Sandy Literacy

— Katherine Jackson takes the toothbrush out of her mouth. "In an old house in Paris all covered in vines lived 12 little girls in two straight lines..."

This is Jackson's way of telling me what books she's reading these days.

"Madeline [by Ludwig Bemelmans]," she says. "That's what I get to read, aloud. Every night. Madeline! I know it by heart."

Jackson is a lifeguard, one of about 300 the city will employ this summer.

"Oh, and Where the Wild Things Are [by Maurice Sendak]. Those two books. They're what I read. When you have kids 2H years and 8 months old and a job like this, that's all you have time for."

Jackson works at the San Diego lifeguard tower in Pacific Beach. So what do lifeguards do all summer long? Apart from save lives, that is. (San Diego city lifeguards save between 6000 and 7000 people every year from rip tides, rocks, sunstroke, and sinking pleasure-boats.) But between heroics, do they read?

Right now, this busy Saturday afternoon, you get insight standing in Nick Lerma's second-floor office. He's the lieutenant in charge. "For starters, we don't read on the job, period," he says firmly. "Even if nothing's happening." Lerma has been a lifeguard for 26 years. "The best way to stay awake is to work out, take a swim. The less you work out, the more tired you get. Keep busy. Do preventive counseling near rip currents. Patrol. Plus, drink coffee."

When he's off duty, it's another story. Lerma reads extensively.

"I'm always looking for books on leadership," he says. "Like Ken Blanchard's Heart of a Leader. Books like that really help me. And Blanchard wrote my favorite, Gung Ho: Turn on the People in Any Organization."

He reads real estate how-to's as well. "Robert Kiyosaki, Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I want to learn about retirement, investment. I look for motivation to pursue risk. I've read the sequel, too: The Cash Flow Quadrant."

Lerma says he doesn't read fiction. He thinks many of his colleagues don't either. Lifeguard types tend to be reality junkies, Lerma says; alpha types. But he likes real-life leaders' stories. "Somebody gave me John Adams [by David McCullough]. I'm going to read that, for sure."

If he had to take one book to a desert island? The practical guy takes over again. "I'd find one called How to Get Off a Desert Island."

Hilary Brooks has that practical thing too. "I like to learn while I read," she says. "I like reality, and I like adventure." She's just read Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's devastating Everest journal. She's 27, into her fourth summer lifeguarding, and heading off for a few days in Costa Rica next week. "So I'm reading about Costa Rica, of course." But she's also reading The Woman With a Worm in Her Head: And Other True Stories of Infectious Disease, by Pamela Nagami, M.D.

Upstairs in the tower, Katherine Jackson is about to take over from Troy Keach. So she hasn't time to talk books -- apart from Madeline. Except one she must mention.

"Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead. Rand gets it. Strength of character. Belief in self. Self-reliance. Expecting more of yourself. This is typical lifeguard thinking."

Sergeant Troy Keach is about to vacate the seat.

"There's a bunch of kids, sponge-boarders at San Fernando, Dan is in [tower] 18, cops have two four-wheel units out, there's a rip north of the flag, two novice surfers, been out an hour, could be tiring, so, concern but not edge of seat..."

At the end of his report, Jackson replies, "Ten-four," takes the binoculars, and slips into the seat. Arrayed below her are hundreds of sunbathers, like seals at the Children's Pool. Jackson is their unseen protector for the next hour and a half.

Now Keach can relax. He says he's a newspaper man. That is, he reads them, daily. Sports, especially. "I look at the water polo, swimming reports, see if there's anyone who might make a good lifeguard recruit."

But mostly, he reads the trade journals: River Rescue; Personal Watercraft; Boating. "Or the Spanish dictionary, because we're needing that all the time."

And what book would he take if he were stuck on a desert island? "No contest. I'd take The Action Hero's Handbook: How to Catch a Great White Shark, Perform the Vulcan Nerve Pinch, Track a Fugitive, and Dozens of Other TV and Movie Skills" (by David and Joe Borgenicht).

Daniel Grant, 32, is in his 13th summer with the lifeguards. He started here when he was at UCSD, studying structural engineering. He graduated and became full-time after almost dying of boredom working for architects. Despite the fact he now has a 13-month-old baby, he manages to read lots of novels, new and old. He has just finished Invisible Man, the 1952 groundbreaker by Ralph Ellison that exposed postwar American racism, along with Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. His all-time favorite book is probably Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. "Or else, for a desert island, I'd take David Sedaris's Naked," he says. "His writings about his family truly have me laughing out loud."

Up in Quivira Basin, Rod Messinger sits in the Boating Safety Unit control room surrounded by five monitors, a maze of radio equipment, and shelves loaded with ring-binders labeled "Fire Maps," "Mariner's Code," "Pollution," "BSU Ops," "Night Ops." This is the hub of the lifeguards' operation, day and night. Messinger talks into a foot-switch-operated microphone.

So what does Messinger read?

"Budget Living magazine. Truly, it tells you how to stretch everything." He also reads trade mags like Rescue Technology.

And books?

"I don't read fiction, but my fiancée Sara loves it. The last one we read together was The Nanny Diaries [the Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus 2002 bestseller]. It kind of hit home, the way those nannies were treated. Reminded me of how the public treats us sometimes."

