For an adult visitor, he perches on a graying deck chair and talks at considerably greater length about how he and the ocean love each other, and how he has guarded lives and spent his own.
"When I was five my Uncle George threw me right into the ocean," he says. "That should have scared me for life, but it didn't. I was reckless right from the start—a quarter of a mile out on water wings and happy as hell.
"I made my first rescue when I was a little kid, at Orchard Beach in the Bronx. I was standing in the water and a lady was doing the sidestroke past my knees. She started yelling for help. I thought, 'Well, she wants to get into the vertical,' so I lifted her up. I didn't even know when I left the water that I'd saved her. I couldn't even swim. But I got quite a write-up for it in the
Bronx Borough Record: BRAVE RESCUE BY TREMONT BOY."
Uncle Jim snickers. "I'd have done the same if the woman had fallen in the street. But it meant an awful lot to her, I guess. She came by later to my father's place to buy a memorial carving and pointed at me and said, 'That's the little boy who saved my life!"
"My father sold monuments in the Bronx. Havender Monumental Works—it's still there at the end of the Lexington Avenue subway line. My two brothers went into the business. They're dead now. I wasn't going into anything but swimming. My brother Joe was well known as a great athlete and he could swim all right, but when he got on the beach he'd shiver and turn blue. I was no good at anything but swimming.
"I got started as a lifeguard at 14, on Coney Island. I couldn't save a life on a bet, but by then I had spent enough time at Orchard Beach and on North Beach, where La Guardia Airport is now, that I could swim like hell. I swam in the East River and I used to swim across the Hudson and back just to show off. I always had the feeling that I was the greatest swimmer in the world. Potentially. If I weren't holding back. That's ridiculous, but it makes you a good swimmer.
"One of my problems as a young man was how was I going to get the summer off for the rest of my life. That's the only reason I went to college. I was on the swimming team and played water polo at CCNY, and in the summers I'd be on the beach all day lifeguarding. I went on to graduate school at Columbia so I could have one more summer off. Then I enlisted in World War I in the Navy. I was known as a guy who on just any kind of bet would jump off the submarine chaser into the middle of the ocean. I got to be a chief bosun's mate, and I had a pretty tough bunch to handle. Once I heard some of them talking, various ones saying they could handle me.
"Well, I popped up and said, 'Maybe I can't lick any of you on deck, but someday one of you will get too close to the edge and I'll shove you over and when we hit the water I'll be boss.' "
Uncle Jim winks and nods his head.
After the war he found a way to keep on having his summers free. "I had flunked Latin so much I had a good foundation in it," he says. For the next 30 years he taught that language in New York public high schools. When school was out he repaired to Fire Island or to Lake Ontario or to Nauset Beach on the ocean side of Cape Cod. He saved occasional lives and got deeper and deeper into natation.