“MEMORIAL DAY, 1978: Rips, Rescues and Inshore Holes”
Written by: Bill Asturius, Jim Oppliger, Roy Salter, Adrian Crook, Eric Moore and Will Maguire.
The Venue: Santa Monica South (aka, SMS)
Thirty years have passed since that day back on Memorial Day Weekend of 1978 that Santa Monica South became an all day series of blitzes, with rescues from rip tides and vicious inshore holes and lateral currents. Perspectives have been shaped in the course of these years with each lifeguard forming his own opinions and, of course, each having their own unique experience. It is this collection of recollections that prompted me to think of a contemporary story format that is sometimes referred to as the “Rashomon Effect”. Wikipedia defines this as:
“The Rashomon effect is the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it…..
It is named for Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, in which a crime witnessed by four individuals is described in four mutually contradictory ways. The film is based on two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashōmon” (for the setting) and “Yabu no naka”, otherwise known as “In a Grove” (for the story line).” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rashomon_effect
While much of what each lifeguard recounts is the same as you will find hereinafter, each guard has his own unique perspective. In short, an attempt is thus being made here to recount the Big Rescue Day on SMS some thirty years ago from the perspectives of a handful of lifeguards that worked that fateful day. I hope you enjoy this historical rashomon recounting. Your thoughts and comments are welcomed.
• Contributing to this multiple p.o.v. retrospective were: Bill Asturius, Jim Oppliger, Roy Salter, Adrian Crook, Eric Moore and Will Maguire.
• Departmental and Research Assistance provided by Assnt. Chief Phil Topar and Capt. Dave Kastigar.
• Introduction by and Edited by Will Maguire.
The opinions and perspectives herein are personal to each contributor and do not represent nor are they affiliated with LACoFD, LACOLA, the City of Santa Monica or any other organization or person.
“Great deeds are usually wrought at great risks.” Herodotus (484 BC – 430 BC), The Histories of Herodotus.
“This is a world of action, and not for moping and droning in.” Charles Dickens.
” It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men who has the greatest difficulties in life and provides the greatest injury to others.” Alfred Adler, Psychologist.
“That blond Adonis image you’re talking about, that doesn’t fit anymore. There’s a lot of training involved. A lot of responsibility. A lot of discipline. I do more P.R. out on that beach on a summer day than you do in here in a month. But you’re right. Saving lives isn’t selling cars.” Rick Carlson as played by Sam Elliott in the movie, LIFEGUARD (1976).
Rookie Class 1974, Santa Monica City Dept. of Beaches and Harbors
Recurrent, 1974 to present, L.A. County Fire Dept., Lifeguard Operations
“I SWAM FOR JJ”
Photo above: Typical Rip Running Off SMS Tower 24
MEMORIAL DAY, 1978: RIPS, RESCUES AND INSHORE HOLES ON SANTA MONICA SOUTH
*** Bill Asturias writes:
I certainly remember that day as if it were yesterday, we had a very stormy winter that year and had lost a lot of sand, some filling of the inshore holes was beginning to take place but the bottom of SMS was very chewed up, some inshore holes were very deep even at low tide and even more treacherous at high tide where the inshore holes were fed by the returning water from each incoming wave, each and every inshore hole had it’s own current.
The surf was inconsistent 2-4′ and the weather was a very warm 82. It was Memorial Day and the crowd was huge.
We requested all the guards available and doubled up and tripled some towers due to the rescue activity. I remember working tower 26 doubled with Mark Newman, Jim Oppliger was at station 27, Will Maguire was at station 25 .
At around the middle of the day high tide was reaching it’s peak and we had been keeping an eye on an overweight young girl that her parents had assisted to the water’s edge and had been sitting playing by the shore, when all of the sudden a lateral current built up and began picking up all the waders from the area between tower 27 and 26, about 60 or so including the non swimmer overweight girl depositing all right smack in the middle of the inshore hole. The reaction of all the guards was immediate and we began assisting and rescuing everybody that was caught in the current.
