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Roy Blount Jr.
June 18, 1973
So says Jim Havender, 81, the World's Oldest Lifeguard, who ignores his own counsel because the ocean loves him
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June 18, 1973

'i'm The Type Of Swimmer Lifeguards Hate'

So says Jim Havender, 81, the World's Oldest Lifeguard, who ignores his own counsel because the ocean loves him

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If you make a rescue and you've got a fella in shallow water, and you're bringing him in with his arm around your neck, stay with him," advises Jim Havender. "Guys will come up wanting to relieve you. Don't let them, because if you do they'll get the write-up. There'll be a picture of them bringing the guy in, and the story might even say the lifeguard was exhausted and he had to be rescued, too."

Not many active lifeguards would reveal such trade secrets, but then not many of them are 81 years old. That is the calendar age of Uncle Jim, as Havender is called by everyone at Camp Monomoy, a boys' camp in East Brewster, Mass. on Cape Cod, to which he will repair this week for his 28th summer as chief lifeguard, institution and cutup.

Uncle Jim has lifeguarded in a lot of places in his time, and this past winter he was honored by the Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale as the World's Oldest Lifeguard, which he may or may not be.

"Recently I went in for some tests," he says, "and the doctor said to me, 'Your body is 39 years of age." I didn't fall for it. I know I'm an old guy. I told this doctor, "You make too much of me.' He said, 'You ought to see what we get coming here.' "

Uncle Jim is 5'7", snub-nosed, bald and in midsummer a deep reddish brown. At Monomoy he is almost always dressed in one of his 14 tanktype bathing suits, all of which bag in the seat. His waist and his lizardy skin have gone somewhat slack, but his arms, legs and shoulders still have the trim and vigorous lines of a boyish obsessive swimmer.

Uncle Jim may refuse to believe that he is as healthy as the doctors claim, but he can eat anything he wants to, he quit smoking in 1933 and he has managed to live with a number of specific ailments since youth. One day in 1906 he surfaced with a buzzing in his left ear that he still has; so he can sleep he sometimes plays a radio down low all night to offset the buzz. In the summer of '14 he went out to free a motorboat from a reef in rough water and the propeller nearly chewed his foot off; from tower to surf he is slow, because he has to run on the side of that foot. He has an acidity problem that first cropped up when he ate two pounds of peanut clusters to celebrate a high-school promotion.

One further deficiency has come to him in old age, however, and that one interferes with his profoundest urge, which he has also had since youth.

"I'm a show-off swimmer," he says. "I've been well known since I was a boy as the guy who'd swim out two miles and go off the earth. Even today I like to think somebody's watching me when I go in. I imitate a seal or a porpoise."

But now he can only do it for short periods, and mostly on top of the water. A good many of his tricks used to be for only his own and the ocean's sake below the surface—combinations of backward and forward loops and sinuous up-thrusts. Now he has to avoid keeping his head underwater for long. "My Eustachian tube has gotten kind of aged; it's as big as my finger. Water gets into my ears through my nose and affects my hearing. I don't want to go deaf."

But he doesn't want to get out of the ocean, either. In the summer he lives right by it, in a one-room wood shack 10 yards from his lifeguard tower on Monomoy's beach. Children come in from down the beach to get lollipops. He says, "Hello, little girlie" to the girls and exacts a hug, and sometimes they clean up his house for him, but sometimes he shoos them off after a while, saying, "Go on back to your mother before she calls me a kidnapper."

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