Tom Blake, lifeguarding, and surfing!
After I left the tug with proper notification to Peter and Murray, and thanking them for getting me the job, I contacted my swimming friends who were now trying out for a lifeguard job at Jones Beach. I went with them, passed the tests and hired on about the end of July 1937. I was out of shape as far as swimming and legwork was concerned. It showed in the lifeguard championships at the end of August. I did poorly in the rescue races but very well in pulling boat races. It was during this first year as a lifeguard that I was introduced to surfing. The previous year (1936), Tom Blake talked Mr. Sawyer, who was the civilian head of lifeguards, into getting his paddleboards for rescue purposes. Blake showed the Lieutenants how to ride them; the Lieutenants in turn instructed the other guards how to ride the hollow 13-foot paddleboards. They were so big and cumbersome that the most we could do was ride them straight into shore.
Come Labor Day, one of the guards, Ralph Froehlich decided we would drive down to University of Alabama and try out for a football scholarship. Ralph had a 1936 Ford convertible that he had souped up. We drove from Long Island to Jacksonville, Florida in 25 hrs and 20 minutes beating the train. Roads were only two lanes wide in those days, and we had to go through all the major cities. He had a cousin in Gainesville. We visited Silver Springs then headed up to the University. Boy did those southern players work us overt, with high 90’s heat and humidity, Ralph and I decided we had better go back NY way. We did. I then got a $300 loan from my Aunt Bessie with the promise to pay her beck the summer of ’38, as I had the lifeguard job. I enrolled in NYU to become a phys ed teacher. My father wanted me to go to Fordham to become a lawyer. I am sure if I had, I would have had Costello trying to influence me by getting me appointed as a judge later on. Bobby Knapp, Ray Mullane, Harry Berr, Joe Tucker, Charley Hanniquet, Pete Carter are names I remember. Of course there was Captain Johns, the old (50) Dutchman who was Captain of the guards.
The first (freshman) year was little tough after having been away from the books for more than 4 years. I had odd jobs. I also made $5 an evening at the Elks Club, out on Queens Blvd in Elmhurst. Bobby Knapp, Ray Mullane, Tommy McDermott and I took turns playing “fish” for deep see sport fishermen. They would rig a harness around us attached their fish line. The pool was 25 yards long; we started out at the 10 yd mark, and when they said, “go” you had to try to make it down to other end of pool. Their job was to hold you from doing that. This is where I got a Nickname of “Tugboat,” as I broke more lines or made it to the end of the pool than the other swimmers.
I made NYU swim team and swam for NYAC and Flushing “Y”. It took me an hour and 15 minutes to get from home to NYU School of Ed down in Washington Square. I forgot to mention my folks had moved to 742& 45th Avenue, Elmhurst, a two family house that my father bought about 1937 having come into some dough. At the same time, he opened O’Connell’s Bar & Grill on 49th St and 8th Ave the corner of the old Madison Square Garden. I use to take my pals there for lunch once in awhile. In addition, I use to get tickets left there by scalpers for all kinds of sporting events, and other events like rodeos, circuses, etc. I also got tickets to Yankee and Polo Ground stadiums, even sat on a team bench once.
In my sophomore year, I received a Charles Hayden Scholarship for my B-plus average and athletics. In addition, I got a National Youth Administration student job working in Athletic Officer’s office, and paid $20 monthly for 40 hours work per month. Riding high in clover, I paid off my Aunt Bessie’s loan.
That summer, at the beach, Joe Tucker and I won all the events involving boats. Joe came from a fishing family while I had had lots of boat work in my life. We also won the line rescue event involving my swimming out with a line fed by Joe and another guard, when you reached the volunteer victim, girls naturally, you signaled and the two guards would pull you in. The reason we won was because Joe and I believe Ralph Froehlich ran the line clear up the steps and over the boardwalk while the other teams used the old method of each alternating taking a strain on the line. My legs were in good shape that summer what with swimming and lots of gym work. I saw my old girl friend, Regina Lyons from Bayville days, one day at the beach. She had -just graduated from college and was engaged to be married.
We had beach bunnies then as they do now, so we guards had no trouble getting dates. We use to drive out from Flushing in an old model “A” Ford each day. We met under the clock at Main Street Flushing. Guards got 50cents an hour. If it was cloudy or rainy day we were only paid $1 for showing up, which we proceeded to get rid of in card games in the bathhouse. As for eating out at the beach, we knew a German fellow who worked at the Central Mall restaurant. He would get food out to us from the restaurant to a place under the boardwalk. He never was caught. That restaurant is still there. I did my four summers at the Central Mall area beach. We had another gimmick or two to get eats. One guard would holler down to the next lifeguard stand and ask what they had and if they could spare you a sandwich. People sitting in between would hear the conversation and sure enough, a few would come up and offer you a sandwich, fruit, etc. Another gimmick was to call some little kid walking by your stand and tell him you would let him sit on your stand for a little bit if he could get you a sandwich. We saved lunch money. We had a hot plate under the boardwalk to heat eggs, soup, etc. One day I went to put a frying pan on. It touched a loose wire in the hot plate, and I got 220 volts down my right arm and body through my bare feet into the damp sand. It jolted me right off my feet and I was woozy for a while. Fortunately, one of the other guards helped me as I was knocked away from the hot plate. Charley Haniquet was Lt and Harry Borr was bosun of our beach. Bosun made $36 per month, a Lt $45.