Messinger loves true sea stories. He owns and constantly rereads Richard Henry Dana's 1840 classic Two Years Before the Mast.

"That book," he says. "You can learn so much about San Diego, the bay, Coronado, before just about anything changed."

The second treasured book is Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum, a Nova Scotian, who was the first to do so, between 1895 and 1898.

"My fiancée's a librarian," Messinger says. "She doesn't believe in holding on to books unless they're really important."

But Messinger is not above snapping up windfalls. When one of Coronado's oldest residents died, a pile of her books were left behind. "I took a huge 1928 dictionary and an 1888 edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare."

It's one thing to own Shakespeare, another to actually read him. This is what sets the BSU's sergeant Bob Albers apart from the rest.

"I'm a big Shakespeare fan," Albers says. "I'm a regular at the Old Globe. I'll be going to their Summer Shakespeare Festival. It's great. They're doing The Comedy of Errors, Macbeth -- my favorite -- and A Winter's Tale this year. And before I go, I always bust out my Shakespeare, plus Isaac Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare."

Albers, who has a B.A. in public administration from San Diego State, also likes occasional "bubblegum for the brain," like Stephen King's The Stand. He'll devour Colleen McCullough. Novels like Caesar. But not quickly enough. "I can't keep up with her. She writes so much, she outpaces me."

So does his dad, Harry Albers. "He sends me manuscripts of detective novels he writes. I've just proofread Murder at Lake Tomahawk. He publishes them online as e-books. He's also turned me on to Thomas B. Costain. Canadian, 1940s. The Michael Crichton of the time. Those historical novels. The Black Rose, Below the Salt. It's Runnymede. Magna Carta. Great stuff."

"Uh, did I mention Bob's our resident intellectual?" asks Messinger.

At Ocean Beach, Eric Winter, who sailed around the world before he joined the San Diego lifeguards, says he reads biographies, adventures. "I like to read about sunken ships, traveling. But right now, I'm reading a biography of Johnny Cash, because he stood for the downtrodden." On his circumnavigation, Winter took with him Captain James Cook's 18th-century book Voyages of Discovery and the 1930s classic Mutiny on the Bounty, a trilogy by Charles Bernard Nordhoff, as well as books about pirates.

P.J. Liebig, one of his colleagues at O.B., is reading Jon Krakauer's latest, Under the Banner of Heaven, about Mormon fundamentalists. But the most fun read Liebig has had recently is Hunter S. Thompson's only novel, The Rum Diaries, written in 1959, published in 1998.

Imperial Beach's operation is smaller than San Diego's: maybe 40 lifeguards at the height of summer. Captain Robert Stabenow, 40, has been in the service since 1982. Off duty, like Lerma, he reads a lot of investment, leadership, management-advice books. He recently read Wall Street Money Machine: New and Incredible Strategies for Cash Flow and Wealth Enhancement, by Wade B. Cook, and real-life adventure: Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm and Kem Nunn's border-surfing/worm-farming novel, Tijuana Straits.

"I've always been into reading, mainly because of Mrs. Yandall, my elementary-school teacher at Harbor View," says Coronado's lifeguard captain Sean Carey. His perfect mile-and-a-quarter stretch of beach where Marilyn Monroe swam and Bill Clinton jogged has fewer rips and a more family-oriented crowd than, say, P.B.

In fact, Carey wants to write a book about Coronado beach -- its history. "There have been guys lifeguarding here since the 1920s," he says. "The Hotel Del hired the first ones."

Carey is into American history. He's just finished Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen Ambrose. But he also likes fantasy, like Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, or "any Michener."

And Carey has one more project. He wants to start a lifeguard library in the new headquarters planned at Center Beach. He's collecting relevant titles like In Search of Captain Zero (Allan Weisbecker), a sort of surfer road book, The Book of Waves (Drew Campion, Art Brewer), and The Lifeguards, a book of recollections on San Diego lifeguarding in the '50s and '60s by Robert C. Baxley, a retired superior court judge and a former lifeguard.

Forty miles north, under the giant pier at Oceanside, lifeguards are hosing down their yellow trucks. It's a Sunday evening. Weekend crowds are finally thinning out.

"Desert island?" asks Warren Moak, 21, one of the summer hires who swells Oceanside's lifeguard ranks to 50. "I'd take the Bible. I'm a Christian." The books he's reading are school-related. (He's at Palomar.) Books for American Indian studies, oceanography; Steinbeck and Hemingway for American lit.

Kevin Bennett, 20, would also take the Bible. He belongs to a student Christian group at Palomar. "But the most interesting thing I'm reading is the screenplay for Almost Famous," he says. "It's for our film class. It's interesting to see the difference between the script and the movie. Besides, it's about Cameron Crowe, and he was a San Diego guy."

He's also following The Lords of Darktown, which was shot in I.B. "I liked it. The environment felt related to Oceanside," he says.

He and a group of students have already produced their own movie short, Cheese, Crackers, and a Machine Gun. He's in film class because "I think people are more movie-oriented these days. They'd rather see the story than read it."

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