Lifers

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.

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.

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.”

Lifers