Coronado lifeguards on the other side of the beach

“We hardly ever get any sharks”

Mike Neil: “They say a hammerhead shark once bit a guy in the butt off those rocks.”
  • Mike Neil: “They say a hammerhead shark once bit a guy in the butt off those rocks.”

Down on South Beach about 20 swimmers are doing the Coronado shuffle, a jivey two-step through the surf to scare off stingrays. On north beach a rip current is sweeping three kids on boogie boards out to sea. The lifeguard in the north tower is trying to call Central but he can’t be heard over the noise of two U.S. Navy S.3s flying their touch-and-goes, coming in for a landing, then pulling up and going around again. One of the jets makes a groaning noise like an elephant passing a gallstone.

South Beach, Coronado. Stingrays are rare at the north end of the beach, preferring the calmer water at the south.

South Beach, Coronado. Stingrays are rare at the north end of the beach, preferring the calmer water at the south.

Now the orange lifeguard boat, a 12-foot Aranda made in New Zealand, slaps across the waves toward the boogie boarders caught in the rip. The pickup guy sitting in front shouts to get their attention: Hang onto your boards! One of the boys has lost his board. The guard can tell their degree of experience by the degree of their tan. These three are as white as a breaking wave. He gets ready to grab the kid without his board, taking him under the arms and pulling him back into the boat. The driver judges the distance between the waves, trying to determine how many seconds he has to get the victim and get out before the water breaks down upon them. Maybe four seconds.

Stingray victim. All day long they transport stingray victims to the central tower. “Once we had 13 of them lined up with their feet in buckets.”

Stingray victim. All day long they transport stingray victims to the central tower. “Once we had 13 of them lined up with their feet in buckets.”

Back on the two-mile beach, three red Ford pickups, each with two lifeguards, weave in and out of the crowd, more or less dividing the beach between them. Number one transports a girl with a stingray wound on her big toe back to the central tower, where she will join four other swimmers soaking their feet in hot water to counteract the poison’s effect. The water in each yellow bucket has turned pink with blood. A guard responsible for first aid that day watches to make sure the swimmers don’t go into shock. People allergic to bee stings are usually allergic to stingrays. The girl’s toe around the cut is turning black and blue. “Stingrays hit hard,” a guard told me. “It looks like a cut with Tabasco sauce in it.”

A swimmer is pulled from a Coronado rip current. "We’ve had to rescue dogs from the rip currents. You got to watch out for their claws. They try to climb right up you."

A swimmer is pulled from a Coronado rip current. "We’ve had to rescue dogs from the rip currents. You got to watch out for their claws. They try to climb right up you."

The driver in the number two truck has stopped to tell a guy with a kite that he can’t fly it because of the low-flying planes. The man with the kite says it’s a free country and he can do what he wants. The guard patiently explains about the Navy jets — it would be a pity to bring one down — and says that kite-flying is only permitted down past the Del, at Coronado Shores, and then no higher than the 15-story buildings, “ice trays” the lifeguards call them.

In truck number three, two guards talk to a young man in a wetsuit who has been skegged in the arm by his surfboard at the north end of the beach. The board’s metal fin has sliced through his suit and into his biceps. The surfer says, “No problem.” He is more upset about his suit than his arm. He has stripped off the top part, and it hangs around his waist like a dead black girdle. The wound is what the guards call a gaper. One guard politely explains he should be taken into emergency. After all, he is bleeding all over the sand. The surfer shrugs. Momentarily the guards will begin to insist. They have already alerted the tower. It takes an ambulance three minutes to reach the beach from the hospital.

Up and down the beach the afternoon sun is raising blisters on a few thousand backs and turning a few thousand more a golden brown. The smell of a dozen barbecues drifts across the sand, mixed with the smell of suntan lotion. Frisbees drift along the air currents. Fat rubber darts — the throwing game of the season — make a high whistle as they curve through the air. The waves continue their inexorable advance and retreat. Several miles out to sea an aircraft carrier is parked. Maybe 10,000 people are spread along the two-mile beach. On the Fourth of July they can get up to 25,000. Blue sky, offshore breezes, it is a typical summer Saturday at Coronado Beach.

