The small 5-year-old, brown-skinned, dark-haired girl played in the sand with her little sister on the beach. Their fully clothed mother and grandmother laid out a tablecloth and set the china place settings out with well-practiced movements.
It was a summer day in 1943 at the beach by Murdoch’s Bathhouse.
Barbara, the older of the two, looked off and spotted someone. Smiling, she asked if she could go visit her “friend.” Her mom, Alberta Stevens, said she could but to “hurry back and don’t bother him too much.” She ran as fast as her little 5-year-old legs could carry her up to the lifeguard chair and looked up to the mountain of a man sitting up there. He waved her up smiling.
As she started to climb, he reached down and picked her up, tossing her into the air while she giggled. She snuggled into his lap as he kept a watchful eye on the swimmers. It was a calm day with light crowds, and both sat for a while comfortably relaxed.
After a time, she turned to him, so he could read her lips and said, “Mr. Colombo, why doesn’t anyone ever help you?” He made a sweeping gesture with his arm and held up his index finger.
“One beach ...” little Barbara said, as he then pointed to himself with his thumb and then held up his finger again, “... one lifeguard.” she squealed laughing, as she always did at this game.
Of course, I took a bit of “artistic license” here since it happened way before that little 5-year-old grew up and gave birth to me, but it’s based on stories Mom told me and a popular saying about Colombo that’s been passed down in beach lore.
It does, however, exemplify a basic difference in lifeguarding philosophy (and public safety philosophy) that’s changed in relatively recent times.
Back when recreational swimming first became a “craze” and modern lifeguards who could swim or paddle out to make a rescue came on the scene, the idea was that the rescuer was pretty much on his own. Rightfully so, since they generally worked alone and without realistic possibility of backup.
When things go bad in the water it happens quickly, so if help arrives in time it would have to already be on the way before trouble started. In Colombo’s day, those kinds of resources weren’t a possibility economically or culturally. Someone of his swimming ability was the exception to the norm, and that’s partly why he was so special.
The difference between then and now is that the profession has matured to the extent that we look at the whole rescue “chain.” Interdependence of lifesaving staff and between groups of emergency responders is an integral part of our philosophy. Safer for the rescuers and more effective.
It does, however, take a little of the magic away. “All for one and one for all” doesn’t have quite the pizzazz as “One riot, one ranger” or “One beach, one lifeguard.”