In recognition of Dan’s presenting sponsorship of the 2022 East Hampton Artists & Writers Charity Softball Game on Saturday, August 20, we are giving participating artists and writers free rein to write whatever they want in this space this month.
As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a lifeguard.
I remember Jones Beach in 1964. I was four. The lifeguards had white stuff on their noses. Navy blue swimsuits with the gold seal. They smelled of sweat and Coppertone. They sat up there on their stands, high above the packed sardines baking in the August sun. Scanning, observing. Suddenly their red whistles blared, and all eyes were on them. They jumped down, dove into the sea, and saved a life. No biggie. They did this all day long. They ruled the beach. They were the good guys.
It took me 45 years — during which time I’d worked as a corporate lawyer, got divorced, and escaped a cult — until I finally achieved my dream of being a lifeguard. But the process and experience were strange and baffling.
It was 2014 and I was 54, living near the beach on the East End of Long Island. Tom and Bill, two guys about my age, approached me after a beach swim. They said they were part of the “Crew,” about 60 lifeguards who responded to water emergency calls. They seemed like good guys.
Tom and Bill taught me some lifeguard rescues. Then they took me to the Crew’s clubhouse, an old garage tucked in the dunes. There, Cranky Paul — the 83-old head of the Crew — swore me in. The Crew clapped. We ate hot sausages, red peppers, and yellow onions, and drank cold beer. They gave me a red whistle, a pager, and a tube of zinc oxide. I was in.
Tom and Bill ran the Crew’s monthly meetings. We recited the pledge of allegiance. We bowed our heads in memory of Tom’s best friend. Minutes were read, new business discussed — the fundraisers, the articles in the local papers, and awards to the guard of the month. The meetings were largely ceremonial, and, oddly, there was little talk about lifeguarding. And, in the few years I was in the group, we had only a few drills. Run by a former Navy sailor, his idea of training was to tell us: “You’re all weak and worthless and make me sick.” But he did have a point — I discovered that most of the guards couldn’t swim very well.
The whole thing was peculiar. I was puzzled when Tom asked me one day whether I ever did “hostile takeovers?” I had. He explained: there was another rescue group out there, “The Surf Rescue Team,” which had about three members. He said that they were better at fund-raising and getting publicity. They were “moving into our turf.” He wanted to know how we could “take them over.” A takeover of a rescue group? This made no sense. Why would we want less guards saving lives?
Around this time, another Crew member, Ivan, told me he’d come up with a smartphone app that could alert all of the hundreds of local lifeguards — not just the 60 Crew members — of a water rescue in progress. Our Town had over a hundred miles of unprotected beaches and since every second counted and it wasn’t possible for the Crew alone to get to all the beaches quick enough, this would make the beaches safer. Ivan said Cranky Paul hated the idea, bellowing that the Crew “owned the beaches.” Cranky Paul had persuaded the Town not to allow anyone but the Crew to get alerts of water rescues.
This was all crazy to me and Ivan. It sounded like a mobster tactic. So, Ivan and I quietly rolled out our app.
When Cranky Paul got wind of HELP, however, things quickly got out of hand. Tom called me a traitor. A traitor? Cranky Paul almost ran me over with his pick-up truck in the parking lot. Then another Crew member who was a police officer threatened to arrest me. The following week, Tom called me to say I’d been voted out of the Crew for insubordination.
And so ended my short-lived tenure with the Crew. I turned in my pager, but kept the red whistle and the zinc oxide.
The author of Manhattan Cult Story: My Unbelievable True Story of Sex, Crimes, Chaos and Survival (Arcade/Simon & Schuster), Spencer Schneider is a practicing attorney, an ocean lifeguard, operates a lifeguard training academy and is a contributing writer for EAST Magazine. He is a marathon open water swimmer and a cold-water swimmer. He lives in New York and East Hampton. He is looking forward to seeing readers at East Hampton Library’s Author’s Night on August 13, where he will be one of the participating authors.