Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Back In The Day... In Del Rey!", by Johnny Johnson

"Back In The Day... In Del Rey!", by Johnny Johnson

"The northern half of Dockweiler was a very special place to work in the mid-seventies. I had started guarding for LA City in June 1965 and spent the next twelve summers working in Del Rey. The last ten summers I was stationed at Gillis, which was a hot spot for kids from the local schools about one mile south of Marina del Rey.

A half-mile north of Gillis was the surfing area popularly known as "Toes". This was the portion of beach between Culver Blvd. (Street End) and South Channel (Balloona Creek). Because of the daily crowds between South Channel and Gillis, we were kept pretty busy and looked out for each other. You didn't just watch your own water. You also watched the water a quarter of a mile on either side of you. If Vic Pappas went in on a rescue at Napoleon, I was there backing him up, and Mike Whittington would come up to Gillis from Palace tower to watch my water until I got back. (The towers were all named according to the street directly behind them). For a time, Greg Bonann worked at Westport, which was the pillbox tower directly in front of Westport Beach Club. If you couldn't find Greg, it usually meant he was on one of his marathon workouts. Brian Turnbull, with whom I had gone to rookie school, worked at Street End. Bob Carey, another rookie school classmate, was at Avenue 66, and John Westin was at South Channel. The guards who filled in on days off were Mike Dorsey, Bob Bartlett, John Balent, and a few others. The guys in the trucks were Dick "Squatty-Body" Eidson, Max Curtis, Don Wright, Scott Linkletter and the inimitable Louis Pappas.

(Photo above shows Greg Bonann, at left, with Tom Kriethe. Photo by and courtesy of Johnny Johnson.)

You can always tell how close-knit a group is by how elaborate their pranks are on each other. That's how we dealt with the tedious days of 1 foot surf and no rips. Labor Day morning in 1967 was such a day. After an early morning swim, I was ambushed by a dozen guards. As I was walking from the water to my tower, I was hit high and low by two guards -- Butch Nelson and Vic Pappas. No sooner had I hit the sand, when three more flew out of my tower and jumped on me -- Ed Jacobsmeyer, Dick Eidson, and Max Curtis. While they pinned me down, an old mildewed net was thrown over me and I was tied up with equally raunchy mooring rope. Then, the coup d'gras–– Don Wright pulled up in a truck towing a dory trailer. But there was no dory on the trailer. Instead, there was a makeshift cage which Wright and Dick Eidson had built from old pieces of driftwood. Nailed to the cage were various hand-painted signs indicating an ursine captive.

I was tossed into the cage, which was then padlocked shut. The truck then towed me back to headquarters, where I was greeted by Lt. Balonich and an LAPD unit, who all got a good laugh at my expense. At that point, the three lifeguard trucks formed a mini-parade and took me on a tour of Dockweiler, where early morning beach goers ran toward the trucks to see what was going on. What they heard was a loudspeaker announcement by the lead truck, saying "Please don't feed the bear". I swear I could hear circus music being played as we maneuvered through the firepits. In order to make sure everybody got to their towers on time, I was quickly towed to the parking lot at Westport Beach Club, where the trailer was uncoupled from the truck. The club manager soon came outside and threw me a peanut. Eventually, Butch Nelson, who had been part of the initial ambush, felt guilty and drove his VW bug over to the club to unlock the padlock. I finally got to my tower about an hour late, where Max Curtis was watching my water. When he saw me coming, he ran. For the next several years, I devoted myself to getting even, usually in the form of extremely unflattering cartoons.

I can name every tower and the name of every guard who worked there, even though it's been nearly 35 years since my last day on the beach. That's the kind of impression those guys and that job left on me. Sadly, some are no longer with us. Mike Whittington, Randy Allen, Don Spitler, Eddie Hoffman, and Jerry Balonich, are names that come to mind. I miss all these guys and think about them all the time. It was a different time back then. The job was important, but not nearly as regimented as it eventually became. We all knew when it was time to pay attention. While working at Gillis, I was involved in every conceivable kind of action, from swimming sailboats out of the surf-line to diving for the occupant of a light plane that had crashed just off shore. There's not a lot I didn't experience during my time there.

My last day on the beach was on New Years Eve 1976.
As I was closing my tower on Manhattan Pier, I knew it would be my last day as a beach lifeguard. My life was about to change radically and when I snapped the padlock on the tower door closed, I realized fully what it meant. I was so attached to the job that I knew I couldn't continue, even part time, as many others have managed to do. I had to devote myself full-time to my new career in the advertising industry. The only thing I'll say here about that job is that I never went to work and got thrown in a cage."


p.s. Wish I did have those old cartoons. I tried to find them here and have only found one, which I did back in 1966, when Herb Barthels and Walt Reed were manning the old Salvador (pre-BayWatch) in Del Rey. Here's scan:


Many Thanks to Johnny for this great story and for sharing it with all of us !

Incidentally, Johnny recently wrote a science fiction novel entitled,

Purusha's Urn

A preview of Johnny's book is available at Google Books as follows:



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