In all my time as a lifeguard, I needed to make only one save. But let me tell you, it was truly one-of-a-kind.
I recently heard about a lifeguard who had saved many lives over a career that spanned more than half a century. Of the dozens of people he saved, only one ever returned to thank him. Only one.
Now I know why.
I became a lifeguard a few years back when I was 15. I started out at a YMCA in Athol, Massachusetts – not exactly Baywatch with Pamela Anderson in her prime.
I’d been swimming in that pool ever since I was nine years old, so it was like my backyard. Standard-size. Twenty-five yards across. Ten feet at its deepest. But it was in a pretty drab room that looked like it hadn’t been refreshed in 20 years, and the water temperature was somewhere around 90 degrees.
The lifeguard seat was comical. You weren’t in a throne 10 feet up. You felt like you were sitting in a highchair. Which means you didn’t feel special at all.
Pay was 8 bucks an hour. And the job consisted of telling four year olds: Don’t run! You’ll slip. Or older kids: Don’t dive into three feet of water!
On the other end of the spectrum, you had 80 year olds doing water aerobics. For starters, all the old codgers could touch the ground when they exercised. But even when they did commit minor infractions, you quickly learned to leave them alone.
It was a violation to hang on the ropes that divided the pool into sections. It damaged the equipment. But when the old codgers were leaning on the ropes to take a rest, they didn’t want to hear about it. When I did point out the violation, they’d glare up at me, as if to say: What are YOU gonna do about it?”
You get the picture.
A lifeguard isn’t going to get many girls from his perch in a highchair.
So when I was 17, I jumped at the chance to become a state lifeguard. I’m a pretty strong swimmer and I passed the certification test with flying colors.
This was a big upgrade. From $8 an hour to $13.75. I got a job at a state park in Erving working the waterfront on a four-mile-long lake.
The water was beautiful. You could see clearly all the way to the bottom. I was working shifts with two other lifeguards and sitting in chairs that are 10-feet high.
You can catch the eye of a girl when you’re sitting in those chairs, and a four-year-old will definitely look up to you.
The lake probably goes 25 feet deep. But the swimming area was only about 100 yards, and is roped off with buoys. Swimmers weren’t allowed to go beyond the ropes – that area was for boaters.
During our lifeguard training we were specifically told that anything outside the buoys was not our responsibility. But if somebody somehow managed to get in trouble in the middle of the lake we could use our discretion.
There was not a single tense moment during the first summer. It was completely calm. No need to make a single save. I made 5 grand. It was a sweet gig.
The second year comes around and a few of the veteran lifeguards leave. Now, I’m 18, and in charge.
The close shave came on a July day that was dying down but not yet dead.
About 20 people are swimming in this enclosure. And outside the ropes – about half a mile away — is this white boat. It’s about 18 feet long, and it stands out because there’s a Golden Retriever on the ledge of the deck.
All of a sudden the dog jumps in the lake like it really just has to go for a swim. The dog is swimming, swimming, swimming. Swimming around in circles.
It’s impossible to know what’s going on in the head of the owner, because after awhile the boat motors off to the dock and leaves the dog behind.
I knew Golden Retrievers have an instinctive love of water and that they’re good swimmers. You throw a stick in the water and they’ll go get it.
Maybe this Golden Retriever had jumped off the same boat a thousand times before and swam back to the lake house each time. But I couldn’t be sure, and the more I watched this dog, the more he seemed to be struggling, and he was a good three quarters of a mile from where the boat docked
The three lifeguard chairs on the lakefront are spaced about 50 yards apart, and all three of us lifeguards are looking at this dog. My first thought is that it’s beyond the buoys and not our responsibility. But the dog doesn’t seem to know what to do or where to go. And people on the beach are starting to stare at it.
I’m in the center seat and I look at the lifeguard to the left of me. Phil. Phil’s expression says he feels the same way I do. I kind of shrugged my shoulders, as if to say: I guess we should.
Not that I had any idea what to do. We weren’t trained in any way, shape, or form on how to rescue a Golden Retriever.
So I did what I’d ordinarily do if I were going in to save a human. I blow my whistle three times, point at the dog, and jump down from my chair.
Phil jumps down from his chair. And the other lifeguard on duty – Megan – jumps down from hers and moves to the middle chair. Each of us responds exactly as if we’re going to rescue a person.
