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Lifers

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The job of Jones Beach lifeguard turned from youthful lark to life path in 1971 when Reggie Jones, then in his forties and facing termination from the administration because of his age, called a meeting of lifeguards at a motel on Sunrise Highway and delivered the "Cloud Over Kansas" speech: "My wife told me that I shouldn't stick my neck out for you young kids. But I complained to the state when they sent the new guys home on rainy days. Hell, they'd send you home with no pay when there was a cloud over Kansas. I stood up for you; now they want to fire me 'cause I'm over 35." The corps went on strike and the age barrier came down. Now 73, Jones is still a lifeguard.

Time seems to stand still over Jones Beach. The landmark tower and elaborate stone Deco bathhouses built by Robert Moses in 1929 show only faint signs of wear, as do lifeguards like Jay O'Neill, a mahogany-skinned, white-toothed 66-year-old who looks like Gary Cooper in his rangy prime. Year after year, for 48 years, he's passed the easy rehire pool test, which veterans call the "$10,000 swim." "I'm not old, because I passed the rehire," O'Neill quips. There's some truth to what he says. Unlike runners, jumpers, and lovers, swimmers enjoy amazingly little drop-off in performance with age. At 41, Olympic gold medalist Mark Spitz was posting nearly the same times he did when he was 22.

Justin Martinich, 20, has been a Jones Beach lifeguard for just two years but already knows the commandment and is trying to figure out how he can follow in the footprints of the old salts on the main stand. His thick shoulders and narrow waist are stained chestnut by the sun, and he wears a small line-drawing tattoo of a monkey on his chest. "This job is a gift," he marvels. "I get in my car in the morning and I see all those career guys in their suits and ties 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."

On a hot sunday in mid-July, I climb the pile of sand in front of the Central Mall main stand to say hello to my old buddies. I've known some of the guards here for decades, but now I'm just another pale patron. Eddie Costigan is sitting up, looking exactly as he did a quarter-century ago. When he grabs my hand, I wonder if he feels slightly sorry for me, the way I felt for the paunchy alumni who used to come back from their office jobs to shoot the shit with me when I was on the stand.

The Central Mall is where the city folks go. Fed by two 5,000-car parking lots and buses that run from the Long Island Railroad, the beach directly in front of the tower attracts crowds of epic proportions. By 10 a.m., the throng is blanket to blanket. A few hours later, it's blanket on blanket. One of the first things I learned as a guard was how to run through a crowd like that with a stretcher. The two guys in front extend their arms to brush aside children and gently push down the heads of sunbathers who look up to see what's going on.

It's a grievous insult to make a save in front of a lifeguard, and Jones Beach guards will only do it as a last resort or to send a message that someone lacks ocean sense or isn't watching the water.

A native of all-white Levittown, I loved the urban ethnic diversity at the Mall. Guys like Bob Lenti, Bob Ortof, and Costigan, guards with 90 years at the Mall among them, feel the same way. Others don't like the crowds; they're reluctant to share their paradise. A few are disturbed by the recent immigrants who have made Jones Beach their own. They cling to the old days, when the crowds were white and ocean-savvy. When the few black lifeguards aren't around, they offhandedly call people of color "stones" -- as in, "We got a couple of stones off One West, keep your eyes open" -- because of their supposed inability to swim.

I head back to the lifeguard shack by the boardwalk to duck out of the sun. Tired from surfing or anesthetized by youth, a handful of younger guards are slouching on the wood benches, thumbing through surfer magazines and not speaking much. When they turn up the music on the boom box, an old-timer walks over and turns it down. As he walks away, somebody farts. "What'd that asshole say?" a young guard quips.

A pretty young girl thrusts her head in the door of the shack and asks if she can use the lifeguards' outdoor shower. The young lions inside the shack grunt and the girl walks away.

Terry Hirten, 47 and still the best basketball player on the beach, is what the lifeguards call a "land animal," because he was never a competitive swimmer. He can't understand the young guys' attitude toward women. "They have no rap," he wails. "What about that girl in the black bikini by One West? Not one of them said a word to her. That never would have happened in the old days."

A fifteen-year veteran halfway between them in age sets the record straight. "The difference between the old guys when they were young and these guys," he says, "is that they drink less, fight less, and fuck more."

