Wednesday, June 20, 2012


                                A LIFEGUARD, TO BE OR NOT TO BE

Ah, summer is here.  That means it’s time for all lifeguards to be on the beach, in full force, in every tower, and ready for business, ready for whatever action comes their way. 

But how did it happen that we all become beach lifeguards in the first place?  Well the answers, of course, are numerous and of great variety.  Many of us might have had a background similar to mine.  I have always been on the beach; I was born and grew up on the beach, swimming, diving, surfing.  Being eighty-eight years old now, I was there before there were any lifeguards on the beach, except in the salt water plunges and a few occasional summer volunteers on the more populated beaches (In the late 1920’s I saw the first professional beach lifeguards appear on the beach).  Almost all of us eventual lifeguards first ended up on high school and college swim teams and competed in the sport we loved, and then a natural progression to lifeguarding ensued.  But was there anything else; was there someone you admired and looked up to who influenced you, maybe a great coach or lifeguard?  I can certainly think of some, all lifeguards in my case; probably you can too, someone who made you want to be a lifeguard.  So going way back a lot of years here are just a few of mine.                                                                                                       
George Freeth  - 1910

I guess the best place to start would be with George Freeth.   I knew little about him when I was a kid but I knew the name and that his accomplishments were legendary.  I learned much more about him later when I was a teenager.  He died in 1919, a bit before my time, but I knew people who had known him and had worked with him in those early 1900’s, and they told me all about him.  Both George McManus and Christy Miller, who became County Lifeguards when the County was first formed, swam, played water polo and lifeguarded in the salt water plunges with Freeth.  On July 3, 1907 Freeth had left his home in Hawaii for new opportunities and adventures on the beaches of Southern California.  He was one of Hawaii’s best swimmers and surfers, and later in that month of July he became one of the first surfers in the United States when he rode the waves alongside the rock breakwater in front of the Venice Plunge.  In the newspapers he became known as “The Man Who Could Walk on Water”, since most of the spectators had never seen or heard of anything like this before.  He became a lifeguard at the plunges in Redondo and Venice, and he accomplished something never done before.  Freeth organized and was captain of the first ever volunteer lifeguard force on the beach; there were no paid beach lifeguards then or any others at that time.  In addition, he invented a great many lifesaving devices, forerunners of many used today.  Among his numerous rescues, he received the United States Congressional Gold Medal of Honor for single-handedly rescuing seven fishermen from three overturned boats far from shore on a cold, stormy December day. He made many trips and was in the icy water for two and a half hours.  This was a man to admire.  Who wouldn’t want to be a lifeguard like George Freeth.
Wally O’Connor  -  1924

I got to know Wally O’Connor quite well when I was a teenager.  In 1943 he and I were the last to ever swim in the Venice Plunge that he had known all his life.  The plunge was condemned, boarded up and slated for demolition.  We sneaked in a nailed up entrance just to be able to say that we were the last to swim in the pool that had been there since 1906, and where we both had been lifeguards.  Wally was also an outstanding Los Angeles City Beach Lifeguard and former Venice High School swimmer where I went.  He had accomplished something no other athlete had ever done at that time, he qualified and participated in five consecutive Olympic Games as a swimmer and water polo player; 1924, 1928, 1932, 1936 and 1940, the last of which was cancelled for World War II.  He was the captain of each of these water polo teams and was the flag bearer in the 1936 Berlin Games, refusing to dip the American Flag toward Adolph Hitler.  In 1924 his Olympic swimming medal was gold.  He is rated as the greatest water polo player of all time.  He also won several national championships as a Stanford University swimmer, and led the water polo team to four straight Pac 8 titles.  He is in the Hall of Fame as the number 1 water polo player.  He was quite an influence on this teenager.

George Wolf  -  1925

George Wolf holds a unique record in the history of lifeguarding.  He was an outstanding swimmer, and in 1925 he became the first and only paid, professional lifeguard on the Los Angeles Beaches in all of Santa Monica Bay.  Before this time any lifesaving that was done was by volunteers who were not always available or well trained, resulting in many drownings.  That first year George by himself covered an area of several miles from Ocean Park all the way to El Segundo Beach.  He was the first of a team of lifeguards to follow that today comprise the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Service, the largest, best equipped, and best trained lifeguard force in the world with more than 700 lifeguards and a dozen Baywatch Rescue Boats protecting seventy miles of beaches.  As a teenager I knew George and his brother Paul, a lifeguard, and Olympic swimmer, and I loved to hear their stories of those very early days of lifeguarding.
George McManus                                           
                               1920’s, George at bottom, O’Connor next

Mac, as he was called, lived in Venice, California all of his life.  I first met him in the late 1930’s when I was a lifeguard in the Venice Plunge and he would come there to work out after his shift on the beach as a Los Angeles County Lifeguard at Will Rogers State Beach.  He encouraged me to be a beach guard, and later I worked with him for many years when I was a County Guard myself.  In 1909 he was working as a lifeguard at the Plunge when the Venice Water Polo Team was formed with Mac as a member.  On that team and also lifeguarding there was George Freeth.  Freeth was his friend.  For me, just knowing somebody who actually had known George Freeth and could talk about him and those old days was an inspiration to me.  Mac also knew and swam with Johnny Weissmuller (movie Tarzan, and arguably the greatest swimmer of all time) and Duke Kahanamoku.  Mac was in on some hair raising inland river rescues and also doubled as a fire fighter along the waterfront.  Another colorful part of George McManus’s life was as a gondolier.  On his time off from lifeguarding he would row the tourists along the many Venice canal waterways that existed at that time right through Venice town and are now gone.  Mac joined the Los Angeles County Lifeguards the year it was formed, and retired from the force during his last assignment at Zuma Beach after working as a lifeguard since 1908, nearly fifty years. 

Pete Peterson

There were so many other watermen that I could mention that were inspirational to us young aquatic hopefuls back in those days and Pete Peterson was definitely one.  He was a Santa Monica Lifeguard from the day the group was formed.  He worked out in the Venice Plunge when I was a high school lifeguard there, and where I first knew him and looked up to him.  He was the greatest all-around waterman of his era.  He could do it all.  He was the best surfer, a great swimmer and free diver, and an aquatic stunt man better than any.  Repairing my surfboards for me didn’t hurt either.
                           Pete, reshaping a board like my 1930’s balsa redwood.

There are many others that could be mentioned, but just those that I knew and described above would be enough to inspire and convince any kid that he wanted to follow in their aquatic footsteps; we wanted to be just like them.  My two brothers and I all became Los Angeles County Beach Lifeguards.                     cp


Copyright Cal Porter 2012.  All Rights Reserved.  Photos courtesy of Cal Porter.


*** Thanks Cal ! ***


Until next time.....

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Rachel Matteson said...

We always look up to great people who do great things. It’s nice to know their achievements and what they do to others. The bottom line is they want to do things because they love it not because it’s their job.