I am on the beach with my wife. I am under the umbrella, my wife is in the open sun. I haven’t visited the beach in a hundred years. We have been quarantined for at least that long.
We are social distancing, sitting almost as far away from the water as you can get. The nearest beach goer is about a mile away.
I used to work on the beach. One summer, I got a job in Destin, Florida. I was a lifeguard-slash-beach-attendant. The industry term was: “chair setter-upper.” Or: “rented mule.”
My main job was to set up umbrellas and chairs, and to make sure everyone’s radio was cranked up loud enough so that others would complain to the lifeguards about it.
You learn a lot about people when you watch them on a beach, which is what I did for nine hours per day.
One time, there was a family of Germans on my beach. They were mostly elderly people. Mid-70s, maybe.
Germans are finicky, they don’t like wearing wet swimsuits after they’ve been swimming in the Gulf. So every time the old man would emerge from the surf, he would remove his Speedo.
He did this nonchalantly, as though sliding out of a Speedo before a couple hundred spectators was just another day at the office. Then his wife would hand him a dry Speedo, and he would cram into it. Whereupon his wife would fully strip and do the same thing. Gravity had not been kind to these people.
That was a bad day to be a beach-attendant-slash-lifeguard.
I also had to deal with Young Drunk People as a lifeguard. When young people visit the beach, federal law requires them to bring 50 cases of beer per young person and a boombox capable of shattering windshields.
Drunk young people also love to invent creative ways to consume alcohol. As in: “Hey, y’all! Watch me drink beer through a Frisbee!”
Thus, as a lifeguard, I was always having to do the dreaded job no authority figure ever wants to do, by marching over there and kindly asking them for a beer.
But mostly, being a beach attendant consisted of helping people get situated beneath umbrellas. There, they would smear copious amounts of powerful sun-blocking agents onto their bodies then go lie in the open sun.
The most crazy day I ever had as a beach-attendant-slash-lifeguard was when a shark came into our waters. It was a smallish shark. This was like the Shih Tzu of the shark kingdom.
Then, all of a sudden, here came this kid who looked like he’d been hired by Steven Spielberg, sprinting out of the surf, shouting, “SHARK!”
If you ever want to see pandemonium, shout this word on a crowded beach. People were screaming, openly weeping, packing their beach gear, some were leaving the state of Florida forever.
The next morning, my entire beach jurisdiction was empty, and it stayed like that all week. It was great.
As it happened, I was going through a really bad period of life at the time, a girlfriend had just broken my heart. So peace and quiet was just what the doctor ordered.
I remember walking into the ocean surf on an unpopulated beach and wading up to my shoulders. I would spend the entire morning there, just listening to sounds of water.
The Gulf is its own creature. When you look at her from a distance, her water goes from emerald green to navy blue, before fading into the horizon. You also feel something in the water. It’s a gentle power that reminds you of how small you are on this earth. And no matter how hard you try, you cannot be any bigger.
A few weeks after the shark sighting, my beach started to fill with people again. More families, more drunk kids, more Europeans wearing bathing suits that were made from a single strand of No. 3 spaghetti.
One day—and I will never forget this as long as I live—there was this thing poking above the surface of the water. It was swimming parallel to the shore. It was a big, triangular, gray fin. A huge fin. Judging from the size of this fin, this shark would have been about the size of a Plymouth Business Coupe.
“SHARK!” yelled some kid.
It was the same scenario as before. People were screaming. But when the fin got closer, something was wrong. The fin jumped out of the water. Everyone could see the fin was attached to a rod held by a little boy who was hysterical with laughter.
Immediately, a middle-aged woman charged into the surf and dragged the boy from the water by his earlobe. She yanked his pants down in front of God and country, and turned his white hindparts candy-apple red. I wish I were making this up, but I’m not.
That was a very good day to be a beach-attendant-slash-lifeguard.
Anyway, I only worked on the beach for that one summer because you can have too much of a good thing.
But today, it’s all coming back to me. This place is an old friend. This saltwater has a way of working itself into your DNA if you live here. Sometimes it’s one of the only constants in your life.
Right now, my wife is giggling, she elbows me. “Look,” she whispers.
So I do. In the distance I see an older couple on a beach towel. They have just traipsed out of the water. Their suits are soaking wet.
These people are definitely German.