Presiding from towers high above the sand, ever alert for struggling swimmers, Los Angeles County lifeguards symbolize the California dream of eternal youth and personal freedom.
Now, for the first time in their 63-year guardianship over local beaches, these cultural icons in red bathing suits and sunglasses are caught in an undertow of fiscal uncertainty.
Causing the crisis is a funding shortfall in the county Department of Beaches and Harbors' $30-million budget--and a proposal to make up the difference by eliminating up to 26% of the agency's lifeguard positions.
The immediate effect is that as of Labor Day nine of the 20 beaches--including Malibu Surfrider, Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach--patrolled by county lifeguards could be left without protection.
There is, however, a broader meaning in the possible reduction of lifeguard services along beaches that draw more visitors annually than Disneyland, Magic Mountain and Knott's Berry Farm combined. The threatened cuts, some cultural observers say, represent a fundamental shift in the way Los Angeles defines itself.
"It's almost as if the politicians are saying, 'We are now going to be interior people who ignore nature and the vast, beautiful outdoors that L.A. is,' " said Mari Womack, a cultural anthropologist and author who teaches at Cal State Northridge and UCLA Extension.
"It's as if they were saying 'We're treadmill kind of people, 9-to-5ers, not the kind of people who . . . grab a towel and hit the beach,' " she said. "I think they are signaling that the traditional gift that defines California--free and accessible beaches--is no longer important to them."
There is no question that the beach-going public relies heavily on county lifeguards, often for things that have nothing to do with water safety.
On a recent Saturday in Manhattan Beach, the busiest 2.2-mile stretch of beach in the county, lifeguards were called upon to do everything from helping a lost boy find his mother to disposing of a dead snake that practical jokers had left on the bike path.
"We wear so many different hats," lifeguard Tracy Lizotte said. "On the beach, we are the firemen, the paramedics, the policemen, and even the mom and dad when a kid gets lost. You have to be a lifesaver first, but you get pulled into all these other roles."
The demands on lifeguards can be overwhelming, even on partially overcast days with low beach attendance. Once the clouds cleared about noon, Lizotte didn't have a moment's rest.
At 12:30 p.m., he and a fellow lifeguard rescued two children from a rip current. At 1:15 p.m., they treated a volleyball player who had cut his foot. Half an hour later they helped a man who had sliced his knees falling on the sand. At 2:15 p.m., they pulled six swimmers out of a rip current. Fifteen minutes later, they hauled two more swimmers and two boogie boarders out of the surf.
By the end of the day, Lizotte and 19 other lifeguards who stand watch in 15 towers throughout Manhattan Beach had rescued 30 people, performed first aid eight times, reunited one lost boy with his parents and enforced laws against everything from drinking alcohol to allowing dogs on the beach.
"(Lifeguards) are kind of like hot dogs, apple pie and baseball," said Warren Sambell, a 33-year-old airline worker who had watched lifeguards shoo a group of swimmers out of a rip current. "You go to the beach and expect people to be looking out for you."
Because a person can drown in just minutes, lifeguards often scope out swimmers who might need help. They take note of those who enter the water tentatively and pay close attention to those wearing shorts and T-shirts in the water--such clothes are heavy when wet and are often worn by people who don't get to the beach too often.
In addition to their constant vigil over shifting rip currents and surfers who drift into swimming areas, lifeguards also watch for other kinds of trouble, he said. Using binoculars, they look for swimmers too weak to move their hair out of their faces. They also scan the water for boogie boarders without fins or leashes and swimmers whose elbows drag across the water's surface.
"When I sit in the tower with the sun beating down on me, it might seem like I'm kicking back, but actually, I'm working," Lizotte said. "I'm constantly concentrating, thinking, 'Is this someone who will be OK, who will need my help or who can wait?' Your first five years in the tower, you're sweating bullets."
The proposed reduction in lifeguard services is among millions of dollars in cuts that will be considered by the Board of Supervisors in budget deliberations next week.
In the past, the enormous popularity of California's public beaches has spared lifeguards from budget cuts. The willingness of county officials to consider lifeguard cutbacks may signify that middle- and upper-class residents no longer identify with public beaches, said Jeffrey Hutter, a psychologist who teaches at UCLA Extension.
"It's an abandonment of the beaches to people who are politically less powerful," Hutter said. "If the great middle class no longer goes to the beach but instead goes to private clubs and pools, they may no longer have an interest in funding it."
Lily Cervantes, vice chair of the State Coastal Commission, which regulates development along the coastline, said she is constantly battling to preserve access to public beaches.
"In the six years that I've served on the commission, we don't go one meeting that there isn't some effort by a homeowners association or a particular community . . . to privatize some area of the coastline," Cervantes said. "They often justify it by saying that for us not to agree to (allow) gates or to restrict the hours that the public has access is to allow an influx of undesirables into their neighborhoods."
The proposal to reduce lifeguard services, however, may have more to do with changing cultural realities than with class struggles.
"We're pulled in many different directions now--downtown L.A. has a distinct culture of its own, so does Hollywood, the Westwood area, Melrose and Main Street in Santa Monica," said Womack, the cultural anthropologist.
"I think Los Angeles would be changed forever if we didn't have safe and clean beaches to go to," she added. "But it may be that Los Angeles has become so culturally complex that the beach is no longer the force of our cultural life."