I grew up in Minnesota, where lakes are a dime-a-dozen and summer is punishingly humid. From when I was 16 years old to when I turned 21, I spent those long summer days as a lifeguard—first on a city beach and then at a private tennis club pool. I was a bratty, chronically hungover party girl, and I was in charge of making sure your kids didn't die.
It was the best job I've ever had.
As a sophomore in high school, I signed up for a six-week training course after my two best friends—who were on the swim team—convinced me to join them. I was decidedly not a swimmer and waking up at 4 AM to work out for two hours every day sounded like torture, but I also liked watching our high school men's swim team romp around in speedos.
Despite my penchant for showing up to class smelling like an empty bottle of booze, I was hired to guard lives at a small, slightly dingy lake located about five miles north of my house. The beach was full of creepy ass dudes; I can't count the number of times a leathery 50-year-old in a Speedo, or a drunk frat bro, or a respectable-looking father of four, told me he was going to drown on purpose so I could give him mouth-to-mouth.
The worst creeps were the old guys who filmed or photographed young women, which happened more than a few times. Cameras and camcorders were banned (this was before camera phones were common), and when we saw them being used, we'd tell whoever was using them that they needed to put them away. We were lenient when it was a mom or dad filming their kids, but groups of teenagers and dirty old men who came by themselves raised red flags.
One time, I noticed an older man alone with a camcorder unmistakably trained on two underage girls. I radioed up to my manager, who confronted the man and confiscated his tape. We hauled him off and reviewed the tape; close-ups of women's chests, small children's butts, and my 16-year old boobs were on full display. The old man sat crying softly with his head in his hands, and my manager ducked out to wait for the cops in the parking lot, leaving me alone in a cement room with a man who had just videotaped both my boobs and the nether regions of small children. I stood nervously by the door until James, an assistant manager, came running in to rescue me.
James was a studly 21-year-old college track star I spent that first summer lusting after. We flirted heavily, but I was young and he had a girlfriend, so I was pleasantly surprised when he started calling me late at night to complain about her. Our clichéd forbidden romance came to a head at the very end of the summer with a night of mediocre drunk sex. In the morning, we awoke to a phone call from his girlfriend, and he drove me home begging me not to tell anyone because he could get in trouble. So much for summer love.
Lest you think my experience lifeguarding was entirely dealing with saggy perverts and affairs with my superiors, I actually saved people, too. There was a kid who'd come to the beach with his older friends that we had to rescue at least once a week. He couldn't swim, so when his friends would head out to the floating dock, he'd follow them beyond the buoys that marked the deep end and we'd end up dragging his ass back to shore.
The thing about people who are actively drowning is that they're hard to spot. There's no splashing, no screaming, no frantic pleas for help. You can usually tell someone is having trouble when he or she stop moving forward and start vertically bobbing up and down, but even then some people are just treading water. I once jumped in to help a girl I thought was about to slip under only to have her swim away like a fucking dolphin, leaving me floating around on my guard tube with a lake full of people staring at me.
The worst days at the beach were when our certification company, Ellis, would come in to audit our skills and reaction times. We'd get no warning, and Ellis agents would come dressed in plain clothes to secretly watch. One day, I noticed what looked like the body of a small child floating under the murky waves. I've never been more terrified in my life. I blew my whistle and tore off into the lake after the body, which turned out to be a child-size dummy. It was an audit, but I had to act like it was the real thing, because I knew I'd get fired if I fucked up protocol. The other guards cleared the water as I gently pulled the dummy out of the lake. With a crowd of confused beachgoers circling around me, I performed CPR on the dummy.
It was both a relief and a disappointment when I eventually quit the beach to work at a private tennis club. Since rich kids typically get swimming lessons from birth, my days of heart-pounding rescues came to an abrupt end.
Our biggest issue at the club was the phantom pooper, who would show up every few weeks and drop a giant deuce in the bottom of the diving well. Usually we'd scoop the poop in the leaf skimmer, dump in a bunch of chemicals, and the pool would be swim-ready in a few hours. But sometimes the phantom pooper got the runs, and poking the shit with the leaf skimmer resulted in a giant brown cloud that infested the length of the diving well. When that happened, we'd push the cloud toward the filter, pump in even more chemicals, close for the night, and hope the pool was clear when we opened up the next morning.
There's an episode of This American Life that features a 60-something man who, despite going to college, law school, and starting a career as a lawyer, still spends every summer lifeguarding because he can't bear to give it up. I feel him. Summer means something different to lifeguards. Every day is different, unpredictable, and impossible to plan. I miss the days of opening the beach, tanning my skin in the afternoon heat, and diving into the waves after a child who's just slipped under. I miss feeling sand under my toes, the relief of hot skin meeting cold water, and the rush of a rescue. That 60-something man was on to something: Real life can wait for the winter.