When my old friend Boston Bob sent me a Facebook message about a Barton Springs lifeguard reunion, the dream job image shot through my mind. Bob, a true New Englander, left Austin after his lifeguard stint in the early ’80s. We had played on the same softball team back then. I hadn’t seen him since, but Facebook reconnected us. He resides in Atlanta, but he’s still a Red Sox fan. No surprise there.
The problem for me with the reunion: I was never a lifeguard. Maybe I should’ve been. I certainly wanted to sit up on that tall white platform above Austin’s favorite watering hole. And since the lifeguard reunion would include the fine folks who actually did sit way up high from 1976-82, I might recognize some faces besides Bob’s. I was at Barton Springs all the time, swimming, snorkeling, checking out the scene. It was the place to be.
So on a sunny afternoon in early May, I showed up at Scholz Garten, another Austin treasure, to meet up with Bob and his fellow lifeguards. I got to Scholz’s just as the Kentucky Derby was announcing post-time. Bob wasn’t there yet, so I sipped a Real Ale Fireman’s Four and watched as the greatest two minutes in sports flew by on the big screen just above the bar.
The race was over and still no Bob, so I wandered out to the beer garden area. I sat at a table across from a guy who was there because his brother had been the pool manager back in the day. So here the two of us sat, neither of us lifeguards. From our vantage point at a worn out picnic table in an old Austin icon, we watched the joy of a reunion: hugging, laughing, and people maybe not recognizing each other.
I didn’t know a soul. One or two faces seemed familiar. Even lifeguards get old.
Bob did show up. As we talked, I realized the tough road he’d had. He was sober for one thing, and had been for nine years. I was glad for him. He was divorced for another, but remarried. And he had a twenty-something son he was very proud of. Showed me pictures on his smart phone. I was happy for him. About the divorce, he joked, “I didn’t get along with my wife’s boyfriend.” He grinned, and I saw the same confident look in his eyes from back in the old days when he was sitting up on the lifeguard stand.
As darkness descended and the twinkle lights in the trees came on to provide some outdoor lighting, a lifeguard (well, a retired lifeguard) with her smart phone camera asked everyone at our table for a group photo. I stood and moved to the side, but she insisted I get in the photo. Click! We all laughed and for one evening, I was a Barton Springs lifeguard. What a cool job.
Maroma Beach, Quintana Roo, Mexico – On a sunny day, the Caribbean would beckon. Visibility would be good to a hundred feet or more. The Palancar Reef, one of the world’s premier diving and snorkeling areas, is a short boat drive away. But today it’s pouring – tropical rain. Drenching rain. Thunder in the distance. Lightning strikes visible on the beach to the north. Rain pours through the thatched roof of the palapa.
“Okay, time to go,” says the captain. “Everybody with a purple wrist band follow me.” He leaves the palapa, wades through the running water, and heads for the boat. “And please take off your shoes before you get in the boat, okay?” More thunder.
We huddle below deck in a cramped, humid compartment not quite big enough for all of us. But we’re all in there. The captain sticks his head in. “We’re taking off now.”
At the dive location, we gather topside for “instructions” from the captain. “First, has anyone not snorkeled before?” Several people, amazingly, raise their hand. “This is a snorkel.” The captain is holding up one for everyone to see. The rest of the instructions take maybe twenty seconds. “Okay, who here cannot swim?” Again, amazingly, a couple of people raise their hands. “Okay, I’ll have a life ring with me in the water,” the captain says. “You two hold onto the ring. Okay, is everybody ready?” We begin jumping into the dark murky water.
Within minutes we’re strung out a hundred meters across the ocean and, because of the strong current, we’re also swimming for our lives. The captain dives down to show us a lobster. The closest snorkeler to him kicks his fins, creating a sand storm. Visibility: zero. More swimming for our lives. The current gets stronger. It’s wise to keep up with the captain, whose bright yellow flippers are about the only visible thing underwater. The two people who can’t swim are holding onto the life ring.
We swim (furiously) back to the dive boat. “Okay, let’s go to a second location.” The captain looks at me for reassurance that his idea is a good one. I nod toward a sister dive boat behind us, driving rain making her appear like a ghost ship in distress. She’s barely visible. Diesel fumes and smoke swamp our view as we pull away.
At the second location, more currents, more extreme swimming (forget snorkeling). Nobody cares about the fish or the lobster or the reef. Crackling thunder splits our ears as we surface momentarily. Again, we’re strung out across open water. The captain is yelling at the laggards. It’s time to reboard.
The natural current takes you gently from one end of the beach to the other as you snorkel about. A couple of wooden picnic tables on the sand, a lifeguard stand, and local families out for a bar-b-que dot the surroundings. Off to the left side of the beach, rocks stand guard on the oceanfront, making it difficult – and pretty senseless – to try to get in the water from there.
I as snorkeled offshore about 50 yards, I saw parrot fish bigger than any I had ever seen. Something bumped my left arm and I whirled around to see what was underwater that was so close. Oh! A giant sea turtle. She was beautiful and very close as she floated by me. Wow, I thought. Never had that happen before.
Back up on the beach, a protected Hawaiian seal snoozed away. A few ropes marked off her boundary. She didn’t care as she slept the hours away. Her friend showed up after a while, swimming back and forth and occasionally raising his head out of the water to make sure that was her. Finally, he hit the beach. The crowd gathered around the ropes. A sign nearby warned of the seals rather zesty mating habits and to stay back. “Give ‘em room” was the basic message. Still, people of all ages crowded around, video cameras rolling, kids looking and tourists gawking. The male seal started nudging his friend, trying to get her to wake up. A few barks were thrown in too. Finally she opened her eyes. “Oh, you,” she seemed to say and shut her eyes again.