The Junior Lifeguard coming of age ritual
by Kevin Cody
Lifeguard Jeff Horn was walking out the door of La Playita on 14th Street with a breakfast burrito on his way to the Hermosa pier headquarters when I ran into him. We know each other from paddleboarding. He’s head of the Junior Lifeguard program and said he was on his way to 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 the north end of the Santa Monica Bay. Our hillside home had an ocean view, but was too far from the beach to walk or bike to.
When I was young my family went to the beach every weekend. I’d go in the ocean up to my knees and watch kids I didn’t know rip on surf mats. When we vacationed on Balboa Island, I watched the local kids swim back and forth between their waterfront homes and the floating swim docks in the channel. When we took the Great White Steamship to Avalon, I’d lean over the rail to watch the island kids dive for coins tossed 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 the Coronado Bay. He was determined, 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 could swim. I couldn’t breath. I’d turn my head and look like I was breathing, but never exhaled until I clutched the other end.
One Saturday morning when I was 10, I found myself hanging on the side of the Santa Monica City College pool. It was a regulation, 50-yard-long, Olympic pool. My mom had brought me to the SMC pool to take the qualifying test for the Santa Monica Junior Lifeguards. She didn’t know I couldn’t breath. “Gidget” had just hit the movie theaters.
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 surfed together when we were older he always looked afraid.
I pushed off the wall with my legs as hard as I could and fueled by fear, propellered across 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 no 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 or swam behind them and grabbed them by their hair 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” was the first time I heard it. It was what I did when my dad carried me out over my head.
Midway through the class we did our first jump from the Santa Monica pier with legs crossed to protect our nuts and arms out so we wouldn’t sink and lose sight of the victim. I jumped stiff as wooden crucifix. The second time wasn’t so bad. After that, pier jumps were my favorite JG drill. They were more fun than the POP roller coaster and swimming in through the barnacle and starfish encrusted pilings was like hiking through Injun Joe’s Cave.
A lesson for the parents
At the end of the summer an evening demonstration was held for the parents.
It was cold, gray, windy and getting dark. Ugly, overhead surf pounded the shore.
We shivered shirtless in our Spartan red trunks with the JG patches sewn on by our moms. If I had been the parent of one of those 10-year-old JGs I’d have yanked him off the beach.
Rudy yelled run. We ran. He yelled buoy swim. We swam through the surf to the orange buoys that bobbed in and out of sight off the end of the pier. He yelled rescue and we dolphined out through the surf dragging our red rescue cans. We strapped the rubber cans around our theatrically flailing partners and towed them back toward shore. When we reached the impact zone we pushed our victims over the falls to mess with them and scare their parents.
It was no big deal. We’d been doing the same drills five hours a day, five days a week for three months. Hot days, cold days, big days, flat days – Rudy didn’t care. We didn’t care.
That evening, though we didn’t know the words for it, we all knew we had undergone a rite of passage. Three months earlier, 100 people could have been drowning off the Santa Monica pier and none of us would have braved the ocean to help them.
The skills we learned that summer could have been taught in a single day. But the confidence to exercise those skills demanded daily drills in what we discovered is a bountiful and generous, but unpredictable and unforgiving ocean. Who we were on land, we learned, didn’t mean a thing in the ocean. The star of our class was a skinny, black kid. I’d never even met a black kid before.
Our parents and the other uninitiated could only know the Santa Monica Bay as spectators. We could surf the Bay, from PV to Point Dume. We could swim from the Hermosa to the Manhattan pier, sail out of King Harbor and Marina del Rey, dive the Palos Verdes kelp beds and paddle the Catalina Channel. On winter days when the surf was so big the only way out to the break was to jump off a pier or jetty, we’d jump.
Thanks to JGs, I told Jeff, I’ve done all those things over the past 50 years. JGs issued me a lifetime passport to cross the booby trapped border of big waves, hidden holes, cold, rocks, rips, and shadowy shapes that separate watermen and waterwomen from flatlanders.