It is a hot day at the height of summer, and the bronzed lifeguard in chair 4 is talking Shakespeare. Women in bikinis saunter down the shoreline. The wind is blowing; the waves are frothy. Pete Hartsock is caught up in it all, unstoppable as the tide.

"It's a Shakespearean job: comedy, tragedy." He pauses. "You jump in the rip currents!" Another pause. "You find you do make a difference. And in modern life, how often do you get that chance?"

This is the lowdown from the oldest lifeguard on Rehoboth Beach, a guy who, at 53, has been posted shore-side for 30 years -- broad shoulders, red trunks, Ray-Bans, serious whistle around his neck. Not a fleck of gray in his anchorman hair.

Beside him in his white-painted chair -- a double-wide -- is Woody Marderwald, 45, a fellow six-footer with longish sun-bleached hair and a mere 27 years on the job. Together, they are Woody and Pete, keepers of the mystique, perpetual boys of summer.

"Legendary," says Randy Stone, another guard.

Last week, 17 of Rehoboth's fastest, fittest lifeguards went off to compete at national lifeguard championships in Cape May, N.J. Teaming up with other guards along the Delaware shore, they raced mightily and swam well -- and placed third in the nation.

Woody and Pete stayed behind on a swath of sand in north Rehoboth.

"I could have gone," says Pete, "but someone has to be here."

Woody shrugged. "I'd rather sit here and watch the waves roll in."

They are working five feet above the sunbaked crowd in Washington's favorite beach town, scrutinizing the sea for panicked swimmers and noting every well-placed bikini along the way. Brawny and fit themselves, they are clearly thicker than when they started, their faces more lined.

But this is not a case of onetime studs with nothing to say.

"We're the intellectuals," says Pete. "I mean it. We do not talk about dumb things. I mean, we talk about dumb things, but we talk about many things."

Woody?

"Yep, the intellectuals."

For the record, most of their fellow guards are college students: fresh-faced kids with buzz cuts and lean, ripped bodies. There are a number of schoolteachers in the patrol and a few other hangers-on over 30.

But Woody and Pete have been sitting in the sand the longest. Pete started in 1969, three years earlier than Woody, but he's mostly a weekend guard. Woody is harder-core: a seven-day-a-week lieutenant and a guru of sorts to newcomers.

"It's magical -- the sand, the sea, the surf," says Pete, trying for poetry.

"The sun, the surf and the sex," Woody demurs.

This leads to one difference between Woody and Pete.

Woody is a muscleman with a mustache who decided a long time ago that work might be important, but he was happiest at the beach. He was pre-med in college, did postgraduate research, then quit every job he ever took to head for the ocean when Memorial Day rolled around.

"It's the greatest job in the world," Woody says of lifeguarding. "Not only do you meet women, you meet them in a half-naked state."

He remembers the first boss who gave him an ultimatum: "Make up your mind between bucks and bikinis."

"See you later," Woody replied.

In spite of his choice, Woody gets on well, thanks partly to lessons learned in a brief career in real estate. Now he owns rental houses, drives a Jaguar and works as a crane operator in the winter. He cashes his paycheck in $2 bills and was for many years a one-man guide to free happy-hour buffets around town.

Pete, on the other hand, is an AIDS researcher, with a wife of 10 years -- whom he calls "sweet pea" and who has always understood that "I'm there to save lives" -- and a career at the National Institutes of Health. His hero is C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general, and his enthusiasms are innumerable -- iced tea with fresh mint, the latest in seaplanes, a public-relations crew visiting from television's "Baywatch."

Pete is a big talker with a haw-haw laugh who can tell raunchy jokes in one breath and quote Mark Twain, Samuel Johnson and Oscar Wilde in the next. He runs on the beach thinking of words from "Youth, A Narrative" by Joseph Conrad: "a flick of sunshine upon a strange shore."

The men seem made to share a guard chair. They are similarly tuned to the rhythms of beach life, easy with each other's quirks.

One afternoon, Woody is peering through binoculars.

"What ya' got?" Pete asks intently.

Pete loves a good rescue. An hour before, he rushed through the waves to retrieve a gasping young woman. He's been dwelling on her panicked expression ever since.

"Nothing," Woody says matter-of-factly. "Just seeing if this woman has a wedding band on her finger."

Pete follows his gaze to a leggy woman with a blond ponytail, riding the waves in a black-and-white-striped suit.

"Woody, that woman has kids!"

"She has no wedding band," Woody says.

Pete laughs and lets it go.

These are the background statistics: 42 lifeguards in Rehoboth. Five women. Three marriages.

Along with the ogling, the mainstay is crisis. In the rough surf of August, they are tested most, rushing out after five or 10 people each on a bad day.

In the 78 years of the Rehoboth Beach Patrol, two people have drowned on a guarded beach, says Jate Walsh, the captain. The first was in 1941; the other was last summer. Neither Woody nor Pete were part of the incident, he says.

"They've probably saved more lives than anyone else because of how long they've been doing it," says Stone, their fellow guard.

Their days in the sun are largely spent working out and keeping poised for rescue. Every noon, they jog 50 minutes for their lunch hour. As guard Derek Shockro notes, Pete salutes every guard stand they pass. Woody looks and nods.

On duty, they watch the swirling water, listen to their walkie-talkies and occasionally tend to lost children; 10 to 20 a day wander off across Rehoboth's two miles of beachfront. Around 3 in the afternoon they eat: peanut butter-filled cheese crackers, served up with Pete's homemade mint iced tea.

Their most notable sunbather in recent years was Chelsea Clinton, visiting with friends and a Secret Service entourage.

More often, it seems, they are the ones being recognized, with shrieks of: "You were lifeguarding here when I was a little kid!"

For all of this history, they have stories.

Pete's favorites are about rescues, such as the drowning swimmer so thankful to be alive that she sent them the paintings she made in the aftermath.

Woody's stories are about high mischief -- in one form or another -- such as the chess date he had who played half-naked or the lifeguard who attached a shark fin to a plywood plank in the water.

People rushed from the ocean screaming.

Woody's lasting observation: "When people go to the beach, they do things they probably would never do at home."

"They leave all their inhibition at home," says Pete.

For them, the beach has also had its beauty as a place apart -- where life's possibilities somehow expand, if only for a fleeting time.

One day, the waves are rolling in and the air is salty hot. Two women stroll up. One has met them before. The other is a 30-something blond in a fluorescent-orange bikini, with a diamond earring in her navel.

"I'm Julie," she tells Woody.

"I'm horny," he answers.

She smiles. "I've been waiting for you for a long time."