As the jeep tires crackled over kelp strewn over the beach, the flies would be disturbed, swarming over the people's bodies and food like locusts.
In the 16 years I've worked with various lifeguard departments— first as an “apprentice" at Doheny State Park, then San Clemente, Los Angeles, Del Mar, San Diego and Hawaii before ending up at Del Mar again— I've had a love-hate relationship with the job. I was self-conscious in my first pair of red trunks. I was an excellent swimmer but not too sharp on first aid. Poking around in my first aid kit I couldn't tell the difference between a tongue depressor and an ice cream stick. One day I even called an ambulance and a lifeguard emergency squad for an old woman who had to go to the bathroom. I thought she was having a heart attack. What I lacked in brains, though, I tried to make up for in brawn.
On another occasion a lifeguard supervisor brought his dog to the beach at 17th St. and let him run loose in front of headquarters while he went for a morning dip.
Those were days of surf and sun. Abalone, lobster and fish were plentiful. You could drop a line in the surf and dinner would be flopping on the beach in less than 10 minutes. One could walk for miles south from Doheny along lonely white sand beaches past the old Capistrano pier, gone now; or north along the rocky and secluded coastline to Dana Cove, now a sprawling commercial harbor but then a cozy place to just surf, dive or loaf; or listen to the friendly call of gulls mixed with the roar of surf breaking off the point; or wander visually across a seemingly endless expanse of shimmering blue Pacific Ocean dotted here and there with surfers waiting to catch waves.
But as the years piled up, so did strain on the beaches and people who inhabit them. Seagulls disappeared killed or frightened away by pollution; beaches overflowed during summers with trash cans, parking lots and people; and lifeguarding — once a glamorous symbol of healthy outdoor living became a difficult and demanding chore. Either too much happened at once— large groups of inexperienced bathers, caught and dragged out to sea in swirling rip currents— or nothing happened at all— winters, when lifeguards scrape, paint and repair their rescue machines and drink too much coffee. There's no middle ground.
As various lifeguard departments from Santa Barbara to the Mexican coastline grew from small, scattered and relatively disorganized affairs to full-fledged bureaucracies, lifeguards rose to the exalted ranks of senior guard, sergeant, lieutenant and captain. But often it was by climbing over someone else's back.
As in Parkinson's Law, which maintains in part that paperwork generates more and more paperwork, with expansion, the public was reduced to a mass of sometimes carefully contrived statistics needed to justify the lifeguard's existence. “We have 565 forms to fill out now, and everyone in the department hates everyone else’s guts," moaned one lieutenant from up north.
“That's right,” snapped another guard bitterly. “It takes two years just to get a goddamn bandaid out of the State.”
Intense power struggles developed in many departments as lifeguards jockeyed for professional status with police and firefighters. Ironically, as status and benefits went up, morale often went down. Political considerations were substituted for the simple humanitarian goals of lifesaving. Esprit de Corps was sacrificed.
In the past lifeguards and firemen in Del Mar worked hand-in-hand providing emergency aid, responding on everything from heart attack cases in the home to accidents on the highways. It was also the lifeguard department’s policy to respond immediately outside the city limits when other lifeguards were unavailable — for example, at Torrey Pines or Black's Beach during wintertime. Those were simple gestures of cooperation, of mutual aid and service to the public. They also provided both a challenge and an opportunity to acquire additional training and valuable experience.
No longer. Petty politics and squabbling over boundaries and jurisdiction have seriously jeopardized the business of saving lives. Relations have become so strained between Fire Chief William Tripp and Lifeguard Captain Gardner Stevens over the years, the two men are barely civil to each other.
Across the way at Solana Beach, County Lifeguard Captain Jim Lathers suggested to Stevens last summer that he didn’t want any Del Mar units crossing over into county territory while on patrol. Contact between the two departments is confined mostly to emergencies, with county lifeguards backing Del Mar up with their rescue boat or other equipment when requested.
Fortunately, there has never been a drowning in a guarded area as a result of all this. Only one drowning, in fact, has occurred in the 10-year history of the Del Mar lifeguard department. And that happened on the south end of the beach in an area not visible to lifeguards except during patrols. But perhaps because there have been so few close calls (about 150 rescues a year) cockiness and apathy have also been encouraged.
Training has become lax. During the in-service training initiated last summer — after much arm-twisting and cajoling — cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was reviewed in a sloppy, haphazard fashion. There was no opportunity to practice on lifelike mannequins or to debate key points with the instructor seriously — a must according to Heart Association guidelines.
The assumption was that since CPR is rarely used, and since all the guards had all had the training at one time or another, more thorough instruction wasn’t needed. The instructor was just standing up going through the motions, bored stiff.
