Six feet tall and with 225 pounds of lightly tanned, loosely packed, AARP-certified flesh, John Humphries has little in common with the hyper-muscular wave jockeys patrolling TV's mythic beaches.
Which is fine by him. According to the gray-haired Humphries, anybody who makes as many rescues as they do on television should be fired.
"The worst thing you can do as a lifeguard is to make three rescues in a day," he said, scanning the waves rolling up against the sand in front of his tower at Carpinteria City Beach. "The whole idea is not to wait for trouble" but to head it off. "This is a case where maturity has an advantage."
If maturity is indeed an advantage, Humphries has few peers of any belt size in America's lifeguard towers. At 64, he is the oldest rookie lifeguard ever chosen by the California Lifesaving Assn. in Santa Barbara County. Humphries is confident he's also the oldest rookie in California.
"That's older than any we've had," said Jinx Wible of the Los Angeles County lifeguards office.
"He's by far the oldest I've heard of," said Bob Moore, a member of the board of directors of the U.S. Lifesaving Assn. "It's really a young man's and young woman's profession."
For Humphries, becoming a lifeguard is the realization of a dream that began more than 45 years ago, when he worked as a teenage lifeguard on the New Jersey shore. They were wonderful times.
When he retired last year from the travel business, Humphries wondered if he could rekindle them. He overcame doubters and a "hell week" training session--from which some younger candidates washed out--to earn his spot in the tower with 20 others.
Carpinteria likes to call its level shoreline the world's safest beach, and despite his age and girth--a few pounds bulge over the front of his red bathing suit--Humphries has helped keep the city's reputation intact. There have been no drownings and no rescues. He has had several "safety contacts": potentially dangerous situations that he prevented from developing into waterborne crises.
Humphries admits to being spooked the first few days on the job, imagining potential drowning victims everywhere. But the job has so far been everything he hoped it would be when he announced that his retirement goal was to become a beach lifeguard.
"He's easy to work with, and he knows his business," said Kevin Sears, 52, a colleague who has been a lifeguard for much of his life.
In one area, Humphries easily outclasses younger wave jockeys. His age and business experience have sharpened his people skills to a fine edge. And in these days of road rage, air rage--even wave rage--that can be as important as running a six-minute mile.
"You've got all these people walking around with high testosterone levels," said Sears. "He knows how to manipulate people."
Demonstrating his technique of what he calls "verbal judo," Humphries grabs a visitor's shoulder and puts his face inches away. "I invade your space," he said. "I'm probably holding on to you, too. You have to be assertive. I don't go up and say, 'I'd appreciate.' I say, 'My name is John. I need you to take that off the beach.' "
But most of the time, he is a genial man who laughs easily, makes self-deprecating jokes about his weight, and begs a visitor to take his only chair in the tower while he stands.
Water has played a part in many of the significant events in Humphries' life. His mother qualified for the 1936 Olympics as a swimmer, only to be sent home when she was caught smoking on the ship carrying America's athletes to Europe.
Humphries was a champion swimmer as a youth. He held most of the sprint swim records at Miami University, though he admits to being shocked to discover after accepting the scholarship that this Miami was in Ohio.
Later on, he met his current wife, Betty, when she rescued one of his daughters from a backyard pool. They take regular moonlight swims three miles out in the ocean.
After graduating from college, Humphries went into insurance and eventually owned his own agency in Canton, Ohio. In 1985, he bought a travel agency in Montecito after falling in love with Southern California on a visit.
He still has many friends in town. "He's a really, really neat and respected person," said Sally Rivera, the manager of a competing travel agency.
Last year, Humphries sold his business and began to contemplate the next stage of his life. He couldn't see sitting around watching soaps or tinkering in the garage. He recalled his youth on the beach, and the more he thought about it, the more he thought he'd like to take another plunge into life-guarding.
When he revealed his plan, Betty Humphries was "apprehensive," he said. It had been a long time since he had swum for a living. More than 40 years, in fact. Humphries had traveled a lot of miles and eaten a lot of meals since then.
But being a strong-willed man with a firm belief in himself, he pressed ahead, presenting himself to the city and declaring his intent to patrol the waves. If his wife was worried, she was not alone.
"The training is pretty thorough," a clerk warned. Translation: There's still time to catch "One Life to Live" before your afternoon nap.
Still, he wouldn't be dissuaded. Soon, Humphries was enrolled in the rigorous training. He quickly learned that life-guarding is a lot different from when he sat on the Jersey shore with a whistle.
One of his first tests was a 1,000-meter swim that must be completed in less than 20 minutes. "That weeds people out," said Matt Roberts, the director of the city's parks and recreation department.
Humphries made it. He performed simulated rescues and learned to wrestle the 8-foot-long rescue board through heavy breakers. He accumulated bruises on his legs that still linger a month later.
At night, he said, "I'd go home, have dinner. My wife would put Ben-Gay on me and patch me up, and I'd go to bed."
At the finish of a grueling paddle relay, Humphries received a standing ovation from fellow lifeguards, who by then realized that this older man was as tough as any of them.
"He does have a keen ability to learn and take training seriously," Roberts said.
Though the world's safest beach designation is a Chamber of Commerce slogan, Roberts said there is some justification for it. Screened by the Channel Islands, the swells are small and regular. The underwater slope drops off very gradually, and swimmers frolic on rafts anchored 150 yards offshore.
An author who calls himself Dr. Beach listed Carpinteria as among the top 20 swimming beaches in America, and the only one in California, said Roberts.
Another reason the beach is safe, he said, is the lifeguard staff. "The world's safest beach is a slogan," Roberts said, "but John backs it up."