A Memorable Day in the
Life of a Lifeguard

by Bill McKeon

My wire rimmed aviator sunglasses shielded my eyes from the glare of the morning sun. From my vantage point on the lifeguard chair I glanced up and down the beach. Then I scanned the water from east to west and back again. I didn't like the way things were shaping up.

It was Labor Day weekend, 1970, and it looked like the whole neighborhood was converging on Kiddy Beach.

Judging by the size of the late morning crowd we were well on our way to breaking all existing attendance records. There were already too many unfamiliar faces in the water and too many untanned bodies on the beach. Anyone I hadn't seen all summer was a potential non-swimmer, and anyone who still looked like a ghost by Labor Day wasn't exactly a Johnny Weissmuller or an Esther Williams.

It was clear to me that we needed more help. But back-up lifeguards are hard to find on short notice--especially on long holiday weekends. We would have to make do. I was sure we could manage if we stayed on our toes. After all, we hadn't had a drowning incident all season.

Then came the bad news. My partner was going to lunch and wasn't coming back. The summer was almost over and he was giving himself an unannounced vacation. Before I had a chance to reason with him, he was gone. Scores of people splashing around in the water, and I was now the one and only lifeguard.

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Anne (Doughty) Tedesco visits with Kiddy Beach lifeguard Bill McKeon in the summer of 1970. (Photo courtesy Anne Tedesco)

A member of the Kiddy Beach management committee volunteered to walk the shoreline while I kept watch from the chair. But the crowd was still growing, and the tide was coming up, minute by minute expanding the area of water that needed watching. And the water that needed watching was every minute becoming more and more packed with people.

All I had to assist me was the whistle around my neck and the ring buoy that was hanging on the side of the lifeguard chair. Anyone who got in real trouble would be out of reach of a buoy-throwing rescue, and I certainly wasn't going to rescue anyone with a whistle.

My biggest concern was the wooden raft anchored at the furthest and deepest part of the cordoned-off swimming area. The teens were huddling on one end of the raft, causing the opposite end to pop out of the water. This had people slipping and falling everywhere. On days when we had more help, one lifeguard would swim out to the raft to stop this. All I could do was issue idle warnings from the shore.

I kept shifting my attention from the raft to the water, hoping it would rain, hoping that some of these people would pack up and leave. But the sun was bright and everyone was having too much fun to think about leaving.

Looking from head to bobbing head, I focused on a young, teenage girl, floundering in 20 feet of water. Her movements were unusual and awkward, not like a classic textbook drowning. But the look on her face said this was no joke, something was terribly wrong.

Jumping down from the lifeguard chair, I ran into the water, diving when it got too deep to run. Swimming with my head high, to keep the girl in sight, I surmised what must have happened. She had helped a younger brother or sister out into dangerous waters, and the child had suddenly slipped beneath the surface. Now she was desperately groping around, trying to find the child. I only hoped I wouldn't be too late.

As I watched the situation unfold, I started to fear the worst. From the time I had spotted the trouble--and for who knows how long before that--someone had been underwater, unable to breathe. By now a child would likely be unconscious, maybe dead. Maybe the body had sunk to the murky bottom.

As I reached the scene of the trouble, I expected the girl to tell me what was wrong--but she didn't have to. I could see the outline of a body just below the surface. I reached down and grabbed the chin of the victim, but the girl had grabbed the victim too. I couldn't bring her up. "Let go, let go!" I screamed.

I pulled the victim to the surface and started my swim towards shore. As I changed to a cross-chest carry, I realized my victim wasn't a child at all. The girl I was towing was also a teen, and she wasn't moving a muscle. I couldn't tell if she was breathing. I couldn't tell if she was alive. Then things got worse.

Looking back to make sure my victim's head was above water, I could see the teenage girl I left behind. She was still right where I left her, and much to my disbelief, she was drowning. I looked to land for help, but no one was watching. I was on my own.

I couldn't abandon the girl I was carrying and I couldn't be in two places at once. I started kicking harder as I swam for the beach. I could see the drowning girl was getting weaker. Then, as I reached shallow water--another strange turn of events. My victim stood up.

I didn't have time to find out how she was. The other girl was barely staying afloat. A quick dive and I was swimming at top speed. She didn't look like she would last much longer.

When I reached her she was still conscious, but exhausted. She had little energy left to fight, as frantic victims sometimes do. Swimming back towards shore with the second girl, I realized what actually happened. The first girl I brought in was the swimmer. She had attempted to assist her non-swimming friend out to the raft. At some point, the non-swimmer panicked and climbed on top of the swimmer. That's when I first spotted the trouble. By bringing in the first girl, who was acting as a float, I left the non-swimmer alone to flounder.

Back on the beach, much to my surprise, both girls seemed to be alright. Even more amazing, of the hundreds of people on the beach, only one woman acknowledged seeing anything of what had just occurred.

I never learned the girls' names and when I passed them on the street in the months and years that followed, they never said a word about the incident. After all these years, I wonder if they still remember that day. I wonder if they know how close they came to dying. I wonder if their hearts still pound when they think about it. I know mine does.

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Last changed: March 09, 2005