On Guard

The images of South Bay lifeguards on duty are as prolific in the minds of generations of beachgoers as are the grains of sand on the shore.

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  • Written by
    Kelly Dawson

In a tone that’s as matter-of-fact as cool Pacific surf on a warm beach day, Larry Cocke recounts events that helped define his more-than-30-year career. He details the incident when he was in a helicopter crash while en route to rescue two fishermen … and then transitions into a short anecdote about watching over Holocaust survivors during their day at the pool.  

His voice flows in a strong but welcoming cadence, and the inflections remain constant whether he is remembering a life-or-death situation or an everyday routine. It’s the voice of a retired lifeguard who views the job’s challenging situations and mundane occurrences with the same level of appreciation. It’s the sound of someone who knows that his profession, for better or worse, was still a day at the beach.

“My nickname was Eagle Eye. I didn’t miss much, including my supervisor … I was always one step ahead of him,” Larry says with a friendly laugh. “I miss the job every day. Every day I think about it. And I’ve been retired 34 years.” 

Lifeguard history stretches to the beginning of the South Bay itself. In the early 20th century, real estate entrepreneurs Henry Huntington and Abbot Kinney sought a way to save their nascent communities from becoming possible ghost towns due to a rising number of drownings. 

They found an answer in George Freeth, a legendary swimmer and surfer from Hawaii who came to Southern California in 1907. He worked with the entrepreneurs to replace residents’ common fear of the ocean with revolutionizing swimming lessons and lifeguard techniques that continued to improve through the decades. 

“Working out of the Redondo Beach Plunge, he taught local kids how to swim in the large, saltwater pool and then gradually had them become water-oriented in the ocean,” says historian Arthur Verge, author of Los Angeles County Lifeguards. “Freeth-trained swimmers became the nuclei of our modern lifeguard service.”

George Freeth may get the most credit for creating a volunteer corps that became the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Service and then merged with the Los Angeles County Fire Department–even though the process took about a century to do. And the reasons behind a lifeguard’s passion for the job seem just as universal. 

“It’s the perfect job—you’re helping people in need, you get paid to stay in shape, you work in the most scenic environment imaginable, and when all is said and done, maybe a few people will say a prayer on your behalf because of what you did on one particular day when you were able to make the difference when their on the line,” says Arthur, who is in his 39th year as a lifeguard. 

Paul Matthies, a lifeguard who patrolled Los Angeles’ beaches after World War II and into the 1970s, says that every day that he worked the night shift had a highlight. He sits in his oceanview living room off a flight of stairs that were built from the planks of the old Hermosa Beach pier, speaking of scenarios that bring his memories back to life. 

“The first thing you have to do is to make sure that they grab the can,” he says, discussing the steps of a rescue using a flotation device. “So you swim right out to them and you hand them the can. They’ll grab it first thing. You talk to them, ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of. Are you breathing?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘OK, then! Nothing to it, you’re breathing! Don’t worry about it, let’s go to shore.’ You talk to them—all the time. And you get rid of that panic.”

It’s the type of scenario that A.J. Lester knows well. A.J. has been a lifeguard for nine years, and his reasons for loving the job—working on the beach and making rescues—mirror Larry’s explanations. He knows of Paul, and he’s taken Arthur’s history class at El Camino College. Their stories, A.J. says, are part of lifeguarding’s familial tradition. 

“If those people didn’t come before us and set the groundwork for this amazing career that we can all have, and I hope to have, then we wouldn’t be where we’re at,” he says. “We wouldn’t be where we are without them.