— GUEST COMMENTARY:
It was 1946, the first my three years as a seasonal lifeguard. I stepped out of the dressing room anticipating another great day guarding at the La Jolla Cove.
Next, I checked out the conditions. Surf was up, breaking over the reef. Only a few people swimming close to shore. Probably big sets breaking at “Boomer Beach,” 100 yards south of The Cove. “After work I’ll go body surfin’ there,” I thought.
“Junior!” I heard. That was not my name. Just because I was the youngest guard they didn’t have to rub it in. “Junior! There’s somebody in trouble at Boomer. Check it out.”
Grabbing the metal can and clipping the web belt around my waist, I took off up the stairs and across the grass to the bluff overlooking Boomer Beach. Outside of the big surf was a guy waving but looking OK, not panicking or thrashing about. Getting out to him would not have been a problem at Boomer because a strong rip current always swept seaward taking you out beyond the surf. Body surfers always used it.
As I swam out with the current I thought, “What should I do after I get to the guy? I can’t come in against the rip current. And the big surf at Boomer is really rough if you get into the break and the churning white water. I guess going around the point is a long swim but it will be safe. And, probably, my fellow life guards will come around the point on the Rescue paddle board. Yeah. Sure they will.”
As I swam up to the young man he looked worried but not scared. I asked, “How are you doin’?” He replied, “OK, I guess. I just don’t know how to get to shore.” I told him, “Here’s what we’ll do. You hang on to this can. I’ll pull you around the point to the Cove. Jerk on the line a couple of times if you need me.”
Off we went. Stroke after stroke. Only about a quarter of a mile to go, making progress. I looked back and he seemed fine. Then, Oops! A jerk on the line. Swiftly I swam back to check on him. That’s when he said to me, “You look really tired. Shall I pull you for a while?”
Was that a joke? Was he making fun of me? Maybe he was scared and confused. Was I exhausted and didn’t realize it? What could I do next? Thoughts piled one on the other. I must stay calm, decide what to do. Take action. Then an idea popped into my head and took over my rational thinking.
“Let Boomer take us straight to shore!”
What was I thinking? Was that dumb, desperate, determined? Whatever. It was a decision. Just do it!
Looking him straight in the eye I told him firmly, “We’re goin’ in. Hold the can tightly to your chest. Don’t let it get pulled away!” I swam behind him, wrapped my arms around him, and squeezed us tightly together. Then taking a few deep breaths I moved us into the surf break knowing the waves would push us to shore.
Like dirty clothes in a washing machine the waves churned us around, up and down, back and forth. As each wave swept over us we held our breaths until we popped up as the buoyant can lifted us to clear air in time to grab a breath and see another wall of white water charging towards us. Wave after wave tumbled us to shore.
As my feet met the sand I helped the bedraggled guy ashore where he flopped down gasping for breath. Then, looking down at him I calmly said, “You really should check with the lifeguards before swimming in unfamiliar places.”
As I climbed the bluff to return to the Cove a crowd had gathered and was clapping. I smiled and gave them a thumbs up salute.
Going down the steps to the Cove, I said to myself, “Junior, ha! Where the Hell were those senior lifeguards?”