The other day a friend brought over his collection of Rehoboth Beach lifeguard postcards. If you’ve spent some time in Rehoboth, you’ve probably seen this tradition where the lifeguards pose in their red trunks for a squad photo that becomes a postcard. They’ve been doing it for decades; my friend has been collecting them for more than twenty years.
He denies it’s a full-blown fetish, and I take him at his word, even though he does drive a red jeep and might be a tad blonderexic, if you know what I mean. He maintains it’s just a healthy fantasy stemming from childhood summers on Long Island beaches and vacations to Australia. And, what red-blooded homo doesn’t appreciate a buff, sun-kissed fella wearing nothing but a swimsuit and a whistle around his neck?
The simple combination of youthful sex appeal, heroism, and the beach creates a potent aphrodisiac appealing to more than just gay guys. It’s why the television show Baywatch was so popular. It’s why crowds of grown men and women and kids all turn out for the life guarding competitions in late July. It’s why lots of beach resort have their own lifeguard postcards. Does anyone really send postcards any more?
Yes, the lifeguard is the true icon of summer.
I’d liked to have been a lifeguard and spent the summer on the beach, but I had neither the athleticism nor the crucial lifesaving skills required. The closest I ever got was working for the Aerial Sign Company in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Five miles inland in a mosquito-infested grass air strip, me and two college buddies toiled in hundred degree heat to set up the ubiquitous all-you-can-eat shrimp and Panama Jack suntan lotion signs you see pulled by old crop planes up and down seashore beaches. Trust me, it wasn’t very glamorous.
Rehoboth’s lifeguards have been around since 1921. The official Rehoboth Beach Patrol was founded that year with two guards. You can check out more history, photos, and facts at the official website of this very dedicated and professional organization at http://www.rehobothbeachpatrol.com.
Life saving associations like Rehoboth’s grew up at some of the better-organized East Coast beach resorts, like Atlantic City, in the late 19th century to safeguard the growing numbers of tourists, many of who did not know how to swim. According to the Red Cross, in the early 1900’s, about 9,000 people drowned each year on American beaches.
I’ve read that beach lifeguards were the natural outgrowth of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, which positioned stations along the coastline to help rescue sailors and cargo from shipwrecks. In each station, a government appointed keeper lived with a crew of men familiar with local waters. Just south of Dewey Beach is the Indian River Life Saving Station, originally built in 1876. Restored in the late 1990’s, the red and orange wooden structure is one of the very few such facilities still standing in its original location.
The U.S. Lifesaving Service operated from 1871 until 1915 when it merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. The Indian River station was decommissioned in 1962 due to storm damage.
I recently toured it for the first time and found it quite interesting. You really get a sense of how these surf men lived together in this isolated outpost. There are journal entries you can read that tell about terrible winter storms – September through April was the busy season. The boat room contains all kinds of rescue equipment, including a Lyle gun, which looks like a cannon on wheels and was used to fire a projectile to a stranded ship. A rope was attached to the projectile and formed a lifeline to shuttle passengers to the beach. You can see the piano the men used for entertainment. It was purchased in Lewes and a team of mules pulled it along the beach at low tide to get it to the station.
And, there are photos, including one of the seven-man crew, which is very reminiscent of today’s lifeguard postcards.
Which brings us back around to Rehoboth’s lifeguards and an idea that popped into my head while writing this column. If Rehoboth is the nation’s summer capital and if the lifeguard is the nation’s summer icon, then shouldn’t the city’s official emblem be the lifeguard – or an image of the lifeguard on a white stand – rather than a lighthouse?
I’ve never really understood why the Cape Henlopen lighthouse was adopted as the symbol of Rehoboth. The lighthouse stood up the coast much closer to Lewes, and was built at the southern entrance to the Delaware Bay in order to guide ships. Rehoboth was founded as a resort town. It’s not a nautical town per se.
The lifeguard would be a great symbol for a summertime resort town. Imagine a big white lifeguard stand in the circle when you drive into town. A city flag with the image? Perhaps Rehoboth could even hire lifeguard wannabes to sell the parking passes at the entrances to town? Better yet, to walk around making change for the parking meters. Bronzed, friendly, buff ambassadors for the town.
I might be wrong, but it seems to me there’s a good marketing idea here waiting to be explored. So if any of you local politicos are reading, this proposal is yours for the taking.