The overweight girl was struggling trying to stand up to no avail. I got to her and she held the rescue can and I began swimming towards the shore, the other lifeguards had more than one victim in their cans also and were swimming back towards shore with their victims, I noticed how easy they would pull away from me as we all swam towards shore. Mark Newman and Oppliger came back to assist me with my victim since I was not making any headway, all three of us worked for a good 15 to 20 minutes swimming, pushing and pulling until we reached the shore and were able to assist our victim in standing up. I was so grateful with my fellow lifeguards for their assistance and we all were very impressed by the size of our victim, easily over 300 pounds, she was so overweight that the skin on her forehead would drop over her eyes making it very difficult for her to see.
I believe that day was a record in rescues made in SMS.
*** Jim Oppliger writes:
To one and all,
I too remember that day, unfortunately at my age I don’t remember anything like it was yesterday. Two things do stand out for me; the rescues I made that day were the last ocean rescues that I ever made, and it just was like the days before the “red flag.”
I was not working that day, in fact, my eleven year career with beach lifeguarding had ended on July 4’th 1976 at Topanga Beach. I had moved inland but I was at the beach with my family, parents and sisters. In my early years at Santa Monica there would be days (weekends even) where you never got dry; as soon as the crowd arrived the battle began. In the days before the flag, the people who knew what they were doing got good waves, the others got rescued. As I was watching my friends in the towers around me it looked like old times, things were getting chaotic. There were more victims than lifeguards and the guys were in a constant run, swim run mode. I wasn’t too sure about a non employee helping out but I asked the beach lieutenant if he would like some assistance, Bill barely had enough time to yell “hell yes” as he threw me a rescue-can and once again ran toward the water. I followed and I must say that the rescue efforts that ensued were some of the most rewarding and enjoyable that I ever participated in. What a day! What a sucking hole, it was eating the crowd alive!
Big days make for great memories of our fantastic job as lifeguards, and the camaraderie that comes from the business of saving lives. That day was my last; I don’t know how many rescues I made, but I will cherish that day and those friends for ever. Thank you all for the memories.
***Roy Salter writes:
I remember a number of things about that day, including that I was among the 3rd-guy add-on’s given my rookie status, and my being comforted by (Maguire) being on my left – I think that Adrian Crook was on my right if I’m not mistaken. There was almost no room to walk on the sand when the tide came in just the way Bill described. I remember Zahn and Chavez who I came to know better after that day, reaching down over and over as we brought just as many people out to BW as we did to the sand. I remember looking up and down the sand for the spacing and needs of other guards when I was standing in the thigh-high water, never taking the strap off as we were all focused on no time being wasted to put them back on, or drying off in-between. I remember (Will) scanning the water behind me to my left, soaking wet like a wolf on the hunt, barking directions to give me (the rook) the guidance I needed at that moment. I could swim and pull people around – but lacked the experience of judgment, and was completely confident in the on-the-spot/in-the-moment calm direction (he was) able to give me.
Mostly I remember feely really good about being a part of a group of really able people who were all about helping each-other help those that couldn’t help themselves. Teamsmanship is something everyone wants to be a part of, and that team on that day was one that I was lucky to have been invited to.
That’s my memory of that day, which to me was one of the most fun I can remember.
Best to all
***Eric Moore writes:
That year, I was working at Venice Beach at Rose Ave. with Art Verge. I remember a big surf, big rescue day during the Memorial Day holiday, because it was over 90 degrees out with huge crowds and huge surf. I was called into SMS, and rode out in the truck with Ned McElroy. I ended up on foot, all over SMS and made a ton of rescues, and got so sun burned, I could not sleep for two days, and had blisters on my shoulders and chest.