I am walking across the sand toward the north tower, a blue plastic portable affair on oversized skids, manned by a lifeguard. I’m dressed in my dark blue Speedo and carry a pair of swimming goggles. My clothes are locked in my car, and I’ve tied the key around my wrist. As there is method acting, so there is method reporting. To get a degree of fidelity, I’ve decided to do a two-mile rough-water swim from the north tower up near the Navy base, down to the rocks in front of the Hotel del Coronado and back again. Probably, I’m just showing off; but it’s hot and all week I have been swimming in Coronado’s municipal pool, 50 meters long, ten lanes wide. I tell myself that I’m tired of the pristine pool water and the black line beneath me. I am tired of flip turns and kick boards and lane dividers. I need something more strenuous. I want nature. But first I had wanted to learn about the creatures offshore.

“We hardly ever get any sharks,” Mike Neil had told me. Neil is captain of the Coronado lifeguards. He started guarding in 1957 and began working at Coronado in 1962, with a ten-year break in the 1970s.

“They say a hammerhead shark once bit a guy in the butt off those rocks,” Mike said, “but that was before my time.” Thin, muscular and olive-complexioned, Mike is 56, a year older than I am, but he easily looks 10 years younger. “You might see a jellyfish.”

I wade out, shuffling my feet so I don’t tromp down on a sleeping stingray. They like to stay under a layer of sand with only their eyes exposed. But they are rare at the north end of the beach, preferring the calmer water at the south.

Once the waves start breaking at my knees, I feel the pull of the current. Young boogie boarders look at me with a mixture of curiosity and mild disdain. I wade deeper, clearing my goggles. The guard in the north tower has told me the water is 68 degrees. As the next wave approaches at head level, I dive through it and start swimming. Since I am used to pools, the salt comes as a surprise. I ride over a few more waves until I’m about 100 feet from shore. Then I turn left. The water beneath me is dark turquoise disappearing into nothingness.

Coronado Beach lies between two navy beaches: Breakers Beach at the Naval Air Station at North Island and Gator Beach at the Naval Amphibious Base, where the SEALs train. Beyond Gator Beach is Silver Strand State Park. The names Breakers and Gator are lifeguard names, surfer names, made-up names that won’t be found on a map. The lifeguards all surf and seem to have surfed all their lives. Even as he approaches 60, Mike Neil remains a passionate surfer. He is out checking the waves most mornings at seven, even during the year when he teaches English at Chula Vista High School, where he has taught since 1964. To listen to the lifeguards talk about surfboards and surfing is to enter another language.

“It’s really hollow today,” Neil said before I went out, meaning the waves were steep. And he pointed to a surfer who seemed half airborne. “He went off the lip and got air. The guy shreds,” which I took as praise. Neil grinned. “You’re supposed to say ‘dude,’ but I’m sick of that word.”

The full lifeguard staff of 14 mans the beach when schools let out in mid-June, then they work through September, coming on at ten and staying until six and sometimes later. During the year, they patrol on weekends, holidays, and on big-surf days in warm weather, when there are an unusual number of visitors. Four of the guards are on 24-four beeper duty all year. The guards receive an hourly wage and are ranked by seniority: captain, lieutenant, sergeant, senior guard, all the way down to the rookie who has just passed his tests. They tend to be men, but every so often a woman comes along.

In the middle of the beach stands the three-story central tower with its phones, radios, and old coffee, its photographs of lifeguards of yesterday. Three blue portable towers lie to the south and one to the north. Then there are the three red trucks and the boat. The guard in the central tower has the best view of the rip currents that plague the beach. One guard told me that San Diego County has the worst rip currents in California. They are sometimes, incorrectly, called rip tides. They are caused when the mass of water from a breaking wave channels back along the ocean floor out to sea. As the sand on the floor shifts, so do the rips. They move fast and straight out. Caught in their swirl even a strong swimmer can find himself half a mile from the beach in no time. But because they have scraped the bottom, they carry a lot of sand and so appear a lighter color, dirtier than the surrounding water with a spinning configuration and a frothy tail running perpendicular to the beach.

