wool lifeguard parka -- a serious offense -- and approached Davison with the news, "Storm" was all he said. A week later, I found out he had filed a report stating the parka had been lost in a hurricane.
Some of my fellow lifeguards logged the expected years, four college summers, before they moved away or grew up. Others had a revelation. "What an unbelievable job," they said to themselves sometime during their first summer. Then, maybe during a winter office job or a night gig waiting tables, they had another: "The beach is unbeatable."
The hard-core lifeguards return decade after decade, like the swallows to Capistrano, because they believe they have the best job on earth. Unlike guards at most California and East Coast beaches, who almost always sit alone, Jones Beach veterans recline on elaborate tiered main stands that accommodate seven or eight guards at once. While the newcomers and weekenders ride the wing stands solo, the full-timers with seniority sit together, study the water, and kibitz. When they're on the clock, they alternate an hour on the stand with an hour off to exercise or surf. When they make a rescue or catch a good wave on a surfboard or kayak, they do so in front of a jury of old friends. They have such a good time on the job that they often stay for hours after their shift is over and forget to punch out.
The lifeguards appear when a victim's life has been reduced to a single moment, an agonizing encounter with an untimely death. Yet the lifeguards themselves, seated above the throng on gleaming white chairs, are the very symbols of youth and immortality. A weak swimmer can easily lose his life in a storm-whipped sea, and the job of a lifeguard isn't without its perils: Jones Beach guards have been smashed on the jetty and swept out to sea, even run through by the oarlocks of the old wooden dory boats. But with the strength and know-how to cheat the great sucking grip of the surf, ocean lifeguards are virtually drownproof. In the 70-year history of Jones Beach, not one has ever drowned. On late summer days when Caribbean-spawned hurricanes send burly swells pulsing toward the South Shore of Long Island, when the surf turns white and thunderous and the water is closed to patrons, the lifeguards swim, paddle, and row out into the maelstrom smiling.
Once we tasted the exhilaration of rescuing a drowning swimmer, and felt the freedom and camaraderie of the beach life, we began to follow the first commandment of the Jones Beach guard: "Never leave the beach." There was plenty of evidence to support the rule. Year after year, I saw former lifeguards come back to the beach as pale, out-of-shape patrons. They were making more money, but they had bartered away their youth by stepping out of the Jones Beach time machine.
After we accepted the commandment, the rest was strategy. We adjusted our lives around seasonal employment. Some of us became teachers, not just because we loved kids but because our summers on the lifeguard stand were nonnegotiable. Others reinvented themselves as cops, firemen, or bartenders. Some even sabotaged their chances at a career away from the sand. One guard showed up to a job interview with a wet bathing suit on beneath his pants and sat there smiling as it soaked through. Jones Beach guards can pick their own schedules, and some juggle careers as accountants or advertising executives by working weekends. One guard works as a lawyer in North Carolina during the week and flies in every Friday evening and back every Sunday afternoon.