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Stifling boredom and raging terror

Year after year, seasonal lifeguards hang up the red swimsuits and return to civilian life away from the waves.



The sun is dipping, the wind is up and the kite-surfers are skittering in every direction. Tom Snyder sits above Leo Carrillo State Beach near Malibu scanning it all -- the swimmers, the surfers, the rocks, the kelp, the tide-poolers and sand-sprawlers -- like a benevolent monarch in red trunks and flip-flops.

And in the manner of monarchs everywhere, his attention is divided.

"A couple of things are going on," Snyder says between buzzes from the dispatch phone, raising a wiry arm and pointing south.

One of his colleagues is out in the water with a board and a buoy, towing a troubled boogie-boarder to shore. Meanwhile, a pair of kite-surfers race by in the opposite direction, passing just north of the buoys they're supposed to stay south of. One kite-surfer has already been cited today.

"Whenever they get a breath of wind, they're out like gangbusters," sighs Snyder.

But all this will pass, and soon. In a matter of days, it will be time for Snyder to climb down and hang up "the reds" for another winter.

This is a rhythm he has obeyed, on and off but mostly on, since before there were kite-surfers. Before there were boogie boards. Since the Nixon administration.

"It's kind of like the baseball season," says Snyder. "At first, you think, jeez, there's more baseball than anyone can handle. But by the time the playoffs are winding up, you're wondering: Where did that go? The days start getting shorter. You can smell a little autumn in the air. The kids start going back to school."

While Snyder's talking baseball, I'm thinking in military terms: This man, 53 years old and in the habit of swimming 1,500 meters in the ocean most mornings, is a soldier in a vast, sunblock-smeared army, hundreds of them up and down the coast, with furlough looming.

Most of California's beach lifeguards, whether they work for a city, a county or the state, are seasonal employees on a calendar running from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Their wages typically run south of $700 a week (in the course of making 10,539 rescues last year, state lifeguards such as Snyder earned $14 to $17.35 an hour), and most are in their teens and 20s.

But plenty of seasonal lifeguards keep at it long past then, turning up every May to requalify on CPR and first aid and (if they work for the state) swim their 1,000 yards in 20 minutes or less. Their lives are tied to the seasons and the elements in a way that precious few 21st century American lives are. It's natural, but not normal.

"Something gets in your blood and doesn't go away," says Alex Peabody, aquatic specialist with the state Department of Parks and Recreation. "We get seasonal guards into their 50s. There's a guy in Santa Cruz who trained me to be a lifeguard in 1979. He's 53. Super fit. Lives in Mexico in the wintertime, dives and bodysurfs every day, then comes back here in the summer."

Snyder's story is something like that. He lives in Santa Monica, works fall, winter and spring as a carpenter, surfs when he can. He has traveled widely in Mexico, diving and spearfishing.

"I started in 1969," he says. "I was a swimmer at Reseda High in the Valley, captain of the swim team, and my older brother had worked as a beach lifeguard at Will Rogers [State Beach]. Lifeguarding was a pretty prestigious job. It offered certain benefits that working in a gas station or a fast-food franchise didn't offer."

With striking clarity, Snyder remembers how wealthy he felt, earning $4.35 an hour at Will Rogers, spending just 21 cents per gallon to fill the tank of his Dodge Dart.

"I used to collect driftwood on the beach, and I'd find bits of monofilament. And I'd make little wind mobiles, hang them up on the tower and watch them rotate," Snyder says. In lifeguarding, he adds, "people who aren't creative enough to figure out something to do with their mind -- they'll never make it."

Nor will those too tranquilized to jump when calamity does arrive. It was about this time on Aug. 22 -- late afternoon -- when the dispatch board crackled with dire news: a midair collision off El Matador State Beach, a few miles south of here. (As it turned out, there was nobody to save, but it fell to state lifeguards to retrieve remains, round up pieces of plane and tend to a bather who cut an artery on the wreckage.)

That balance of "90% stifling boredom and 10% raging terror," says Snyder, has kept him coming back through four decades to posts up and down Los Angeles and Orange counties. He took a sort of sabbatical from 1989 to 1995, but gradually realized he was miserable and climbed the tower again.

"It's given me a second youth," he says. "There's a kind of synergy you have, working alongside people who have a similar interest and similar appreciation for the marine environment."

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