Later that summer, when I managed to secure practice mannequins, Stevens set aside additional time for review. As I monitored their practice one by one — watching them “crush ribs,” “lacerate livers” and forget to check for a pulse or establish an airway on the mannequin — it became increasingly apparent that assumptions about their proficiency were grossly inaccurate. Few performed adequately; even fewer knew how to use the technique with oxygen.
Stevens' comment: “Well, hopefully one of us (senior guards) will be there.”
Assumptions about the ability of some of the guards to respond to emergencies efficiently were also inaccurate. One day last summer, after a decision was finally made to respond to an accident at 15th and Camino Del Mar, the rookie guard who received the radio call got so excited he got his patrol unit stuck in the sand. The senior guard had to slide down out of the tower and pry him loose from the wheel. The senior guard then forgot to remain in touch by radio after he himself went on the call.
Naturally, no description of the lifeguard service at Del Mar would be complete without a description of Stevens, the central historical figure of the dept. I like the man; he’s a close personal friend. At nearly 50 years of age (perhaps more), he’s as conscientious and dedicated a lifeguard as can be found anywhere on the coast. His record, as far as swimming rescues and basic lifeguarding is concerned, is impressive.
But Stevens is also a timid, conservative administrator who has failed in some important ways to measure up to the challenges of the 20th century. His “Archie Bunker” social philosophies can’t help but intimidate and harass people on occasion, and his pennywise and pound-foolish ways have driven many staffers to the brink: “He’s got an inferiority complex about asking for things,” one guard complained in private. “Everything he does is half-assed, incomplete. After a while it drives you plain nuts.”
Unlike most administrators Stevens never pads his budget or asks for a cent more than he thinks he needs. Staffers have even accused him on a number of occasions of turning desperately needed funds back. All summer long the guards complained of equipment failures and other problems related to budget. Two of the four vehicles operated by the department were quite literally falling apart. The jeep that I drove at 25th Street all summer was on the verge of collapse, ready to wheeze and splatter into a pile of rusted nuts and bolts. The brakes barely worked — and only after pumping them three times —, the shocks and undercarriage were rusted out, there were other serious problems. According to Lt. Neal, Stevens turned money back at the start of the summer slated for repair of the vehicle.
His basic problem is that his programs lack depth or boldness, and that he has surrounded himself — either willingly or inadvertently — with men who agree only to please him. They complain about his policies behind his back but are unwilling to confront him in the open. Like Stevens, they seem unwilling to take a position on anything that might offend anyone’s political sensibilities. In a department with only two permanent personnel and nine seasonal lifeguards, this makes for some rather rough going at times. A lot better purposes could be served, it would seem, by more openness and honesty.
Yet, when staff meetings were suggested to iron out some of the disputes brewing between the lifeguards, the requests were ignored. Instead of intelligently discussing what should be done about such things as dogs, nudism and sexual assaults on the beach, etc., the dept, fell back on what a number of citizens have complained are “red neck” tactics.
Women who took their tops off, for example, or bathers who went nude in secluded areas became the special target of “pervert” patrols. Ironically, the lifeguards who were so preoccupied with catching perverts often behaved suspiciously themselves. Much of their time was spent peering at ladies’ crotches and boobs with binoculars from behind tinted glass, drooling or uttering obscene comments.
On one occasion a Sheriffs officer even falsified a report of an “indecent exposure” arrest he made on the beach with the help of Lt. Neal. After Neal, a former Green Beret, threw a flying tackle on the man and had him completely subdued, the cop ran over and slugged the suspect on the head. He said in his report that the man tried to escape. Privately, Neal admitted the officer’s statement was false. But he wasn’t about to jeopardize rapport with the police department by blowing the whistle.
On another occasion a lifeguard supervisor brought his dog to the beach at 17th St. and let him run loose in front of headquarters while he went for a morning dip. Obviously, he knew the rules about unleashed dogs. On more than one occasion I’ve heard him bark rude comments at people over the loudspeaker. So I yelled at him from the tower, as he himself would have done. He slithered out of the water, filled with rage. Although he didn’t speak to me for days afterwards, I think he got a clear impression of how other people must feel when lifeguards yell at them.
On another occasion a young retarded girl’s dog got loose on the beach and the supervisor on duty turned red with anger. Spotting the dog loose in front of the tower, he yelled at the girl to “get your dog off the beach — you’ve been warned before!” Two minutes later the little girl came over and complained to the supervisor that he failed to deliver a similar warning on another dog owner. His response was to put his hands on his hips, stick out his chin and mimic her slurred speech and gestures. Then he turned and said as the girl sadly walked away, “She does have a point.”
That was about the closest I came to throwing up that summer. That and the time a nearly-blind woman wandered into headquarters one morning and asked for help locating her dog. I wanted to put her in a jeep and take her for a ride to search for the animal, but the supervisor wouldn’t allow it. There was no real reason for not helping — the beach was practically empty. He was simply unwilling to let us help her. As the woman stumbled out of the tower muttering, confused and disoriented, one of our bright young guards quipped, “She walks like she has a corn cob up her ass.”
