Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Life in New Jersey and my career as a lifeguard

When I lived in central New Jersey I enjoyed several advantages that I did not expect.  Some of them came from its propiniquity   to New York City, which was perhaps 35 miles from my parents’s home in East Brunswick, itself a suburb of New Brunswick (a city not to be confused with the province of New Brunswick).  But some of the advantages were all New Jersey. 

For instance, when I  got involved in the Society for Creative Anachronism at Michigan State University I was able to find a source for rattan, used for our swords, at the Hoboken (NJ)Bamboo and Rattan Works – on Jefferson Street – there is now a Bamboo and Rattan museum on Jefferson.  For a while I was a primary supplier of sword stock for the Middle Kingdom.  Another benefit was the availability of good quality vegetables. When we lived in Ohio, those of us who were in the know thought the slogan on the car licenses “New Jersey The Garden State” was a bad joke.  Everyone knew New Jersey was a filthy place.  But if you ever drove south on the New Jersey Turnpike you quickly found yourself surrounded by gardens!  

I was able to contribute towards my living expenses and have a moderate amount  of fun thanks to a job that  I am sure came my way because our neighbor was important in Middlesex County politics.  The County ran some swimming sites (lakes and resevo1poir, not pools) and needed lifeguards.  I  had the proper certification as a lifeguard, which meant I was qualified!

I can’t remember the name of the park  (Silver something?)  The beach was attractive, near older houses, though the whole area was being suburbanized.  But behind that pleasant exterior was a terrible secret.

Now it can be told!  That Silver something was badly polluted (My guess, from later experience, is that the houses had inadequate septic systems.) The County put on a show of dealing with the pollution:  The head lifeguard, a man in his 30s or 40s, went out in a boat on a regular basis and dumpted a chlorine product into the reservoir.That apparently brought the level of bacterial pollution down to a level where the government could to say that it was safe to swim in.

Being a lifeguard where I worked was a bit boring.  You hoped it would stay that way.  The guards had big breaks to keep them alert.  I read a lot of old science fiction novels in my breaks.  There were enough of us to keep a close eye on things.  Most days the attendance was far from being overwhelming.  On big holidays we sometimes had huge crowds.  Black churches got schoolbuses and brought platoons of kids.  Not too many white people did the same.

It didn’t stay boring.  There was a day where enough things went bad that tragedy resulted.  It started with a black kid pretending to be drowning.  He called out “Help!” “help” and grinned at the guards.  Both I and the lifeguard  next to me were focused on removing the troublemaker.  When we finally got to the rope that separated the designated swimming area from deeper waters, we  discovered that while we were distracted by the kid an older man had got in trouble and died.  I’d noticed him acting a bit odd, but unlike the kid, he was undramatic.

It was a sad day for us guards.   We’d  done our jobs under challenging conditions, and failed.


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