Down the beach at Field Two, off-duty guards lounge in the sand behind the main stand like desert royalty. The men are young and handsome, the women willowy and striking. Five-foot-eleven Jen Hahn, old-timer Lee's daughter, looks like she was sent to the beach by Central Casting. Natalie Sokol, 24, the boatswain, or supervisor, her sun-burnished skin and blonde hair framed by the hood of her red lifeguard sweatshirt, looks like a California dream. The members of the new generation do seem mysteriously unaffected by the presence of their beauteous co-workers, but little else has changed. The talk is of big waves, excellent rides, and rescues.

Two whistles, the signal that indicates a guard is going into the water for a rescue. The guards resting on blankets behind the main stand 600 yards away at the West Bathhouse scramble to their feet and sprint to back up the wing-stand guard who went into the ocean.

There's big trouble at the West Bathhouse today: A shelf has developed all along this section of beach. To make a rescue under these conditions, a guard must porpoise or swim through a deep trough at the water's edge, bounce to his feet to run across the shallow shelf, and then porpoise again and punch through the breakers to reach the victim. It's a tricky, exhausting business, and the crew has been running for hours.

The lifeguard on wing stand One West is already past the breaker line, flipping a buoy to a victim. The one on Two East is on his feet and getting ready to go.

Meanwhile, a weekender in the crow's nest is shouting instructions to his hounds, guards twenty years younger than he is. Even after the older guards lose a couple of steps, they remain invaluable as spotters.

"Look, look," he whispers at Mark Grabish, 27, only eight years on the job but with the gleam in his eye that says he's a lifer.

"I'm looking," Grabish protests. Standing to get a better look at a man floating into a suck, he speaks over his shoulder to the twenty-year veteran who chided him. "I look at the sucks, and then I factor in the swimming ability of the people in the area of the suck. That's what you never learned to do."

The secret is knowing the water. After the waves roll in, they flow out through cuts in the sand, creating little rivers called sea pusses, or runouts. The trained guard knows to watch for the light-colored water, the foam and bubbles that mean the ocean is flowing out. Then he watches for weak swimmers in that area and studies them as they move toward the puss.

In California and Australia, swimmers are alert to the dangers of the ocean. At Jones Beach, people often head out into the breaking waves with little thought for their own safety. For a rookie guard, that makes the first day with big crowds and big water especially terrifying. Hundreds of heads bob up and down in the surf, the waves roll in, the heads move, and the scene changes. It seems like a cruel joke to be held responsible for the lives of every single bobbing head that might slip beneath the waves.

A couple of hours later, Jorge Aguilera is standing on the berm. Aguilera, a marathon runner and 30-year lifeguard, is not just fit but ripped. "I just rescued this guy," he says. "His wife comes up" -- Aguilera interrupts himself to eye the suck off One West, where a weak swimmer is being pulled out to sea as the guards on the stand whistle at him to swim laterally out of the puss. "So I tell the woman that her husband was in trouble, so we rescued him. She tells me, 'I don't know whether to thank you or hate you.' " Aguilera delivers his punch line, then dashes down the beach to back up Jim McCarthy and Corey Duryea, who have blown two whistles and gone after the victim, who's now waving frantically for help. Aguilera follows them in with the rescue line. Two minutes later, the three lifeguards and the victim are being towed back through the breaker line to shore.

They get pulled in right through a patch of water where I had once been involved in a drowning. A couple of years after I retired, I was jogging on the beach when a female lifeguard on the stand right in front of me blew two and went. At first glance, I couldn't see who she was going after. There still weren't many women on the beach, and I didn't want to try to race ahead and make the rescue in her water. It's a grievous insult to make a save in front of a lifeguard, and Jones Beach guards will only do it as a last resort or to send a message that someone lacks ocean sense or isn't watching the water. So I tucked in behind her, porpoising in her wake in case she needed backup. When we got to the outside of the puss, there was no one there. Then a guard appeared, then a dozen more, diving and surfacing and diving again. Ten minutes later a helicopter appeared; an hour later a body. I was sick with regret for a week, and I've never stopped second-guessing myself since.


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