“One Saturday we rescued 55 victims from the rips,” Mike Neil said, “then the next day we had 52. That was our record. We were running the whole time.”

Half to two-thirds of the rescues from rip currents are people on boogie boards. They are supposed to stay attached to their boards with a leash, but they often don’t. In the summer, the lifeguard boat makes about half of the rip rescues.

“We can go from absolute boredom to absolute action in the course of a second,” Neil said. The last drowning in a rip current was back in the mid-’80s during an El Nino, when a number of swimmers were caught and one went under. Swimmers become exhausted trying to swim back into shore, though if they swam parallel to the beach, they could get out easily.

When I swim, I breathe on my right side, and all I can see going south are the waves coming toward me, usually above me. I have to lift my head more than I would in a pool so I don’t get a mouthful of water. And I have to raise my arms higher to get them out over the swells. Sometimes a strand of kelp washes over me. The sloshing is loud in my ears, as is the noise of my exhaling under water. Someone would have to really yell for me to hear them. At times I am lifted up high enough to see the Coronado Islands in the distance, but mostly it seems I am in a trough. Sometimes I see sailboats, sometimes the aircraft carrier.

Every five minutes or so I lift my head to make sure I am aiming at the last building of the Coronado Towers. Usually I have been swimming farther out to sea and I correct myself. I concentrate on my kick. At times I breathe on my left so I can see the shore, but I am not used to it and I sink. I keep being surprised by how far out I am.

The sand glitters in the sun. That reminds me of what Mike Neil said were the two most common questions asked by visitors. One: Is there gold in the sand? How come it glitters? Two: Are those sharks out there? First answer, the sand has a lot of iron pyrite, fool’s gold. Second answer, those are dolphins. The dolphin is big and has a fin on its back, and to,an absolute beginner it looks like a shark. Sometimes dolphins come close to the beach. I decide that if I see one, I’ll probably explode.

Mike Neil talks about lifeguarding as a chess game. Instead of sitting and waiting for bad luck to happen, the guards constantly anticipate what will happen in the next few seconds and try to move to a location before they are needed.

“Our beach doesn’t pack up like L.A. does,” Neil told me. This lets the trucks drive through the crowd more easily. “These guards have to be smart. You’re not thinking about what happens now, you’re thinking about what happens five minutes from now.”

Tom Grail, a 33-year-old lieutenant who began guarding at Coronado in 1989, often has the job of standing in the central tower, watching the beach.

“Our job is a forecasting type thing,” he said. ‘We’re always wondering what will happen next. The danger lies where the waves are, that ribbon of surf. Most beach-goers look at the horizon. Not me. I watch that narrow band for rips.” That is why one often hears lifeguards in their trucks saying over their P.A. systems, “We’d like you to move 100 yards down the beach toward the Del.” They see a rip forming, and they want people out of it.

Dave Carpenter, a 29-year-old senior guard, who started at Coronado in 1990, also spoke about how much of their job was predicting what might come next.

“Sure it’s a chess match. Even when it’s calm, there’s a chance of a person running out, diving, and snapping his neck. It can happen in a heartbeat, even if you have a full staff. The last thing I want on my watch is to lose someone. It’d haunt me all my life. That’s true of all of us. What scares me most is passive drowning. Someone intoxicated will swim out, get tired, and sink without trying to struggle. There’s no warning sign at all. You look away, look back and he’s gone.

“We all have an incredible respect for the ocean that the people who come here just can’t know. Our job is preventative guarding, to keep the people away from the rips. We use the P.A. We try to avoid a situation before it occurs. The chess game: mother nature on one side of the board and you’re on the other. And you ask, When’s she going to try to take my knight, my little group of swimmers?”

