Seeing two heads near the rocks on the west side of the groin at 27th Street, I flipped on the overheads, pulled a U-turn, radioed for backup, parked, grabbed fins and a rescue tube and sprinted toward the beach.
Subtleties in the way the heads moved, the location they were in the rip current and the time I estimated it would take me to get to them left me with a sinking feeling in my gut.
After an eternity, I hit the bottom of the stairs and sprinted hard across the rocks. Glancing up, something was wrong. Well actually, something was very right. The two heads were now distinguishable as a couple and were farther from the pier, out of the rip and hole, and were standing in chest deep water. They were waving appreciatively at a tall, strong, older African American man on the pier, who was blowing a whistle and motioning them even farther away.
The man introduced himself as O.C. Brown, who had worked this same stretch of beach for many years. It was the early ‘90s, and he was in his 70s, but was, as the United States Lifesaving Association’s slogan says, a “Lifeguard for Life.”
Ten years before that, as a second- and third-year guard, I had enough experience to work the groins. I moved from my tower at Stewart Beach and cut my lifesaving teeth as the permanent guard at 29th Street. I learned plenty about lifesaving and more about many other things.
Most of the families that frequented the beach were locals, although on the weekends, there were Houston visitors as well. It was a busy beach, but I had tons of help. I rarely ate the lunch I packed each day as the regulars brought me plates of food.
At the end of the day, the seawall and Menard Park filled up with teens and young adults. A group of guys around my age became the self-appointed evening guards. I’d sit up on the bench with them when my shift ended and point out areas or people that needed attention. They’d take it from there, sitting, talking, having a few beers and jumping down when children veered too close to the rocks or someone started doing something that would get them in trouble. Sometimes, one or two would swing by my tower the next day with a report from the night before.
It was definitely a team effort. Galveston had many drownings in those years after hours, but I don’t remember anything bad happening at that stretch of beach.
I didn’t realize until later that stretch of beach had been an African American beach since the ‘30s. It was called “Brown Beach” and was at one time officially designated for Black people during segregation. Another African American beach called Sunset Camps existed on the West End. Early African American pioneers Waverly Guidry, James Helton and others heroically faced environmental and cultural challenges to protect people of all colors.
To be continued ...