Beyond the shore pound: Junior Lifeguards leads to a lifetime of ocean adventures

Junior Lifeguards opens the way to a world others can only experience as spectators  

Jessie Mangiagli, Pono Barnes, unifentified and Bryce Miller compete in the Junior Lifeguard Taplin Bell relay race at Torrance Beach in August, 2006. Photo by Patrick Fallon (PatrickFallonPhoto.com)

by Kevin Cody

Lifeguard Captain Jeff Horn had just left La Playita on 14th Street in Hermosa Beach with a breakfast burrito when I ran into him on The Strand. We know each other from paddleboarding. Horn was head of the Junior Lifeguard program and was on his way to the Hermosa pier station for a JG meeting.

I asked if he’d ever heard my junior lifeguard story. He said he hadn’t, and since we were walking the same direction, I told it to him.

I grew up in a town like Palos Verdes, on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Our home had an ocean view, but was too far from the beach to walk or bike to. 

My family drove to the beach every weekend. I’d go in the water, but never past the shorepound, and watch kids riding surf mats. When we vacationed on Balboa Island, I watched the local kids dive off the docks. When we took the Great White Steamship to Avalon, I’d lean over the rail and marvel at the island kids diving for coins tossed overboard by the tourists. Once in San Diego, my older brother convinced me to get in an inflatable pool toy, which he then started to paddle across Coronado Bay. He was laughing, I was terrified.

The ocean terrified me for good reason. I learned to swim in a neighbor’s icy pool. It was 30 feet long and that was as far as I knew I could swim because I couldn’t breath. I’d turn my head and look like I was catching a breath, but never exhaled until I clutched the other side. 

Mandy McKeegan leads fellow Junior Lifeguards through the Hermosa Beach pier pilings in July, 2009. Photo by Patrick Fallon (PatrickFallonPhoto.com)

One Saturday morning when I was 10, I found myself on the deck of the Santa Monica City College 50-yard long, Olympic pool. My mom had brought me to the pool to take the Junior Lifeguards qualifying test. She didn’t know I couldn’t breathe.

The only other kid I knew taking the test was a fourth grade classmate who was the best Little League ballplayer in town. He’d go on to play college baseball and football. But that day he too looked terrified and half way across the pool had to be rescued. He never qualified for JGs and when we were older and went to the beach together, he always looked afraid.

I pushed off the wall with my legs as hard as I could and windmilled across the pool on a single breath. Luckily, there was no time limit in those days. 

The following Monday my mom dropped me off in the parking lot at the Santa Monica pier. The already legendary Rudy Kroon ran the Junior Guard program. He was El Camino College’s water polo coach. There were none of today’s JG tug of war, water balloon or shaving cream games, no pizza and cupcake days. We warmed up with pushups and jumping jacks. Then we ran between the lifeguard towers. Then we swam out to the buoys. Then we did run-swim-runs. Breathing wasn’t a problem because we were told to swim heads up to keep our eyes on the victim. 

We swam rescue cans out to our drowning partners and extended the cans to them so they couldn’t “climb the ladder.” 

Punch ‘em out if they try to climb the ladder, Rudy told us. I knew exactly what “climb the ladder” meant the first time I heard it. That’s what I did when my dad carried me into the ocean. The ladder could lead you and your rescuer down to a watery death.

Midway through the summer we did our first jump off the Santa Monica pier. I froze on the way down. The second time wasn’t so bad. After that, pier jumps were my favorite JG drill. Swimming in through the barnacle and starfish encrusted pilings was like hiking through Injun Joe’s Cave. The dreaded mouth to mouth resuscitation was the only drill no one liked.

Hermosa Beach Junior Lifeguards on the beach, swimming, paddling, running in and out of waves.

A lesson for the parents

At the end of the summer a demonstration evening was held for the parents.

The night was cold, gray, and windy. Mean, overhead shorepound exploded between us and the buoys. 

We shivered shirtless, like Spartans in red trunks with JG patches sewn on by our mothers. If I had been the parent of one of those 10-year-old JGs I’d have yanked him off the beach. (There were no girls then).

Rudy yelled run. We ran. He yelled buoy swim. We dolphined through the shorepound to the orange buoys that bobbed in and out of sight off the end of the pier. He yelled rescue and we dolphined through the shorepound again, dragging red rescue cans. We strapped the rubber cans around our theatrically flailing partners and towed them back toward shore. We waited outside the shorepound for set waves, then pushed them over the falls to mess with them and scare their parents. 

It was no big deal. We’d been doing the same drills four hours a day, five days a week for three long months. Warm days, cold days, big waves, no waves – Rudy didn’t care. We didn’t care.

Junior Lifeguards race to the beach, after rounding an offshore buoy. Photo by Patrick Fallon (PatrickFallonPhoto.com)

Even at that age, we all realized we changed that summer. On a night like that, three months earlier, our families could have been drowning off the Santa Monica pier and none of us would have braved the ocean to save them. 

The skills we learned that summer could have been taught in a single morning. But the confidence to exercise those skills demanded daily drills in what we learned is a bountiful, but unforgiving ocean that treats everyone equally. The star of our class was a skinny, Black kid. I’d never met a Black kid before.  

We were the new inductees into a water world that the uninitiated, including most of our parents, could only know as spectators. We could surf Malibu, swim the two-mile Hermosa to Manhattan pier race, sail the Santa Monica Bay, dive the Palos Verdes kelp beds and paddle the Catalina Channel. On days the surf was so big the only way out was to jump off a pier or jetty, we’d jump.

Hermosa Beach Junior Lifeguards on the beach, swimming, paddling, running in and out of waves.

Thanks to that JG summer, I told Jeff, I’ve done all those things for 50 years. Without that summer I’d have done none of them. JGs gave me a lifetime pass to the world beyond the shorepound.

Jeff listened, without interrupting, until I finished my story. We had reached the pier head. Only then, did he say he had heard my story before, many times, from many different people. 

[Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the January 9, 2010 Easy Reader. ER]

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Written by: Kevin Cody

Kevin is the publisher of Easy Reader and Beach. Share your news tips. 310 372-4611 ext. 110 or kevin[at]easyreadernews[dot]com

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