Lessons I Learned From a Summer as a Huntington Beach Junior Guard

Illustration by Faye Rogers

Gray clouds blanketed the early morning sky as I pushed my daughters in a stroller past the Huntington Beach Pier. A few feet from the bike path were rows and rows of unattended black backpacks on the sand. My stomach knotted. I stopped pushing and activated into emergency management mode. There were 100 backpacks. That’s more than 100 potential bombs. But the beach was empty. Who were the bad guys targeting? 

I told my inner action hero to pause. Maybe it was something less nefarious. Was it an art installation? A field exercise for TSA agents?

I was on maternity leave from my job as a public health emergency manager yet I couldn’t turn off my tendency to be vigilant and brace for the worst-case scenario. I scanned the horizon for a clue. The humid air was heavy, and the scent of decaying seaweed filled my nose. I saw a blur of red to my right. A gaggle of kids, ages 9 to 17, in red swimsuits and beanies lined up in a row. I finally exhaled and smiled. Summer had crept up on me—the Huntington Beach Junior Lifeguard Program was in session.

It took me back to the summer of 1989 when I was 16. Guns N’ Roses blared on the car stereo as I barreled down Golden West Street toward PCH. I had decided to give up my usual teenage summer pastime—hanging out at the Huntington Beach Central Library reading young adult novels while nursing Cup O’ Noodles—to become a junior guard.

I rarely went to the beach. My first-generation Persian-Italian immigrant family avoided the coastline, despite living five miles from it. My workaholic parents thought sunbathing was a waste of time and besides, my mother would tell me, the ocean was rife with bacteria from countless raw sewage spills. I have only one childhood memory of the beach: In the dead of winter, my parents took our extended family (grandmother, aunts, and uncles) to picnic on chocolate rum balls and éclairs while the wind whipped sand around us.

Convincing my overprotective parents to grant me permission to join the junior guards wasn’t easy. I told them it would look fantastic on a college application. That didn’t work. The pièce de résistance? The program teaches lifesaving and first aid, which would prepare me for the ultimate immigrant parent’s dream: medical school. Done.

Once I arrived at the city parking lot, I felt queasy. I braced myself, hoping to survive the next four hours. Despite the bravado I displayed in front of my parents, I wondered if their fears were justified.

Mr. Wilson, the instructor, greeted us. He was a hulk of a man with hair and eyebrows so white I was sure he bathed in bleach. As we gathered around him, I became acutely aware that I stood out. I was the oldest newcomer to the program. With my dark curly hair, olive skin, and Roman nose, I was more ethnic in appearance than the others. And I showed up wearing white tennis shoes and socks. I didn’t own a pair of flip-flops. I looked and felt like an outsider.

There was no time to dwell on my appearance. Mr. Wilson drilled us as if we were in some ragtag beach army—running in sand around lifeguard towers, dropping for push-ups and sit-ups at a moment’s notice, repeating more of them as punishment because we were a rambunctious bunch. At the end of the first day, I sat in the director’s office—out of breath and with a headache. I had sunstroke. I was mortified.

I quickly learned the rules for survival: lots of sunscreen, hydration, and shade under our requisite, ugly, straw-brimmed hats. The best part of the day was when we sat down. I was a little sea sponge sitting attentively at the instructor’s feet while he taught us ocean survival skills—how to orient ourselves on the beach; how to turn our clothes into flotation devices; and how to detect and escape a rip current. I wondered how kids who lived inland survived the ocean without this information.

Every day we learned a new skill. Unlike my family, the instructors wouldn’t let me retreat into my fear. They encouraged me to have faith in myself and take risks such as running to the Santa Ana River jetty three miles south of the pier, jumping off a sentinel lifeguard boat offshore, and swimming in the open water.

Near the end of the session, Mr. Wilson announced that we would race around the pier. His eyes laughed as my stomach sank. We lined up on the shore assessing the waves and our opponents. We were a gawky group of teenagers in varying degrees of awkward development; pimply faced, too tall, too short, and too loud. Unlike me, none of them had willingly signed up for this adventure. 

The race was a quarter mile out along the south side of the pier and a quarter mile back to shore along the north side. My only objective was to avoid impaling myself on the hard mussel shells clustered in clumps on the pier pilings.

I skipped and jumped past the first shore break. Despite the summer heat, the water was ice cold. I blinked back the salt sting in my eyes and coughed up saltwater when I got hit by a small wave. I swam in the pack for the first half, reciting Hail Marys while forcing my mother’s voice out of my head. “There is no sewage. There are no sharks,” I told myself.

When we turned at the end of the pier and headed to shore, I felt something hit my foot. Seaweed? Another swimmer? A shark? I didn’t stick around to find out. I kicked my legs fast, as if my feet were the wheels of a windup toy. I pulled through the water in strong strokes focusing on the shore. I looked around me. I was alone. I swam faster. I felt euphoric when my feet hit the sand. I skipped out of the water and looked around. I came in third. Unbelievable. I had exceeded my own expectations. Mr. Wilson smiled proudly as if he knew I had it in me all along. I smiled back, blinding him with my braces.

As a new mother, I watched a new generation of junior guards running, their feet sinking deep into the warm, dry sand. I yearned to feel that physical strength and confidence again. A few months later, I joined a local masters swim team and squeezed into my old Speedo. Slipping into the pool’s tepid water before dawn was like coming home. Muscle memory kicked in, and within a few weeks I was keeping up with the swimmers next to me.  I swam under the stars, following the moon with each side breath, and watching the sun rise over Saddleback. With every lap I released my new-mom anxiety and discovered I was having fun. I was back in the junior guard state of mind.

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