I've also never stopped second-guessing my decision to leave the beach in the first place. Two decades of summers after I worked for Davison at the East Bathhouse, I checked out of paradise for good. I wanted to travel. Gentleman Frank Bauer was sitting on the main stand at West End Beach Overlook when he got my call. "The Riviera sucks, Frankie," I said. "Pebbles instead of sand, no waves, dirty water." I heard a laugh, a whistle, and the line went dead. When I got back, the Prez, a second-generation Jones Beach lifeguard named James Monroe, gave me the talk. "The only reason you want to leave the beach is so you can make money, meet women, and be able to afford to spend your time back at the beach."
Lifeguards looking for peace and quiet head out to West End Two beach and the jetty. On a crowded day, you'll see more endangered piping plovers than people on the third-of-a-mile stretch of sand between the parking lot and the water. It's where Mike Trunkes works. The social pecking order of Jones Beach lifeguards is based largely on what kind of physical condition they're in, and Trunkes is at the very top. "Hey, did you see So-and-so?" "Yeah, great shape, worked out all winter." Or: "Looks like shit." Trunkes is the best runner-swimmer the corps has ever seen. And if Trunkes is the Prince, the Prez, who works with him at West End Two, is the Wise Man.
The 56-year-old son of a lifeguard who started at Jones Beach in 1931, the Prez is fond of two things: standing on his hands atop the crow's nest and offering principles to live by. Following his general advice on relationships over the past 25 years, I've been divorced from one woman, separated from another, and estranged from a third. But I'm still listening. Sharp-witted and creative, the Prez has shaped his life around the sweet meat of his summer months at Jones Beach. The Prez made one of the most dramatic rescues in Jones Beach history when he swam out to save some fishermen who had been washed off the end of the jetty by storm surf and a rising tide, then got airlifted out by helicopter. He's spent a lifetime observing lifeguards and seagulls and has noticed only one minor difference: "At some point, seagulls will stop eating."
Two more whistles, and I'm starting to wish I'd come on one of those days when the rain keeps the crowds home. When the rain stops, a cleansing wind blows away the clouds and the beach sits gloriously bright and empty. There's glassy surf, no rescues, and the ocean becomes a lifeguard playground dotted with surfboards, kayaks, and dory boats. Schools of dolphins cruise past, and the guards hustle to get near them.The guards call them secret days.
The Jones Beach lifeguard's season in the sun is only about three months long, Memorial Day to a week or two after Labor Day. Winters go slowly, and lifeguards rarely hang out together. Sometimes it's hard to recognize them with their clothes on, without a tan. But perhaps it's the job's seasonal nature that keeps it fresh. When I visit at the end of the season, I can detect a hard edge to the camaraderie. Reggie Jones's incessant stories start to wear on his crew. The guards who show up a little late for their hour on the stand begin to irk their co-workers. Even the Prez gets a little rattled as Labor Day looms. He never whines or raises his voice, but when he takes off his extra-dark Alpine sunglasses and squints into the changing late-summer light, a flicker of concern escapes his eyes.
The lifeguards get annoyed because the summer is ending. But the summer is always ending. There are those who say July 4 is the beginning of the end. There are the pessimists who mark June 21, the summer solstice, as the turning point. "I notice it every year," one guard notes glumly. "The days start getting shorter and shorter."
I drive down to the West End Two parking lot, where fifteen lifeguards are staring at the sun as it sinks. It's still only mid-July, but the mood is autumnal. "I've never seen that flash of light they talk about," somebody says.
"I saw it once in the Bahamas."
The orange sun floats downward beside the two tiny sticks of the distant World Trade Center, and West End Two is silent except for the bird calls, empty save for the lifeguards who won't leave until the last moment is squeezed from the day.
A brilliant sunset at his back, acres of perfect sand, and a rolling ocean in front, the Prez tilts his head back and sighs. "Ah, the million-dollar view."