CHATHAM ─ In 1966, Chatham was a somewhat different place than it is today. The cost of gas was roughly 35 cents a gallon, and a new house might set you back about $25,000. But one thing that hasn't changed, according to Mark Sullivan, is the importance of lifeguards at area beaches.
He ought to know, since he manned the chair at Harding's Beach in 1966 and '67. This week he returned to the sand to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his work with the town.
“I thought it would be nice to come down and have a picture with the lifeguards here,” Sullivan said during his July 6 visit, during which he chatted with this season's guards and received a complimentary T-shirt bearing the Chatham Recreation logo on it.
The meeting came about when Sullivan dropped a call to Susan Winkfield, recreation coordinator for the town. Winkfield said Sullivan shared his story, fondly recollecting his time at Harding's. She was pleasantly surprised by the call and the request to have a photo taken with her current team.
“I couldn't believe it,” she said. I was kind of taken aback by it being on his radar and I wonder if it will ever happen to me. I think it's definitely a cool story.”
Sullivan arrived in time to catch a little of the team's morning workout before joining them for a photo, the blue waters of Nantucket Sound sparkling in the summer sun behind everyone.
“The beach hasn't changed much,” Sullivan noted. “The lifeguard stand's a little different. We didn't have the canopy over it years ago, so we cooked. And some of the equipment is updated, but otherwise it's pretty much the same.”
Sullivan, who now resides in Brewster, said his motivation to become a guard was simple.
“I always was a beach bum growing up,” he said. “I learned to swim when I was young, and enjoyed going to the beaches. I felt that if I was going to have a summer job, instead of working in a kitchen or pushing a lawnmower, it would be more fun to be out at the beach, and so I became a lifeguard.”
While many assume the job, especially 50 years ago, involves lounging in a high seat above the sand and sea, Sullivan said that back then, just as it is now, lifeguards were required to take classes in first aid, CPR, and rescue techniques. While serious rescues are blessedly rare, Sullivan said first aid is a big part of a lifeguard's job.
“There's not a lot of lifesaving going on,” he said. “You might get one or two rescues during a summer, but you do a lot of first aid. Things wash up on the shore; broken shells, broken bottles. Once in a while an umbrella will get away from somebody and hit somebody. Day-to-day you're doing a lot of first aid. That's the main thing I remember.”
He said another important task of lifeguards then and now is enforcing beach rules. While not the most enjoyable part of the job, Sullivan said the rules are necessary to keep all beachgoers safe.
“You're not trying to disrupt people's fun,” said Sullivan, “but you're trying to keep some kind of order going on.”
That means making sure people swim within the marked boundaries, since doing otherwise and venturing out too far could compromise a rescue.
“If they get into trouble and swim beyond the buoys, it takes a while to get out there,” Sullivan said. “The chances of a rescue are not so good. If they stay within the buoys you have a better opportunity to have a better outcome.”
Sullivan remains impressed with those that choose to lifeguard as a summer job, and the efforts they put in to secure a position.
“They come from all over the country to work here,” he said. “Some of them live 100 miles from the water where they come from, but they become certified in lifesaving and first aid and so on. It takes a little work to become a lifeguard. You have to go through a certification process and learn all the rescue techniques. You have to be a fairly strong swimmer and be certified in first aid and CPR, so it takes a little bit of work to get ready for that.”
Sullivan himself parlayed his experiences in Chatham into a lifeguard position with the US Air Force.
“My first year in the service I was a lifeguard,” he said. “I was in the Air Force, waiting to get clearance to work on my job. They asked me if I was certified; I said I was a certified lifeguard, and I was assigned to the base pool in Topeka, Kan., of all places. It was a little warm. Over 100 degrees every afternoon. I was the only military person assigned there as a lifeguard. All the rest were civilians. It was nice to be in a bathing suit instead of a uniform out there, for one summer anyway.”
Sullivan has a message for those in today's lifeguard chairs.
“Pay attention to what's going on,” he said. “You can have fun on the job, but pay attention to the water, and make sure that everyone is in a safe environment.”
He also has a request for those visiting the beaches said lifeguards serve.
“Respect the lifeguards when you're on the beach,” he said. “They're there to help you, not to stop you from having fun on the beach. If they ask you to do something, respect their wishes because we're only there to help.”