Carpenter, who has just received his master of fine arts in the film school at the University of Southern California, worries that this will be his last summer guarding. He plans to get married in August and has film projects in the fall.

“I’m going to miss guarding terribly. What guarding has done for me is to give me an incredible sense of confidence. You learn how to act. As a guard, you literally make a difference. With these hands and this body, you can actually save somebody. It will always be with me. All of a sudden you go from 0 to 320 percent. In the truck, the guy driving is on the P.A. and the radio. The guy next to him is in the wet seat. He’s the bullet. You reach back, you grab the tube, you grab your fins, and you go. You punch through the wave, looking for your victim.”

Over the years, Carpenter has had many jobs. He worked for Sea World for two years where, he says, he still holds the record for the longest narrative on dolphins. He worked as a killer whale trainer for nine months and a dolphin trainer for eight months. He worked with an entomologist collecting spiders. He has worked as a gardener, oyster shucker, and bartender. He has bussed tables and worked construction. When not lifeguarding, he works at Bay Books in Coronado. But lifeguarding is what he has liked most.

“I like the mutual respect everyone has for one another, and you get great adrenaline rushes from lifeguarding. You get someone who is sure they’re going die, who’re terrified. One day we had a really large swell, and I was up in the north tower which is by far the most dangerous part of the beach. And this day we had the hugest waves, and it never stopped. One person after another got sucked out. And at sunset, in the golden glare, it was hard to see. These surfers were in trouble. Six people out in the rip. They were way the heck out there. I punched through the wave after this guy. Every time I looked, he was still way the hell out there. I went on and on. Anyway, I finally got him. We saved lives that day.”

As I swim, I am aware that Mike Neil in the main tower occasionally looks at me through his glasses, and I try to make sure that my stroke is regular and that my reach goes to the full extent of my arm. Long distance swimming is a form of violent meditation. The same movement repeated over and over. One thinks of swimming as made up of many movements—arms flailing, legs kicking—but actually it is one repeated rotation. The roaring in the ears blots out the world. The darkness goes down and down. Sometimes the depths beneath you can seem like your unconscious mind. Things are moving down there. That’s where the great silence lies, that where one’s death is hidden. I kick my feet faster and try counting my strokes. In a 50-meter pool, about 60 strokes will get me to the end. I count to 60, then 60 again, then 60 again, then check to see how far I have gone.

Rip currents are only part of the guards’ concerns. All day long they transport stingray victims to the central tower. “Once we had 13 of them lined up with their feet in buckets,” said Mike Neil. “That’s the most I’ve seen.”

There are also neck injuries.

“Sometimes a wave will dump a guy on his head,” said Neil, “especially if we have double-overhead surf. Or he’ll dive in shallow water. They get this little pain in the back of their neck, which can end up paralyzing them. It’s called a Hangman’s fracture, a compressed third to fifth vertebrae. So we package them, put them on a backboard with a cervical collar, and the ambulance picks them up.

“And the surfers get hurt. One guy had a special board with a point that we call a gun. They move really fast. This guy got hit by the tip of his gun. Popped it through his lip and blew his tooth.”

On the beach itself, the guards have to deal with thefts, burns, fights, broken glass in the sand, and lost children. And they have to deal with state nudity laws. Neil told me that occasionally in front of the Del Coronado in late summer, European tourists will disrobe further than California laws permit.

“We seem to get a lot of Italian ladies who like to take their tops off,” said Mike Neil, “but they are getting better about not doing it.”

The law states that the bottom part of a woman’s bikini must be large enough to conceal the “natal cleft.”

“Can you see me going up to a woman,” said Neil, “and saying, ‘Excuse me, madam, your natal cleft is showing’? No way.”

If someone refuses to obey a lifeguard, the guard can call the Coronado police, who might give the person a ticket. “Stuff has changed in my 40 years at the beach,” said Neil. “Most of these women have tattoos.”