***In a telephone interview with Adrian Crook:
Adrian Crook spoke with Will Maguire on the phone on Sept. 24th, 2008 from Fire Station #2 in Santa Monica, where he is still an Engineer, and remembers that day as being one filled with numerous and constant rescues and preventions and he recalled specifically the “Call Car” doing “recon and rescue” up and down SMS with a couple of guards in the back of the unit. Adrian also expressed that he thought that the combination of the “sheer volume of people” that frequent SMS and the fact that the majority of these people are, generally speaking, not the most beach oriented persons, adds up to why the rescue and prevention numbers are so high in this area.
***Will Maguire writes:
Although it no longer feels like it was only yesterday, this particular day for me was a metaphorical “right of passage” as a beach lifeguard. I first became a Santa Monica City beach lifeguard in 1974 after turning down a second invitation to join L.A. City because I wanted to work the Ocean Park area that I would later learn was called “Santa Monica South”. For reasons I still am not sure of, I knew in my gut that was the area I wanted to work. And so it was on Memorial Day of 1978 that all the guards on duty on SMS “were tested” in a right of passage that I will forever be grateful to have experienced. There have been other days since when I have had multiple rescues but none have come close to, in the words of my friend and colleague, Adrian Crook, involving the same “sheer volume of people” in the water, together with the topography of the beach bottom contouring with channels and inshore holes, plus significant surf and a tide shift in the early afternoon. My shift began at 10 a.m. at T-25 and the rescues started by at least 11 a.m. with a steady wide rip to the left of T-25. Another rip was running just to the right of T-25 and another just to the left of T-24 where Roy Salter was working that day. To my left at T-26 was our area Lt., Bill Asturias, along with recurrent (and now M.D.) Mark Newman, older brother of Mike “Newmie” Newman. Also drafted that day around noon or so, after volunteering himself for duty, was retired recurrent (and then Public Defender and now Superior Court Judge) Jimmy Oppliger who came to the beach as the civilian he was to spend the day with his family. It was supposed to be a family day of fun and relaxation for the retired recurrent lifeguard Jimmy Oppliger. The Captain that day at Santa Monica, as I recall, was Rex O’Dell and I can remember calling him up on the phone from T-25 to let him know we had a volunteer and that Asturias had asked me to get the Captain’s approval. The Captain echoed Bill Asturias’ answer to Oppliger’s offer. And let me tell you, we needed the help. It seemed like each rip had a dozen or more victims in them. The rip to the left of my tower was as wide a rip as I have ever encountered. After a couple of hours of making rescues at this particular recurring rip as well as others, I decided just to close it down and whistled everybody out of the water because we just did not have the personnel to deal with the number of people in the water where this rip kept recurring.
That day we were also very fortunate to be backed up by the Dynamic Duo of our Baywatch Santa Monica crew, captained by Lt. Tom Zahn and his co-hort deckhand, Bobbie Chavez. I do not think they left SMS all that day. Time and time again Zahn would back up the Baywatch at the end of a rip and we would deposit multiple victims on board until the sets would drop off and then we could swim or escort the swimmers into shore. One such sequence of rescues and Baywatch retrievals I will never forget: I had just deposited 3 or 4 swimmers, who had been struggling in a rip just to the right of my tower, onto the rescue boat and then got onboard myself at the direction of the deckhand. During this rescue sequence I had been second into the water after Roy Salter who had sprinted down in the direction of my tower after I had just gotten out of the water on the rip to the left of my tower. I had no sooner reached the top of the ramp and grabbed my towel to dry off and looked toward T-24 when I saw Roy heading down toward a rip starting to churn to the right of my tower….. I thought to myself, “Oh Sh..!”…. Again !!!…. and took off . Roy was in the water first and had at least two victims on his rescue can and started swimming them to shore as I kept swimming out toward the end of the rip for the other swimmers and the now approaching rescue boat. Once onboard with the victims, Lt. Zahn said to me, “Who is that guard at T-24”? I said, that’s Roy Salter. And Zahn says, how come he was first in the water ? Momentarily, I remember being a bit perplexed but I answered him with words to the effect: Roy is a very good lifeguard and a very fast swimmer. Bobbie Chavez said nothing but later he did shake his head and smile at me in a show of support for the rescues I did make during that sequence. (What I didn’t tell Lt. Zahn is that Roy was also a good friend and a teammate of mine on both the varsity swimming and water polo teams at SMC just a few years before and that Roy was very hard to score against as our team goalie too. As a matter of fact, in practice, I finally had to resort to shots that would just miss his left or right ear as he would block everything else…Zing one of them balls and just graze his left ear and you had a chance of scoring; you’d get a fierce surprised glare too but that was just icing on the cake and a small victory after all the blocked shots suffered). The balance of the day was the same routine.
