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The Lifeguard--It's No Picnic

December 19, 1987|NANCY REED | Times Staff Writer

Reflections showcases county residents who have an interesting life story and gives them an opportunity to tell it in their own words.

Buddy Belshe has spent most of his life on Orange County beaches, the last 38 summers and 27 winters as a lifeguard and lifeguard administrator. Tan, youthful, a new father and fit at 53, Belshe swims competitively and is in the top 10% of swimmers his age in the nation. He left behind his office with a spectacular ocean view at the Newport Beach lifeguard station recently for a new career in property management in Irvine. Ask him what he liked most about his years working at the beach and the word "healthy" keeps popping up. No aging Kahoona, Belshe is an older version of a wholesome college athlete--clean-cut and hard-working. Reared four blocks from the ocean in Huntington Beach, he learned to swim at age 3 and was named to the national All-American Team 13 times. Over the years, he has seen the role of a lifeguard go professional and groans at the stereotypical image of a Greek God or a beach bum. It may be beautiful out there, but he says it's no picnic.

His following remarks were taken from an interview with Times Staff Writer Nancy Reed. \f7

We train our lifeguards to be always watching the water. They have to develop a lot of attention and patience. They sit out in those towers eight hours a day. They don't have anybody to talk to and you can't sit there reading a novel or bopping with the radio. You have to be constantly alert. We don't allow eating in our towers, no radios, no toys. And the tower is hot. We don't make the lifeguard tower overly comfortable.

It is a lot of work, not a glorious job. They have always said, "the bronzed Adonis." I don't even like the word. One thing I have always noticed about lifeguards: they are very disciplined or they don't make it.

Your good physical condition comes in when you have to respond. Not only do you have to be a good swimmer, you have to be a pretty good runner. You may run 75 or 200 yards, and you don't have a clean straightaway--you have to dodge people on the beach.

Lifeguards are not police, but they do cite surfers who are surfing during prohibited hours. Surfers often help us, though. They often go to the aid of a swimmer who is tired. I am glad they are out there a lot of times.

I can remember going out to Huntington Beach on my board when there would be no more than five people out there surfing. Now you go out there and you can almost walk on boards.

When I started back in the 1950s, they said, "Here is your buoy and here is your tower and here is your first paycheck." If I got caught in a riptide, I knew what to do. I was really familiar with the ocean environment. It is like part of your life.

Now a lot of guards come from Fullerton or Villa Park, and they haven't had that. We now have a 56-hour training program for all new lifeguards. They go into environment recognition, city ordinances, public relations, medical aid, all that stuff that I never went through.

Most of them are really very interested in helping, even though they rarely get a "thank-you" from someone they help. Most people are very embarrassed about being rescued. Seems like most of our rescues are the 14- through mid-20s age group.

Probably the most rewarding thing is a parent coming up and thanking you for helping them find their lost child.

I wouldn't even begin to know how many rescues I have done in my life, but I would have to say well over 1,000. Probably one of my most rewarding was in 1959.

We had real heavy rains that winter and the rivers in Southern California were really flowing quite heavily. People would try to ride the rivers in their inner tubes and life rafts.

This individual didn't make it onto shore before he went to sea. Not only did he have the river to contend with, the surf was also breaking really large and there was so much debris in the water, that to swim you had to pull yourself over it. Logs, boards, lumber was coming down the river. We didn't know what would come popping out of the water.

I lost my buoy on the way out--it got snagged on the debris and it was pulling me down. I swam out and converged with three guards from the other side. It took us about an hour to get him back in. It was long and cold and we were suffering from hypothermia.

It's a different environment out here. It is one thing to go out, have fun and body surf. It is another thing to actually have a victim to save when the surf is pounding.

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