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Volume 38 Issue 11 • July 10 - 16, 2008
now in our 38th season

Princes of Summer

by Robert P. Barsanti

A heavy surf pounded the island this week.  Somewhere, far off the coast of New Jersey, a storm was spinning itself out into ripples of breakers and combers.  You could stand in the Stop and Shop parking lot, load the groceries into the back of the family car, and off in the distance, hear the ocean roaring against the beach.  It must have been a great week to be a lifeguard.

I went to Cisco one afternoon to watch the best of the pounding.  The cliff has built up over the summer.  I stood atop it, and soaked in the great cologne of a Nantucket summer:  beach roses, hyacinth, salt, and Bain de Soleil.  Ten foot waves rode in on a southwest wind, broke a hundred yards offshore, and boiled and washed up onto the shore, before sliding back out into the riptide.  The surfers had come out like bats in the evening.  Every single guy could, this afternoon, justify the thousands of dollars he had spent on surfboards, racks, and wetsuits.  They sat in the line up, took their turns, and, invariably wiped out within a few seconds of riding down the break.  Up they popped, and away they swam, dragging their boards through the boil and back to the line-up.

The lifeguards sat at the ready.  Two rode the white tower while two others walked the beaches below.   They looked calm and professionally idle; all four were tanned, strong, and beautiful Princes of Summer.  Their eyes were on the surf, but they seemed no more concerned than if they were in a last period study hall. 

A tall, leonine, young man stepped down from the tower, smiled and waved back at the others and then walked to the waves.  The muscles of youth rippled across his back and stomach; Coca Cola, Budweiser, and McDonald’s had yet to age him.  At the edge of the water, he storked on one leg and strapped on a small, blue fin, then strapped on the other.  Then, at a thought, he dove into the roiling water.  He swam out through the wash and was swept fifty yards down the beach on the rip, before he made it out to the nearest surfers.  Initially, I thought he was warning the riders that they were slipping to far down the beach, but then I saw him sprint in front of the wave, pike his body,  and get boiled.  He remained out in the breakers until he could finally bodysurf one in.

I had always wanted to be a lifeguard.  I thought that the best way to spend a summer would be sitting atop one of the towers, browning to a pre-cancerous tint, and watching over the swimmers behind Vuarnets and zinc. There was no better way to measure out the summer than in waves.  Moreover guards wore a mantle of efficiency and knowledge.  They had the distant power of protection.

In the golden delusion of my youth, I got all of my certificates and sunscreen together, but there always seemed to be more sensible jobs with larger paychecks sitting nearby.  During the winter, in college, I rode the tower in the Mead Memorial Pool during lap swim, but a two-hour shift in an indoor pools doesn’t quite count. 

One summer, after a July teaching in a private school, I became a beach lifeguard on a peaceful beach on Nantucket Sound.  I finally had my orange shorts, my Red Cross jacket, and my sunburn.  In the mornings, before the swimmers came, the other guards and would swim around the Oak Bluffs Steamship pier, land on the other side, and then swim back.  Sometimes, we timed it so that we would dive for money coming off the boat. 

Otherwise, I was a horrible guard.  The shore can be the most boring place on the continent.  Every day you are faced with the straightest line in the world.  As a result, my attention wandered to best sellers hidden in my towel.  I peformed exactly two rescues, both of which occurred in water less than four feet deep.  My double trudgeon, my cross chest carry, and my two-handed release were skills never to be brought to use.  After two weeks, I looked forward to rain and an afternoon on the couch.  By Labor Day, I was back at college and I would never guard again. 

The years added and subtracted from the mediocre, bored young man in orange.  It subtracted the swimming strength that raced around the moored ferryboat and it added a healthy doubt as to whether you should really swim that close to a moving propeller.  Nothing ages like a healthy dose of doubt and second guessing.

When viewed from middle age, I like to think that it would be different.  I don’t really believe I would be any better at guarding now.  If anything, the world has provided me with all sorts of other, more interesting ways of distracting myself on the beach.  Instead of smuggling novels, I would probably try hide an Ipod in a hat and a computer in my backpack.  I would like to think I would appreciate the beach more.  But the truth is, I would spend more time thinking about children, bills, and increasing voter turnout.  The horizon doesn’t change much, nor do the swimmers, nor the waves.  I, on the other hand, have thickened and slowed into middle age.  The bored lifeguard found himself ensnared in a hammock of friendships, commitments, and bills.

But when I watched the four young lifeguards at Cisco, I did want to be young again.  I was never a trim, rippling lion, but I would have swum out with the tall one to the breakers and ridden a few waves in.  I would like sit, bored, atop a tower and shrink my world back to that horizon, measure out my day in waves and, once again, count myself as a Prince of Summer.

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