Reporter's Notebook: Lifeguard reunion delivers simple message: We are family

In my first summer as a Newport Beach lifeguard, I would sit silent and wide-eyed, entranced by veteran lifeguards and the stories they would tell.

From narratives of heroic rescues at The Wedge to tales from the infamous "summer of '97," an El Nino year, each one transfixed eager 18-year-old me in 2007.

Seven summers on the beach later, those stories still inspire me.

So I jumped at the chance to attend the fourth annual Newport Beach lifeguard reunion Sunday, not just as a lifeguard but now also as a journalist.

Guards from every decade since the 1950s were on hand at an old lifeguard hangout — Malarky's Irish Pub, where I work for part-owner and retired lifeguard Capt. Brent Ranek.

With the living history of lifeguarding set in front of me, I dove in, seeking more inspiring anecdotes.

I hoped to document their words, retell their stories and write about the changes in beach and lifeguard culture over the generations.

But I left with a notepad bare of historical nuggets, dramatic quotes and "back in my day" stories.

At first, I was disappointed.

My vision of recording history slowly began to blur as veteran guards answered my broad question: What has changed since you lifeguarded?

Furrowed brows and pensive frowns preceded answers centering on increased crowds at the beach.

We talked about The Wedge, which a few said has not changed, save for the hoopla and crowds now drawn to the big swells.

We talked about surf culture, which lifeguards from the 1960s said was popular during their years on the beach. Why was it so popular? "That's just how it was," they said.

At that point I knew I was digging too deep, trying too hard to force connections.

So I dropped my pencil, grabbed a beer and made my rounds.

Without my journalist tools, the conversations flowed easily as I caught up with current captains, joked with co-workers and met more veterans.

But as boisterous laughter from stories told off the record lifted to the Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling, I realized what I was looking for would not be at the reunion.

Those in attendance did not come to regale a young gun like me with their heroic rescue stories, nor did they want to be pestered by a reporter about the abstract idea of historical change.

With my zeal to record history blinding me, I nearly missed the point of a reunion.

Among the more than 100 guards at Malarky's, I saw weathered smiles, friendly back slaps and good-natured name-calling. In other words, I saw a family celebrating the holidays.

Across the generations, no matter the time or technology, lifeguards are bound by duty to those we rescue and bonded by the responsibility of keeping Newport's beaches safe.

In truth, not much has changed.

A chain of wooden towers still guards Newport's beaches. Men and women still stand as sentinels, scanning the water and charging into the surf armed with only a buoy and fins.

Powerful hurricane swells still batter the coast every summer, challenging each new generation with rip currents and unrelenting waves.

The duties are not different, rescues have not changed and the core of who lifeguards are has not wavered.

Veteran and current guards have accounts of harrowing rescues and "back in my day" stories. But the reunion was not about telling tales and recording history.

Instead we spent time with old friends, rekindling connections over a couple beers.

What began as a mission to identify lifeguarding's evolution instead revealed an ocean of similarities.

Next summer a new generation of fresh-faced rookies will enter the ranks, and I will pass down my knowledge of the beach, but with a new message: Welcome to the family.

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