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— 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."

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