In 1939 I made bosun at the beach and bought a used 1931 Chrysler 6 cyl. convertible for $25. I had some problems with it, but it ran okay overall. That fall I loaned it to Bobby Knapp when I went to NYU’s camp where I had to take courses in camp counseling and administration. In the contests that August, Pete Carter, who was now Lt, and I did pretty well in the decathlon for officer guards. We won the two-man boat race and two-man boat rescue. I won the row boat race over in Zach’s Bay. Because I was bosun, I only had to work 7 hours a day, five days a week. We had about 40 guards for all the beach areas on weekdays and 80 on weekends. The week-enders had jobs during the week and had been former regular guards. We were all issued a blanket and parka and two suits for the season. In addition, we got clean white duck trousers and a towel each day.
We played a good trick on old Cap’ Johns. He use to come around, especially on weekends, and take muster re-ports from the Lt. While up on the stand he would stand up and in the act of adjusting his cap he would flex his muscles for the beach dollies. Well one hot Sunday with a big beach crowd, we dug a hole about six feet deep in front of the lifeguard stand. He always approached from the sides and climbed up. When he got ready to leave, he stood, flexed his biceps while adjusting his cap, and said, “Well boys I see you later.” With that, he jumped off the stand and right into the hole, which we had camouflaged. He let out a stream of German cuss words while we all laughed. He couldn’t get out right away, as the sand kept falling in on him, as he clawed the sides. Finally, someone gave him a hand and helped him out. We all took off and hid behind the boardwalk waiting for him to cool down. Another time we stuck horsehairs in cigarettes, and when he would bum one, we gave him one with horsehair in it. He didn’t seem to notice the difference being glad to get a cigarette. We held our sides trying not to laugh. Another time we dumped a bucket of ice water on him when he was sunbathing ala nude up in the lifeguard section of the bathhouse. Another time we sawed partially through an oar. Capt. Johns challenged a newly recruited guard that had been and was on Cornell’s rowing team. Cap Johns took great pride, in that he could beat any college oarsmen in a bank skiff, the kind of boats we used for rescue purposes. We set up a race for him and the college rower. Sure enough, old Cap Johns broke his oar and went ass-over-tea-kettle in the boat. He never did find out who sabotaged the oar. He did however, on another rowing race we set up for him. We tacked a canvas drogue on the bottom of his boat, and when he saw something was wrong, he dove over the side and found the drogue.
After the lifeguard contests and the last weekend before Labor Day, we had a big blowout for the guards at a big restaurant on Sunrise Highway with lots of beer and plenty to eat. Jones Beach in those days was immaculately clean. We had State Troopers who worked for the Long Island State Park Commission. Littering would get you hauled in and fined, the same would happen if you got out of line. Bob Moses who built parks, bridges, tunnels, parkways, etc. around the area was a political powerhouse. Governors and mayors bowed to him.
We had many rescues on bad days, as most people were not use to swimming in the ocean. One of the worse: A couple of hundred people waded out to a sandbar and a series of large swells came and swept them off. The waves filled up the shallow area between the bar and beach, making the water over their heads. It fortunately happened mostly off the West Bathhouse area. Those guards that could be spared rushed there using every piece of equipment we had, resulting in the rescuing of more than fore hundred. Bank skiffs, surfboards, torpedo buoys were loaded with people. All the resuscitators were in use. Ambulances came over from towns on the mainland to help. Out of that mess, only three people drowned. One time I had four big black men hanging on to me for dear life while we were all getting hauled in on the torpedo buoy line. I was able to keep my head up enough for air. Didn’t have to hold them, they held me but not in a way to interfere with what I had to do. Rescued a big fat woman one time and as I carried her out of the water in a fireman carry her boobs were hanging out. In those days you laid people on their stomach and gave artificial respiration by straddling and pumping there back near the bottom of the rib cage. In this position, the fat gal’s boobs were not as readily seen.
We made extra money working in the water shows, and operettas held in the marine stadium. We earned $5 a night for maybe 15 minutes work being pirates, etc depending on the show. We also swan in water ballets made up of about 24 gals and 24 guys. One couldn’t help pinching a gal once in awhile in the water. In practice, they would scream thinking it was a crab that were always around, but really wouldn’t bother you. There were fire works after the shows. That summer some of us roomed at a house in Freeport and ate supper in a diner on Merrick Road, good chow and low-priced. I believe we paid $5 a week for a bed, two to a room. It saved driving back and forth to the city.
to be continued…