Jay Scheckman, a 32-year-old guard who has worked at the beach since 1988, was impressed by the tattoos. “Damn, I don’t even know any women who don’t have any tattoos any more.”

Tom Grail discussed a few of the more peculiar difficulties. “One time we had to ventilate a dog. It’s hard. The mouthpiece isn’t designed for a dog’s muzzle. We’ve had to rescue dogs from the rip currents. You got to watch out for their claws. They try to climb right up you. Another time there was a guy up on the rocks on Ocean Boulevard masturbating into the oncoming traffic. We had to put a stop to that. And the planes can be a problem. During the Gulf War, a huge transport came so close to the tower that I stood on the balcony wondering if it would be better to jump north or south.”

Tom Grail talks fast and almost nonstop. He begins a sentence, shoots through two-thirds of it, drops it, begins a new sentence, shoots through two-thirds of it, drops it and begins a new sentence. He juggles sentences like a circus clown juggles Indian clubs. Sometimes he has four or five sentences going at once. Just when I think he has forgotten one of his sentences, he puts it back into circulation. One time he didn’t finish one of his sentences until three days later. He had been telling me how the captain of one of the big boats that fish for anchovies had decided to chase the Arancia when the lifeguard had gone out to tell him to stay more than 500 feet away from the line of surf.

“The captain took off after him,” Grail told me, “and he chased him back and forth parallel to the beach, and then do you remember I was telling you about that guy who was showing women his private parts with a mirror....” And three days later, “He didn’t catch the Arancia, of course. I was afraid he was going to haul off with a shotgun and shoot one of the sponsons, those things that look like pontoons.” I don’t remember what happened to the fellow with the mirror. “He had a weird little smile.”

“Sometimes we get jellyfish,” said Mike Neil. “But not many. The best thing for a jellyfish sting is Adolph’s meat tenderizer. And sometimes we get sea urchins. Their spines can break off in your foot. The best thing is to soak your foot in urine. It breaks down the calcium. I had a surfing buddy who stepped on a sea urchin and soaked his foot in his pee. I asked him if he wanted a contribution, but he didn’t.”

When I swim past the rocks, it feels like I’m swimming faster and more easily. Instead of turning around, I continue down to the first tall building of the Coronado Shores, another several hundred yards. I’m pleased with myself. I’m stronger that I had thought. Showing off, I do a flip turn and start back. Immediately, I realize my mistake. It wasn’t that I was swimming well; rather, I was swimming with the current. Now, as I swim against the current, I hardly make headway. In fact, if I swim slowly. I’m carried backward. I swim 100 strokes and I remain by the rocks. I swim another 100 strokes and barely seem to advance.

The conical, red roof of the Del lies directly off my right, reminding me of the chase across that roof in the movie The Stuntman. It takes ten minutes to get past the hotel. Beneath me the water is shallower, though I am more than 100 yards from the line of surf. At one point it seems about five feet deep. I keep scaring stingrays. They breed in the warm water offshore. As I swim over them, they panic and flutter away, more like birds than fish, in little clouds of sand. I scare 12 stingrays, or perhaps just one stingray 12 times.

There is a strong family resemblance among the lifeguards, as if they were brothers or at least cousins. They are extremely muscular, tanned, athletic, and handsome. Most are blond. Several had water polo scholarships in college. They surf, scuba-dive, rock-climb, bike, and run. Jay Scheckman took fourth place in the Catalina Paddle several years ago, paddling a 12-foot, 22-pound surfboard 32 miles. When he was done, he slept for two days. He won the 20-mile Bay-to-Bay race in 1993.

Tom Grail swims in the 12-mile summer race around Coronado. He came in fourth or fifth a year or so ago without training. He plans to do it again this year. “I’m going to dedicate the race to one of my sons,” he said. Grail’s sons are aged two and five.

And each summer they all participate in the Pirate Olympics for lifeguards, usually held in July at the Silver Strand beach, but it has also been held at Coronado. More than 100 participants divide into about 20 relay teams and compete in paddle-board races, sand races, swims, as well as more complicated tasks like finding a victim somewhere at sea. It ends with a boat race.