At about rescue #13, I remember for the first time in my life feeling a ‘twinge’ in my lower back during one rescue sequence to the left of my tower as I was dolphining out thru the surf. My back remained stiff the rest of that day. Another memory that stands out for me during this glorious day of our collective battle against the sea was the HUGE inshore hole adjacent and just to the right of T-26, as I recall. At one point in the afternoon after Oppliger had volunteered and I had just gotten back to my tower and was busy watching the water and… keeping an ‘eye on Roy’ to my right, that I noticed both Asturias and Newman struggling with a victim just a few short feet from shore in said HUGE inshore hole. Upon closer inspection with my binoculars, I could see that the victim was very overweight and probably over 300 lbs. Two or three times a wave would pick them up and carry Asturias or Newman over and across the hole onto the sand and then the weight of the victim and water receding would pull all three of them back in the hole because they were all connected by the now tangled two sets of rescue cans and rescue harnesses. It was almost comical to watch in retrospect. I remember also thinking, thank goodness I’m not in on that mess ! Then I see Jimmy Oppliger running on over after delivering his rescue victims to shore and I said to myself, three guards is enough to handle that situation so I’ll just watch the water in my area to make sure no one gets in trouble… and, of course, to keep an eye on the ‘freakingly fast Roy Salter’. Finally, one of the guards, and I’m not sure who, got to his feet on the beachside of that HUGE hole and started to pull on his rescue can rope as if in a tug of war. And then FINALLY two of the guards got to their feet onshore and dragged the victim, with the third guard pushing, out of that HUGE HOLE ! I could tell that all three of those guards were exhausted, not to mention being covered in wet sand from head – to sand filled trunks – to toe. I knew instinctively that none of them could ever possibly forget THAT RESCUE ! I’ve told that story more times than I can remember. It has left that much of an impression.
That was the day I always have felt earned me my stripes, as it were, as a lifeguard. We’d all been ‘blooded’ or ‘tested’ that day and came away the stronger for it. I will forever be grateful that I was able to make rescues that day and save lives and was able to do so as part of a collective team effort with my friends and fellow lifeguards. As I said previously, I cannot really pin down the logical reasons for wanting to become a Santa Monica Beach Lifeguard a half mile to a mile south of the pier. Why didn’t I choose the beach of my youth, namely, Will Rogers State Beach, next to the Bel Air Bay Club where I walked and rode canvas surf mats in the summers and was a junior lifeguard at the Lighthouse/H.Q. I like to think, however, that it was divine guidance because I honestly do thank God for the people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made and the lives I’ve saved at SMS. Being a beach lifeguard and saving lives has been the most profoundly rewarding experience of my life.
(1) My personal logbook entry (see pdf encl. below) for this day states: “Memorial Day, May 29, SMS #25,
10 – 7 (pm), “ACTION CITY PLUS” 24 Rescues!”).
(2) SMHQ Logbook entries for Memorial Day Weekend 1978 shows 172 total rescues at SMS on Memorial Day (see attached pdf).memorial-weekend-sms-1978a
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And last but not least (SMC PLUG !), “I SWAM FOR J.J !”