Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"That First Rescue", by Cal Porter

THAT FIRST RESCUE                               

 A lifeguard always remembers his very first ocean rescue.  Whether it was a long, dramatic, scary one or just a routine shallow water quickie, it was why you were there, it was what you were trained for and what you were paid to do.  You were a lifeguard and when you made that rescue it felt good.   Maybe other guards can describe their first experiences on these pages; mine that follows was a real initiation.

It was over seventy years ago, a hot, crowded Sunday at the beach.  I was a teenager and had only been working for the Los Angeles City Lifeguards for a week or two and the calm, quiet water had not produced much action.  I had been assigned the Navy Street Tower alongside and just south of the old Ocean Park Pier that was demolished some forty years ago after its rebirth as POP.  At the time of this story this was the most densely crowded beach in all of Santa Monica Bay due to the drawing power of the popular amusement pier with its three dance halls, two movie theaters, roller coaster, boat chute, games, numerous restaurants, bars and an open air band stand. Today, with the very much wider, sandy beach in this area, and with all the piers gone, it never seems to get anywhere near that crowded anymore.

  Navy Street, Ocean Park
A south swell had finally kicked up some pretty sizeable waves on this particular Sunday, with
riptides and an unusually strong lateral current pulling towards the pier.  In those days, 1930’s, 
early 40’s, all the towers were of the little open variety and had street names not numbers; 
only a few of the new towers still have street names. There were lifelines scattered at intervals 
along the beach, usually at the main towers where the crowds gathered.  These lines were ropes 
with metal buoys attached for flotation that ran from a post on the beach out to an anchorage 
some fifty yards or so into the ocean.  They were there mainly for fun, and the beachgoers
loved to hang on them and make their way hand over hand out into deep water where many 
of them would never think to venture otherwise.  This was usually ok on calm days but when 
the ocean roughed up a bit it could be a different story with a lot of non-swimmers out there 
tempting fate.  It was impossible to enforce a “no hanging on the lifeline” rule on those rough 
days with such huge crowds in the water and swimmers drifting with the current from down 
the beach someplace and ending up grabbing onto the lifeline. 

     The Lifeline at my Navy Street Tower, Venice Pier in distance. 

What we did do on rough, crowded days was to not allow swimmers in the water between
the lifeline in the photo above and the pier from which this photo was taken, since the lateral 
current could easily sweep unsuspecting bathers into the pilings.  On this day we had kept 
this no swim area clear, but dozens of swimmers were hanging on the lifeline all the way to 
the far end.  Then the largest set of waves of the day suddenly appeared from nowhere in the 
early afternoon, They were much bigger than anything we had seen, and while most of the 
bathers with a good grip on the line were okay, ten to fifteen were swept off the rope into water 
well over their heads on the pier side of the line.  Five or six of them were going to be able 
to swim to shore; the others were going to be carried inexorably by the strong lateral current 
into the waiting, barnacle covered pilings.  I grabbed my red rubber rescue tube, knocked 
the phone off the hook to notify headquarters that help was going to be needed, and headed 
for the water.  The Dudley Street lifeguard, a couple of blocks south, saw the problem and 
was on a dead run to help.  Most of our victims quickly were swept under the pier and were 
clinging to the pilings for dear life. The other struggling swimmers my partner and I were 
able to bring to shore before they reached the pier. We were then headed back out for the 
piling clingers when the emergency call car arrived.  Three veteran lifeguards headed our 
way to help: Bink Hedberg, who had been a guard since the late 1920’s, and Harry Canaan 
and Mac McMasters who had both been on since the early 1930’s.  These guys knew their stuff. 

 Call Car Crew, Bink on the Tailgate
Some of our remaining victims, in panic mode, clung onto the pilings and were very reluctant 
to leave their precarious grip as the waves pounded them, but we convinced them they were 
in safe hands.  It took a good bit of time and back and forth effort but all were finally brought 
to shore safely.  Lots of first aid work ensued with plenty of bloody scratches involved; two 
were sent off to ER for stitches.  And the victims weren’t the only ones scraped up and bloody. 

And so ends my first ocean rescue as a beach lifeguard, and what a way to begin.  I’m not 
sure I ever had another quite like that first one even though I worked as a guard for 
thirty-seven years.

Turning out to be more of a hazard than a help, a few years later all the lifelines were removed 
and became something out of the past.  The lifelines on the Venice and Ocean Park Beaches 
in this story that were located near the street-named towers at Navy Street, Brooks Avenue, 
Westminster Avenue, and the one between the Venice and Sunset Piers disappeared, never 
to be seen again. 

     Westminster Ave. Lifeline
 *** "That First Rescue", Story by & Copyright Cal Porter 2012.  All Rights Reserved. 
Used here with permission.   Photo source info provided by Cal, as follows:
1.  In Fred Baston’s book, “Santa Monica Bay”.  I saw it in another book and credit 
given to Fred for the photo.  Lives above Castle Rock; been there.
2.  LA Public Library.
3.  In Verge’s LA CO LG book, gives no credit.
4.  LA Public Library."

Thanks Cal!  We really appreciate your contributions.  What a great First Rescue, indeed! 


Until next time.....

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