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Rescue Me–With the Wave of Female Lifeguards Comes Unexpected Complications

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Until I turned seventeen and became aware that it wasn’t actually water I needed rescuing from, I, like every other Southern California born and raised Gidget, had a fatal crush on lifeguards.

Who could have blamed us? There they sat, high atop their ivory towers, protecting the helpless from monster rip tides, saving the powerless from invisible currents. What young female could resist such deliverance? They warned us of impending tidal treacheries with a green, yellow, or red flag wafting in the breeze high above them. And they were astonishingly vigilant considering bikini-ed distractions; ready to sprint at the slightest splash, orange life buoy deftly tucked under massively muscular, bronzed arms.

We didn’t stand a chance against such superheroes, and neither did our boyfriends. One of the qualifications for this summer stint must have been man-boy looks and flawless skin tone. It was never the proverbial ninety-pound weakling who struggled to get a foothold while slowly navigating the ladder, his goose bumped, pimpled, scrawny arms, pale skin covered with a long-sleeved shirt. Instead, the future fathers of Abercrombie & Fitch models that tiptoed deftly down the rungs were always tanned, never burned, and they were the only ones whose appearance was actually enhanced by zinc oxide slathered across their noses. Our escorts to the beach sighed with resignation and surrendered to the unattainable physicality of their summer competition.

My trail of red swimming-trunk romances began at Annandale Country Club at the age of six. An intrepid swimmer, I owed my prowess to none other than Steve, the Greek god who spent more time having suntan lotion rubbed on his back by a bevy of young females than he did actually performing any daring do. He would teach the various levels of kick boarding, and then sprawl in the sun with his admiring entourage. The faintest whiff of Sea & Ski still renders me weak in the knees.

As the result of his tutelage, I could dive a flawless jackknife. But the moment I loved him deeper than any deep-end was when I jumped off the high board for the first time, my paralyzing fear allayed by his steady hand, which held the pole for me to cling to while plunging into the abyss. Would there ever be such a man in my adult life?

I could barely conceal my jealous rage as I watched beautiful older girls giggle and coo while nestling next to his brightly striped beach towel. I would never be that age; it would take far too long to grow up. So I mustered my courage, asked him to freeze himself where they stored the Fudgsicles, and begged him to wait for me.

Never a flighty girl, I remained faithful to my betrothed until the closing of the Annandale pool, and even without contact my devotion did not waver until our family escaped the heat and smog and rented a summerhouse at Newport Beach. There I lost my heart again at 10th Street Beach, at the end of the sidewalk that led through the ice plant down to the wooden tower that was lifeguard station number six. Since my grandmother had informed me that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” I carried handfuls of grapes and two ice-cold Cokes (in-a-bottle) down that concrete trail to twenty-year-old Tim. There wasn’t much conversation, but surely my attention to his hunger and thirst would spur his affection. Besides, I didn’t really need words to augment my feelings; just to curl up in the warm dry sand at the foot of his tower and watch his perfect profile gazing out to sea took me, at ten, as far as I needed to go.

My next and final fantasy fling with a sandman was with Larry, the movie star of Balboa Island. Laguna Beach had Eisler Larson, the crabby old bearded eccentric who walked the main street and pounded on your car window until you waved hello in return, but we had Larry, the perpetual Apollo who manned the waters of Balboa Bay. There were hundreds of us guard-groupies; seldom did a summer sun rise when we didn’t see a lifeguard with his admirers close by. They were all just like Larry, flashing blond hair and white teeth reflecting such bright light that we needed sunglasses to look at them. How were we supposed to ignore these icons and offer a fighting chance to the everyday boys who vied for our fleeting fondness?

In later years the tide turned, and in a sunburst of equality female lifeguards also took to the towers. I felt sorry for my daughters. In addition to many other arenas of daily life, feminism had hit the beach, and it was no longer the exclusive prerogative of girls to gape at boy-guards. Clary and Kate were watching television one sunny Saturday when the man who had never permitted “commercial television” in the house was finally the star of his own sleazy soap opera. The popular commercial for recycling aired—the one with the empty bottle that discovers purpose when it is removed from the trash and transformed into the orange buoy tucked under the athletic, tanned limb of a svelte lifeguard-ess. Kate, on her way out the door to the surf and sand to join her boyfriend for some serious tanning, bemoaned the national broadcast of the towering competition as she tugged at her bathing suit, struggling to cover the areas she’d had neither time nor inclination to tone.

“That’s just what I need Chris to see at the beach!” she remarked facetiously as she gathered her towel more snuggly around her hips and averted her eyes from the screen to roll them heavenward.

Save me.”


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