“It gets crazy,” said Grail. “When we had it here, we added a 50-meter underwater relay at the pool. Swimmers went into oxygen deprivation and started aspirating. They’d be floating down at the end of the pool, and we’d have to ventilate them. Instead of relay batons, I’d bought these rubber daggers. We dragged one guy out of the pool and slapped the oxygen on him. He’s lying on his back unconscious with his dagger sticking out of his trunks. A guy on his team ran up, snatched it, and jumped in the water. Didn’t even ask about his buddy, that’s how pumped up they were. ‘Hey,’ I said, ‘someone’s going to get killed here.’ Sometimes I see one of these guys around town. They shout, ‘Hey, Grail, we going to have the Resuscitator Relay again this year?’”

Not all the lifeguards dedicate their free time to athletics. Dave Carpenter surfs, but he also collects insects. In his apartment he has shadowboxes with butterflies that he collected in Guatemala. “My favorite insects are beetles. Maybe it’s a man thing. You know, tanks.”

He also has two eight-inch scorpions and nine tarantulas.

“I’ve got a King Baboon tarantula. They’re about 12 inches across. They’re ferocious. Their hind legs look like they have fuzzy slippers on them. The slightest disturbance and it'll rear back, hiss and show its fangs. I find a subtle beauty in them. They can crush the skulls of mice but I feed mine crickets. I hate to give them mice; they’re mammals. When I give them crickets, then I’m giving invertebrates to invertebrates. Let them fight it out between them.”

Captain Mike Neil belongs to a group of middle-aged surfers who call themselves the Fraternity of Aging Raging Tube Surfers, otherwise known as the old FARTS. They make surfing trips to Scorpion Bay in Baja, where they camp, surf, and dig fossils from the cliff face. “We got a great friendship between us. We’re the type of guys that look at the knives, the boats, the hats. There’s nothing we wouldn’t do for one another. We go down there, leave civilization for a while, get cleansed, then come back again.”

But as a teacher of six sections of advanced-placement English, Neil is also a passionate reader, and the camaraderie that he sees among the cowboys in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is what he also finds among his surfing gang. Neil, who has two daughters in college, also paints and writes poetry. Here is a stanza from one of his poems on Baja.

Wading out into waist deep water

At the river mouth.

Casting crocodiles for Halibut or Corvina,

Big ones,

Some barely fit in the cooler,

Just fishing in cobblestone bays

Feeling like early man.

No one on the beach for at least ten miles.

Sea tortoises and dolphin carcasses

Scattered here and there.

No beach clean-up here.

Just gulls, pelicans and terns

And endless miles of sea and sand.

Once I swim past the sandbar, the current relaxes its grip. I pass the blue lifeguard tower near the hotel. Mostly I can’t see the beach, but I can see the star pines and palms along Ocean Boulevard and the red roofs of the houses. My mouth feels salty and I wonder if people swim with canteens.

I’m now adjacent to the area that surfers have recently baptized “Dead Larry’s,” the Tudor home of the late Larry Lawrence, the Hotel Del’s owner. I mark a tall pine, then concentrate on reaching it.

When a wave lifts me up, I can see the beach and swimmers and boogie boarders standing in the surf. They seem far away. It’s much rougher swimming back, and I have to swing my arms higher out of the water. When I reach the central tower, I get stuck again. Every time I look I’m exactly in the same place. I quicken my stroke. Staring down into the water, I think of what I need to do with my life, what I will do tomorrow and the next day, how I will have to move from one house in one city to a house in another city, I begin to think about money and where it will come from, debts paid out, money coming in. When I look again, I am past the central tower.

If summer for the lifeguards is a time of rush, fellowship, and high anxiety, winter at the beach is a time of quiet.

“The radio chatter drives you crazy in the summer,” said Mike Neil. “And driving through the crowd is exhausting. You ask people to move, and if you aren’t extremely polite, it takes twice as long. But in the winter you get philosophical. I stand up in the tower and think about poems. The waves come a lot closer to the tower in the winter. One year they were hitting all around it. We had to sandbag it, then it got condemned.”

