"But usually when you get to a drowning man he's facing the shore, taking his last look." Uncle Jim chuckles. "The book says you're supposed to dive down under him and turn him around so you can tow him in. I have a little different trick. I get in a ball with my foot up toward his face. 'Turn around, if you don't want a kick,' I tell him.
"One woman got so mad at me she said, 'The next time I'm drowning I'd rather drown than be saved by him.' But I make 'em swim in. Make 'em work. I say, 'I'm not a ferryboat.' After all, they didn't fly out, they must know how to swim."
These methods are apparently sound, because Uncle Jim maintains that "There's never been a drowning on any beach I've worked on. That includes the phonies. A phony is when a man drowns and the lifeguard says he didn't drown, he had a heart attack. When I was starting out at Coney Island, there were so many people we were always afraid to go back to work—afraid somebody would show up dead that we hadn't noticed. 'What would you do if that happened?' I asked the older lifeguards. 'We'd launch him again and let him come up on some other guy's beach,' they said. But it didn't happen. I've never had any kind of drowning. And now my reputation is made."
Uncle Jim came close to a watery grave himself once off Bermuda, when he got caught in a driving rainstorm while swimming a couple of miles alone. The rain happened to be slanting in on his breathing side. He disappeared, and his friends on shore had given him up for dead when he strolled up behind them. He had switched over to breathing on the other side, had kept on plugging and had drifted with the wind and tides until they washed him up miles down the beach.
"I'm the type of swimmer lifeguards hate," Uncle Jim says with pride. "I always swim alone. I was out half a mile one day and some camper came by in a sailboat. 'We were taught that you should never go out by yourself.' he said. 'That applies to everybody but me,' I said. 'I'm an exception. The ocean loves me, or it would've drowned me long ago.'
"I've even felt cramps coming on, a mile out, but that never bothered me. You just relax. Just take the strain off your feet and let 'em wiggle like ribbons.
"I get a great kick out of being sort of a master of the ocean. I feel it belongs to me. That's what makes me say the ocean loves me. I know it's a cinch to cut through the breakers. Hit 'em low and you can cut through three or four of 'em. The people on shore don't know that. You can do exercises in the ocean you could never do on land. Lying on your stomach, twisting your body left and right, moving ways you never could with your feet on the ground. Sometimes the water out there is so nice and warm I wish I could drown, and stay in it.
"I love to submerge. I love to go down to the bottom. You can't see anything—a film of water forms over your eyes. But you know the bottom's there, and you can say you're detached from the world—away from people, away from all the problems. The other guys try to be, but I am detached."
And now, because of his ears, Uncle Jim can't submerge. In the tower he may seem to be in his element, but there he is naggingly attached to all those bobbing heads. He stands erect, arms akimbo, looking for trouble, sending a junior counselor in a rowboat over to the adjoining public beach to see whether a man out shoulder-deep with his baby boy wouldn't like a little assistance, which is Uncle Jim's way of suggesting that the man take the baby back into shallower water.
"I see an old character on the beach in a wheelchair and I can always tell if he's been a lifeguard," Uncle Jim says. "He's watching. Every now and then he looks up at me, as if to say, 'Did you notice that?' I can always tell an old lifeguard. He cannot comfortably sit on the beach."