My Summer of Saving Lives

Lifeguarding is a lot like life. You start out thinking it's gonna be one way and then you discover it's really not like that at all.


This is the best job ever: I get to sit on the beach all day long, talk to girls, listen to the radio, go swimming and get paid for it. Oh yeah, and if someone starts to drown, I'm supposed to save them. I had to pass a test before they would hire me. Along with a bunch of other guys, I had to swim out into the ocean for about half a mile to where there was a buoy bouncing around, then turn around and swim back as fast as possible. Only the best swimmers would be considered.

I was the first one back. I sorta caught a wave on the way in. So they hired me—just like that. Now, here I am, sitting up on top of this high white chair, my whistle around my neck, zinc oxide on my nose, sunglasses in place. Feeling good. There are a few kids playing in the water, but they're staying pretty close to shore, so I take the time to scan the beach for hot girls. So far, nothing much, but the day is young. I turn on my portable radio, lean back and close my eyes. Got to get more sleep, is the last thing I remember thinking until the damn kids started yelling.

"Help, help, help! My sister's drowning!" A little boy in a bathing suit is shouting up at me from beneath the chair, and for a moment I have no idea where I am. Then I jump up—and almost fall off the chair. The next thing I know, I've hopped down and am running full blast into the surf. It's all instinct and fear now. I plunge into the ocean and start madly swimming toward where people are pointing and, somehow, as if guided by something other than my mind, I latch onto the skinny arm of the drowning little girl and pull her to me. She's still alive, thank god, and I walk out of the surf carrying her in my arms. People are cheering for me as I lay the child on the sand and begin to administer artificial respiration.

I feel sort of guilty, even though my boss, Lieutenant Louie, told me after the rescue, "You're doing a great job, kid." After that, I make sure I stay awake all the time and watch the water like a mother watches her baby. Even when I'm talking to girls, I keep one eye on the waves. I've had to make a couple more saves as the summer has gone on—seven, all together. Each one scared me more than the last. It's not something you get used to.

RELATED: The Endless Summer

Sometimes I think this isn't the right job for me. It's too much responsibility for a kid. But I can't quit now. What would be my excuse? Anyway, I need the money. Not just for the summer expenses, but also I'm supposed to be saving up for college, which seems a little bit weird and distant to me. I don't even really know if I want to go to college. It's just one of those things—at least, in our family—that everybody assumes is going to happen. An expectation, I guess you'd call it.

I've been thinking lately that what I'd really like to do is become a full-time surfer. Follow the waves, you know. Maybe go to California or Hawaii and take part-time jobs and spend the rest of the time chasing waves. I hear they've got some crazy swells on the Big Island. Of course, this fantasy is not something I could share with my parents. Once they stopped laughing, they would tell me to "get serious, boy." But I'm tired of having to be serious, and tired of doing what's expected of me. I'm starting to feel like maybe there's a bigger world out there than I ever expected. It's a lot like lifeguarding. You start out thinking it's gonna be one way and then you discover the job (or your life) is not like that at all.

Now it's Labor Day weekend, a very crowded beach day, and the last week lifeguards will be on duty. As I look around, I see hundreds of people. Older folks sitting in beach chairs, with umbrellas poked in the sand to keep the sun off; groups of teenagers spread out on blankets, transistor radios blaring out rock and roll; and lots of younger kids running all over the place—their parents not even trying to keep an eye on them. I guess they figure that's what I'm there for.

RELATED: A Day at the Pool

But I'm trying to watch every inch of the surf, which is roiling with kids and rafts, swimmers and paddlers, all jumping over the waves, which are breaking pretty hard today. I watch one young kid, maybe 12 years old, dive under a big breaker and wait for him to come up on the other side, which (thankfully) he does. Then I'm blowing my whistle and waving at a couple of other people who have drifted away from the flags that mark the safe area. At first, they ignore me, so I jump off the stand, land with a thud on the sand, walk briskly down toward the surf and blast them again with the whistle. Now they wave and start to move back where they belong. This little bit of authority feels good to me.

I manage to get through the whole day without anyone drowning, and no emergencies other than using my first-aid kit to put Band-Aids on a few cuts and scrapes, and mend one bloody nose on a kid who was body surfing and plowed into some fat guy's backside. It could have been worse. They both ended up laughing.

Now it's six o'clock, and everyone has left the beach. My shift is over, and I feel tired but happy. It was cool being a lifeguard, and I think, overall, I did pretty well. For the first time in my life, I'm beginning to get outside of myself, if you know what I mean. This job was all about keeping other people safe. I almost never even thought about myself. There just wasn't time for that. I'm starting to think that's maybe a good thing, and maybe something I can use in the next few months and years when I'm trying to figure out what the hell to do with my life.

As I pull the lifeguard stand back beyond the high tide line, a few seagulls swoop down toward me, so close I can feel the wind from their wings beating around my head. It startles me. Are these damn birds attacking me? The gulls—big, ugly, gray ones—circle around and come toward me again. It's like they've been waiting for this, my last day, to come and get me. Like in "The Birds," that Hitchcock movie I saw. I move quickly to get the stand where it belongs and get the hell off the beach. It is definitely time to be moving on.

Tags: memoirs