“You play games in the winter,” said Dave Carpenter. “You see how long you can drive the truck without stopping. Or you play the heat game. You close the truck windows and turn on the heat full blast. The first one to open the windows loses. You got to fight the woozies. Sometimes you challenge each other to pushups. There are days when you don’t do anything, but you still go home exhausted because you can’t relax.”

The sandbars shift from winter to summer, taking sand out in the winter, redepositing it in the summer.

“It’s like someone who’s never satisfied with the clothes they wear,” said Carpenter.

In the winter, he thinks about plots for screenplays and writes down ideas for film projects.

“I love horror films. The director Sam Raimi is the best of all. Evil Dead II is my favorite. But this is horror. We make a strong distinction between horror and splatter. Actually, my favorite director is Akira Kurosawa, but Raimi’s up near the top. And I love Terry Gilliam. All the Monty Python guys were philosophy majors in college, and so was I. I had a double major in philosophy and marine biology. I’m interested in human imperfections. We’re imperfect, and I want to show that on film. And I’d like to do a film that would educate people about the ocean, its incredible power.”

Tom Grail prefers the winter to the summer months. “You love the summer, but the winter has the philosophy. You reflect, you write poetry. Mostly up here in the tower we don’t make rescues, but watch the water.

“For me, being up here in the tower in winter is like being the captain of a ship. I stare at the surf and think about life and all its facets and where it takes you. It blows every cobweb out of your head. What you like is the darkest part of the winter, rainy and cold and only a few surfers.”

In the winter months, Grail sits in the tower and sings, writes song lyrics, and plays the harmonica.

“I love the oldies: Bob Dylan, Santana, Hendrix. Going through the changes of that era — the 1960s — that made my life. Actually, I can’t sing and I can’t play an instrument, but coming up here and looking at the ocean makes me think of music.”

Like a number of the lifeguards, Grail is working on his teaching certificate. He hopes to teach handicapped children.

“Teaching,” he said, “is a great way to augment your lifeguarding. This has filled a great void in my life for ego. It gives me pride. I was athletic in high school, but I wasn’t a great athlete. Each person has to find his satisfaction in life or else why bother? What a fantastic life. I get to sit up here and watch the ocean and be physically able to make a rescue. My father was a lifeguard, and I hope my sons are lifeguards, too.”

As I swim, the red tile roofs of the mansions on Ocean Boulevard look like a distant road running parallel to my own sloshing path. Soon I will see the baby-blue north tower. Abruptly I start to thrash and gasp. I have run into a great nest of dead kelp. I relax and shake it from me. When I can see the north tower, I get caught in another current. My shoulders aren’t sore, that will come later. On the beach, I can see a red Ford truck drive past. I wonder how many people on this earth have jobs they love. The guards don’t have health insurance, no benefits and no retirement, but they keep going. Again and again guards have told me, “I’ll do this as long as I can.”

I start angling into shore. I make myself swim 100 strokes at full speed so I don’t slip back. Suddenly I pop up between two men wearing wet suits. “Yo!” shouts one, surprised. I’m north of the tower and start swimming in. Again a current catches me and I make no headway. It’s a small rip current. I swing down my feet and stand up. I’m thigh deep in water. I wade the rest of the way, wondering if I should worry about stingrays, but I’m too tired of the water to care.

I’ve been swimming laps in city and YMCA pools for 20 years, and I’m spoiled. The red Ford pulls up beside me. The guard leans his blond head out the window. “Was that you swimming out there? Mike wondered who it was.” Then he laughs at his joke. “Mike says not bad. Two more miles and you’d qualify for the Round the Island Swim.”

“Not today,” I say, trying to keep the whine out of my voice. I walk back to my car, which is parked on Ocean Boulevard. I look down the beach to the first building at Coronado Shores. It looks 50 miles away.

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