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I Wanna Be a Lifeguard
A bathing suit, a whistle, a tan . . . and cherished memories of those youthful summers spent outdoors

Working out with a local swim team is what first sparked my interested in being a lifeguard. Every morning during my summer breaks from school, my teammates and I labored away, lap after tiring lap, while the guards sat perched above us on their stands, chilling out in the early-morning sun, twirling their whistles and soaking up the scene. I knew then that lifeguarding was my type of job, especially since you could work outside and the official uniform consisted of a bathing suit, whistle and sunglasses.

Instead, however, I took my first paying position as a grocery-store cashier the summer after my second year of high school. Lifeguard jobs were scarce in my small town, but the grocery store suffered a high turnover rate of teenage baggers, stockers and cashiers, and as a result, was always welcoming new faces. I got the job in no time, and with minimal training, was given regular hours.

As much of a drag as it is to be dismissed from a job, I didn’t mind turning in my cashier’s smock after only a month of service. By the end of my first week, I was feeling ill at the sight of customers approaching my checkout lane. At home, I had dreams of running canned foods over the scanner, panicking at the thought of miscounting change. During my long, tedious shifts, I would often watch in envy as classmates would stop in with their cheerful families to buy food and drinks for their summer picnics, and then wave good-bye as they went back out into the hot Florida afternoon. From the morning that the store manager handed me my misspelled name tag, I wanted to look for a new job, one that didn’t require me to smile and nod as I handled leaking packages of raw meat and heavy bags of dog food. I had received my lifeguard certification along with a group of friends earlier that spring, and as soon as I heard the local town pool was hiring guards, I scheduled an interview with the pool director.

At my interview, Dave, the young director (who, I would later learn, took his job to a whole new, obsessive level) drove home a few points that he seemed to feel really passionate about.

“You will have to scrub, and mop and pick gross things up. And you will have to sink your hand in to a few toilets, understand? This isn’t a pretty job,” he said with a stern glare. I could see that he was trying to weed out the weaklings.

I was hired and given a uniform just a few days later. The shorts were ill-fitting and the T-shirts came only in sizes large and extra-large, but this was the coolest dress in town. It made a distinction between us lifeguards as the superior (paid) rulers of the pool, and the rest of the pool’s patrons.

Though the majority of my hours at work were spent scanning the pool for weak swimmers, checking out the odd behavior of sunbathers, and barking at little kids for running on the pool deck, much of the work, as Dave promised, was of the unglamorous kind. Our maintenance routine included the use of harsh chemical cleansers, bulky tools and duct tape. As a group, we would arrive early before opening to scrub and brush the dirt and grime that accumulated on the tiles of the pool. Often, one of the more determined guards would be encouraged to strap on a weighted diving belt and descend to the bottom of the deep end to reach the farthest bits of grime, or to plunge in with cumbersome tools for one of Dave’s underwater fix-it projects. Sound a bit unsafe? You bet it was, but we did it anyway—all under the disapproving eye of the elderly water-aerobics instructor, who would often pause her class to loudly voice her opinion on our supposed inability to clean.

“That’s right!” she would yell with zeal. “Put those lazy kids to work!”

Nevertheless, I have good memories of those summer days at the pool, most involving the feeling of the sun, which would beat down on my tan toes, the only bit to stick out of the shadow of the guard stand’s umbrella. Since relocating to upstate New York, I’ve almost forgotten the feeling of the Florida summers, and the unique humid winds that would sweep over the pool moments before the inevitable afternoon storm. The enormous black clouds of thunder and lightening would appear out of nowhere and roll across the sky in a matter of minutes, a sight both terrifying and exciting for those of us huddled in the guard room watching the storm’s progress. Also disappeared into a memory is my once-dark tan that would fade just in time for the next summer to renew it.

Like most jobs, lifeguarding at the public pool had its share of special, secret perks, available only to the few chosen ones. For us, it was the fun we had when the pool would shut down during those torrential downpours. After clearing swimmers out of the pool and off the deck, we would mess around in the guardroom, often playing with the cool stuff in the first-aid kits, like the rubber gloves we used as makeshift water balloons that roughly resembled cow udders when filled. When that got boring, it was time to order take-out food, divvy cleaning tasks or practice CPR on the slack-jawed plastic training dummies.

Despite the unidentifiable messes that we had to clean up, the crazy kids we had to control, the sometimes brutal heat that wore us all down at times, and the sobering fact that we might one day be called to save a life, working outside at the public pool made some of my most cherished teenage memories. Not only was it a job that built responsibility and character, it also was just a bunch of fun and free days at the pool.

—Katharine Jones

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