It's strange to think now, Mike O'Hare recalls, that in more than 20 years of guarding San Diego's city beaches, he forgot to guard himself.
Like scores of other veteran lifeguards, the 44-year-old had made a career playing the glamorous beach life style to the hilt--spending long summers perched on his elevated chair, using baby oil to enhance a golden tan that was to become the very image of California itself.
But, in all those years, when no one on the beach was looking, the sun's rays quietly took their toll. Today, a number of veteran guards who never thought to wear a hat or shirt--much less rub in a little sun block--are suffering the initial forms of skin cancer.
One 39-year-old La Jolla Shores guard was recently told by his doctor that he would eventually contract full-blown skin cancer--even if he spent the rest of his years in a darkened closet.
Others have opted for eye operations to remove bothersome callouses formed from years of squinting into a glaring sun.
And last year, a former San Diego city lifeguard died of skin cancer that lifeguard supervisors speculate could be the result of his years on the staff.
After removing cancerous cells from O'Hare's right temple, his doctor recently suggested that he find another line of work--something in an air-conditioned office, perhaps.
"All these years, without our even knowing it, the sun was wiping us out," said O'Hare, who has been forced to work a night shift and must undergo checkups every three months because of his skin condition.
"There are lots of reasons guards retire, including bad backs, but this skin cancer thing has opened a new can of worms. To me it was a signal. When it comes to the point of having to hide from the sun, it's time to go out and get a regular job."
Retirement in Question
Today, O'Hare has hired a lawyer to help sort out his dispute with the city over his status in light of his condition--whether he should retire with full benefits or continue working nighttime hours or even a desk job.
Many of his veteran colleagues are anxiously awaiting the results of the precedent-setting case.
"Clearly, the incidence of skin cancer among lifeguards is increasing despite efforts we've made over recent years, including providing free sun block and other equipment regulations," said Chris Brewster, captain of the city's lifeguard service.
"I think it has serious long-range implications for the city's retirement system, not just for lifeguards but all city employees who work in the sun."
Mounting health problems aren't the only changes being faced these days by San Diego's 70 full-time lifeguards.
Up and down the beaches, the turbulent autumn tides are a signal of the changes coming to San Diego's sandy summer playground.
Soon, about 200 seasonal lifeguards will join the tourists and sun-tanned locals in their annual exodus from the beach, leaving a cadre of full-time veterans to hash out the boredom of the long winter, with occasional stormy weather to keep them alert.
"You have to have something to occupy your brain up there," said veteran Ron Trenton, motioning to the stately, glass-enclosed guard tower at La Jolla Shores. "Because we do have a lot of time on our hands.
"In a way, you're sentenced to that tower eight hours a day. But I do a lot of reading in the winter. I have no problem thinking about things, making plans for the future."
For some guards, the winter could become darker than usual.
Looking for ways to make up a $140,000 budget deficit, supervisors may soon lay off several full-time lifeguards.
For veteran lifeguards, the proposed cutbacks pose
a nagging question: How have these men and women, some in their late 30s and 40s, made a career out of a job many people consider to be little more than a summer fling?
Several full-time guards said in interviews that they weighed their love for the beach--and the attractive lifeguard image--against steady pressures from family and from themselves to get "legitimate work."
"I have a lot of lifeguard friends who have broken down and gotten themselves a 9-to-5 job," O'Hare said. "Some say they made the right decision. But others can't believe they ever quit. They said their lifeguarding years were the best years of their life."
Public Stigma for Guards
One problem for lifeguards, O'Hare said, is the public stigma attached to their work--often from tourists whose image of a lifeguard is the teen-ager hanging out by the public pool.
"The first thing people think is that we're out there just for fun, that we have absolutely no ambition, and are just lazing through life," he said.
Two questions O'Hare and other guards hear time and again are, "What happens when the summer's over?" and "What are you going to do when you grow up?"
"People don't understand the life-saving expertise required for the job, that it's a year-round commitment, not to mention the fact that I love going to work. With what other job could you get up everyday and say to yourself, 'Yeah, I'm going to work!' "