Later that day, reports Animal Control Officer Erik Sandy, the woman slipped and nearly fell off a cliff trying to retrieve her Doberman.
When I mentioned some of these things to Stevens, his response was: “Don’t make waves! Enjoy yourself, Ronnie. I told you when I hired you that I didn’t want any trouble this summer... Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, all those guys are dead already.”
This was also the summer we were plagued with the worst epidemic of flies ever to hit the Del Mar beach. People constantly complained to the lifeguard department and to city hall and were told nothing could be done about the problem. Every morning when I would wake up at headquarters I would have to take a vacuum and suck all the flies up that were blotting the view from the tower. By the time noon would roll around, the headquarters would be filled with flies again. When a first aid case would report to the tower, we would vacuum the flies away from the wound and the first aid table.
On days when the tide was high and the beach was crowded, people would get so uptight they would sometimes shout curses or give the finger to lifeguard jeeps passing in patrol. As the jeep tires crackled over kelp strewn over the beach, the flies would be disturbed, swarming over the people's bodies and food like locusts. Once, while driving Unit 90 up at the north end of the beach, I was attacked myself. As the flies bombarded my eyelids and clogged up my nostrils I hit the brake peddle three times and prayed that the vehicle would roll to a stop without rolling over someone. Then I leapt from the jeep. With the “mike” cable stretched as far away as I could, I hit the transmitter button and called for help: “Unit 90 to Station Three, I’m under attack by a swarm of man-eating flies. My vehicle is completely covered and I am unable to continue on patrol. Can you send Unit 92 to the foot of 29th St. with a can of Raid?”
“Unit 90,” Lt. Neil replied from headquarters. “Is this a 902 fly (a reference to the “902” series of police codes)?”
“That’s affirmative,” I replied, “a 902 Fly, code two (urgent but without red lights or siren).
”10-4 Unit 90,” Neal said reluctantly. “92’s Enroute...”
Two minutes later lifeguard Vern Rye pulled up to the street-end in the Datsun pickup and rushed down on the beach with the Raid. “Geez,” he said, appraising the buzzing black swarm that had settled over the driver’s seat, steering wheel, dashboard, grill and hood, completely obscuring the vehicle’s red paint. “These flies really are bad!”
Later, at headquarters, when Neal and a few other guards were scolding me for what I had done — “embarrassing” the lifeguard service over the air like that — Rye tempered his support: “I guess they were pretty bad,” he remarked rather cautiously to the other men.
I typed up a three-page complaint about the flies to Stevens and asked that he forward a copy to city hall. What happened was that the Public Works department had failed to clean the beach until three generations of flies had been allowed to breed in the kelp that had washed up. When they finally did start cleaning operations, after the summer was well underway and the damage had already been done, all they could do with their equipment was fake the seaweed down to the water’s edge. With high tide, it would wash right back up again.
Stevens became very upset when I pressed him on the issue; he threatened to fire me if I went up to city hall. “I know the flies are bad,” he kept telling me. “But if you think they’re bad on this beach, you ought to try walking down one of the State beaches. They never get cleaned. I went down to Cardiff on my day off the other day, and boy. I'm telling you, you wouldn’t believe it.”
I suggested that we could go to the newspapers to ask for help from the public, that we could start a campaign to lick the problem, that we didn’t have to settle for flies. We could even ask for donations to rent a large enough tractor or equipment to haul the stuff away. I pooled people on the beach on my day off and a lot of them said they would be willing to set one morning aside to help. I even took their phone numbers and addresses. They said they would be willing to bring shovels and rakes to load it aboard Public Works vehicles.
For a fleeting moment it even looked like the plan might be approved. But when Public Works was contacted, the foreman shot it down: “If you think I'm sending any of my men or equipment down here on a crazy stunt like this, your nuts. I’m telling you, Jensen," he said, “you keep that kind of stuff up and you’re not only gonna get yourself in trouble, your gonna get your boss in trouble. The old man up at city hall, he ain’t in no mood to take no shit off his staff.” “Besides,” he added, “Most of those people who come down to the beach don’t even live here. I could see cleaning it real nice if it were just for the residents, but not for a bunch of people who don’t even pay taxes. Those people don't generate no income for this city, just problems.”
Once, when a false rumor got started that the lifeguards were circulating a petition demanding better equipment and working conditions, City Manager Wayne Dernetz got Stevens on the phone and chewed him out. In characteristic fashion, Stevens passed a gruffly worded order down that anybody caught saying “bad” things about the dept. would be “let go.” We were told to say, if anybody asked, that things were ok!