Phil runs over to me. How we going to do this? I have no idea. If I swim, by the time I get there it may be too late. We have a rescue kayak. So I sling a life preserver over my shoulder, grab the kayak, throw it into the water and start paddling. Phil grabs a surfboard and jumps in.
Now that I’m getting closer to the dog, I notice two very distinct details. This is a very old and overweight Golden Retriever.
His hair is graying like the old men in the aerobics class back at the YMCA, and there are layers of excess skin under his chin. The dog had a good frame. At one time, he was probably in pretty good shape. But he was definitely out of his prime and he had seen better days . . . and a lot of good meals.
By the time I get out near him, the old codger is really having a hard time. He’s above the water, then down for a few paddles. Above the water, then down again.
I start thinking: How the hell is this going to work?
I mean, I can communicate with a person, basically reassure. All right, calm down. Grab the lifeguard tube. Everything’s going to be okay. I’m here. Don’t worry. But how do you get that across to a dog?
I get over to him and we make eye contact.
You know how dogs are usually happy when they see a person? Well, this dog is clearly conflicted. He’s happy to see me. But at the same time, something in the old codger’s eyes is saying: What the hell are you doing here? Are you joking with me? I can swim! Don’t you have any idea who I am?
It’s hard to describe. But it felt like I was the person he most wanted to see and the person he least wanted to see in the same instant.
I get off the kayak, and now I’m next to it, with one hand treading water in the middle of the lake. Phil is somewhere behind me because he’s still paddling out on the rescue surfboard.
I grab the dog. Clearly, that isn’t going to work. The dog is 70 pounds. I’m only double that. I can hold the dog and keep him above water. But I’m not going to be able to swim him to shore as if he were a sack of potatoes.
And, trust me, this dog is no sack of potatoes. He’s scratching me like he’s the canine equivalent of Hugh Jackman in Wolverine. I know a drowning person will grab onto anything to stay afloat. But I can’t tell if the old codger is slashing me out of panic or if he’s pissed. All I can tell you is I’m suddenly covered neck to swimsuit with scratch marks.
I manage to push the kayak underneath the old codger and haphazardly get him on it. This is good. The kayak is right side up. The dog is safe. All he has to do is lie down and I’ll swim him to shore. Even better, Phil arrives to help. We’re three-quarters of a mile out.
If the dog was a person, I could tell him: All right, stay on the kayak. But this is the last place the old codger wants to be. He’s trying to jump off the kayak while I’m saying: Nope. Nope. And trying to hold him down.
As Phil and I swim toward the owner’s boathouse, the old codger becomes frantic. He’ll do anything to get off that kayak. And that’s when it hit me. That’s the moment that told me why hardly anybody who’d been saved by that old lifeguard had ever returned to thank him.
Shame . . .
The people that lifeguards saved were ashamed to have put themselves in such a terrible situation, and ashamed that they had to bring out the lifeguard. That’s why they never came back to say thanks.
Every movement this old codger makes, down to his every expression, seems to be springing from that same sense of shame.
Maybe the old codger had been on the lake all his life. Maybe he was The Man in his day. Only now he’s now pushing a hundred in dog years. And he absolutely refuses to acknowledge it.
He knows he’s in trouble. But he’s hiding it like an old man would. He’s humiliated to be towed in on a kayak. And his eyes are pleading: Don’t you dare do this to me. Have you any idea what this will do to my reputation?
After awhile, he resorts to cunning. He lies on the kayak for a second, pretending to have accepted his fate. But as soon as he feels we’re not looking, that we’ve let our guards down, he tries to bolt back into the water.
We keep holding him down. Everybody on shore is watching us. This is the first time the crowd has seen a save all summer. It’s my first save. And the old codger is getting more and more frantic.
Do you really think I’m going to let all those people see me get brought in like this? Are you nuts? I am a Golden Retriever!
It probably took us 5 to 10 minutes of pushing and holding the old codger to get him back to shore.
We gently let him out with everybody at the lake looking on. The old codger got four legs on land, shook off the water, and then haughtily stopped to collect his dignity. At that point, he turned around to make his feelings known to Phil and I with a look in his eyes that was unmistakable.
If words could’ve come out of the old codger’s eyes, they would’ve said: Kiss my ass.