Propped up in a carefully developed pose of studied casualness on a rickety wooden stand high above the white sand beach is The Lifeguard, his hair bleached blond by the sun and his beach-bum skin brown as a berry.
The true symbolic prince of the endless summers, thus enthroned he twirls a polished whistle about his finger. One leg is draped over an arm rest. His nose is smeared clown-white with zinc oxide. Lordy, how he lords over his simple sunlit kingdom of sand castles and half-nude princesses among reclining, lesser bodies of other shapes and shades.
Nothing to do, you understand, but chat from above with nubile young girls scouting for older sisters who steal glances from beach-towel levels. Sweet, innocent bust. To stare at the sparkling ocean, to bask in the sun, to send a nonsense flag to a fellow lifeguard a half-mile away to attract attention. Low, low pay, but excellent amenities and incomparable prestige. Youth! Here's to it.
But even lifeguards grow old, and up. One day they'll return to the beach with children who may have become lifeguards themselves. An old ex-lifeguard will always -- always -- talk with the new boss-boy on the beach. Trousers rolled and hair gone white or going, or gone, he will carry his jar of lifeguard ashes up to the high altar like the ex-ball-player who says, "I once played a little ball."
Tom Wolfe, in Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, observed that "this country is full of about 100 million men who once played a little ball, some sport, some time, some place. And wherever it was, it was there they left whatever feeling of manhood they ever had. It grew there and blossomed there and it died there, and now they work hard at some job where the manhood thing doesn't matter, and the years roll by."
But some lifeguards refuse to give up the ghost, refuse to grow up. Their love of the ocean-beach life is too great. Bob Craig is one of those beach-boy ghosts of summers past.
Now 63, he has been spending his summers in Ocean City for the past 60 years -- 47 of them as an active member of the Ocean City Beach Patrol. He has been captain (or head lifeguard) of the patrol since 1946. He simply cannot imagine spending the summer elsewhere, especially since he has a summer bungalow here. "Inconceivable going any other place.There is no other place!"
During the grim off-season, Craig used to migrate west to even-grimmer Missouri, where he taught math at Principia School, outside St. Louis. But no longer -- this year he retired as a teacher after 42 years in the classroom. The switch was quick -- out of the classroom and, quicker yet, back to the beach where he has become an institution.
Although Craig's summers in the lifeguard towers have been over for years, he is prepared for anything. Being desk-bound instead of beach-bound at the honky-tonk southern end of the boardwalk does not keep him from still wearing the beach patrol's uniform of the day -- bathing trunks, official O. C. B. P. T-shirt and the old Cap'n. Bob trademark, Indian moccasins. He has turned in his chrome whistle, however.
Questioned about the trunks, he says, "You never can tell when you'll have to hit the surf on a rescue." And he's deadly serious as he cocks an ear to one side to listen to a police radio blaring behind him.
A hulking man with legs like pilings and a thatch of white wind-blown hair, he looms over his small paneled office with a view of the beach. The aging process has been quite kind to him, and his little-boy face has not been wrecked by time. Long a familiar figure pedaling up and down the boardwalk on a rusted, salt-encrusted bicycle to check his lifeguard stations, he was impossible to miss at 6'4" and 260 pounds. His nose, greased white, peeked out from beneath a white sailor cap with the brim pulled down over his ears. His nickname was "The Walrus."
Craig remembers rubber bathing suits; "They used to split a lot and, as red-blooded American boys, we were always alert to a wave that might play havoc with a young lady's suit or cause her some other distress, mind you." As for his nightlife, he had none. He had to be home by 9:30, "or else," he says. "That's not to say that I didn't have my good times, though. Hell, on weekends I was allowed to stay out until 10!"
When Craig first signed on as a guard in 1934 there were only seven others. "The first guard came in 1930. He'd look for the people, and wherever there was a sizable crowd that's where he'd set up his station. There were no rules. Not even much of a beach, really. That came with the great hurricane of 1933 that opened up the inlet and the beach buildup followed." He made $2 a day and worked seven days a week. Lifeguards who couldn't live free with their parents had to pay $11 a week for room and board. That left $3 to blow. Today there are 122 guards (six are women) and the starting salary is $139.10 for a 5 1/2-day week.
"But in those days there wasn't much to spend it on anyway," says Craig. "There were no joints along the boardwalk, and meals came with your room. It was a much simpler time, then.People just enjoyed walking along the boardwalk as if they were in an Easter parade. Or they sat on rocking chairs on porches and looked at the ocean. They didn't do much sunbathing because there was very little beach to sunbathe on. The ocean, then, was meant for swimming. Or to look at."
As the beach built up, so did the sunbathers and the lifeguard force. The high tide often washed up under the boardwalk, so the lifeguards were constantly moving their little one-step, U-shaped chairs with the one board to sit upon. They carried a ring buoy, a whistle and smelling salts.
During Craig's first year, the other guards were Harry Kelley (now the town's colorful mayor), Barry McCabe, the Dukehart boys (Ned and Tommy) and the Connor boys (George and Milton).
The beach and the boardwalk usually emptied as the clock neared noon. "All up and down the boardwalk," he recalls, "black hotel men came out in starched white jackets and stood on the porches ringing dinner bells. But everyone had gone inside to bathe and change by that time, anyway. You had to dress for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I'd go home to eat, but some of the other guards would eat with the kitchen help."
After lunch, or dinner, the custom was to take a nap or rock in the rocking chairs. The serious boardwalking began in earnest after the dinner meal, although some were pushed along in wicker rolling chairs. This was probably the third time they had changed for the day. Usually they brought along two pairs of wool bathing trunks, as well, because wool didn't dry so quickly.
The big hotels then were the Atlantic Roosevelt, Rideau, Plimhimmon, Colonial, Breakers, Hamilton, Shoreham, Majestic, George Washington, Royalton and Commander. "If you didn't have a cottage," says Craig, "one of these places was where you stayed. And you followed the house rules. No dress or coat and tie, no meals. In those days there were no sandwich shops and other restaurants you could go to."
Who will succeed Craig?
They're practically standing in line. The assistant captain, George Schoepf (who refuses to give his age) has worked the beaches with Craig for 30 years. The oldest guard actually manning a stand is Warren Williams, 43, a roving weekend crew chief. He has been on the beach for 18 years.
A NASA engineer at Wallops Island, Virginia, Williams has never been able to resist the lure of the beach. "It helps me to keep fit," he says, "so it's good for me, for one thing. Besides, I love it, even though I lose money putting in my time here."
Williams, who says he has "always been a water person," even spends his vacations life-guarding at Ocean City. There are signs that a dynasty is being developed in the Williams family. His wife, Lana, is a sometime guard at the Ocan Pines Beach Club on 50th Street, and his 17-year-old son, Sean, is a surfer and runs an umbrella stand. "I expect my son will be lifeguard here one day, and then we'll have a father-mother-son team. How long will I be doing this? Gee, I don't know. Every year I say it's going to be the last."