As a veteran lifeguard for nearly four decades, Mike Brousard, 67, has handled nearly every kind of rescue that could happen on the sand and surf.
But when a woman started screaming in pain from labor contractions on his last day before retirement, Brousard was suddenly faced with a new kind of emergency scenario – the possibility of delivering a baby on the beach.
“As we jostled down the beach in the jeep, a contraction hit her and I recognized that the arrival of the baby was imminent – she was in a lot of pain and by the time we got to the parking lot she had had another,” the longtime lifeguard recounted. “I was sweating bullets.”
Thankfully, medics arrived at San Clemente State Beach just in time and hauled her off the hospital.
Brousard, who grew up in Long Beach and spent years lifeguarding several Southern California stretches of coast, recently released a book called “Warm Winds and Following Seas: Reflections of a Lifeguard in Paradise.”
“I wanted people to understand it’s not just a walk in the park out there,” the San Clemente resident said. “You’re not just in the tower getting a suntan.”
Bathhouses and growing coastal communities sprouted up from Los Angeles to San Diego at the the turn of the century. And along with the influx of beach goers came a fear of drowning.
“At the turn of the century, almost no one knew how to swim,” said Brousard, who included a chapter on lifeguarding history in his book.
The City of Long Beach – which had a big pier, a resort and the Pike amusement park that drew the masses – created the first paid lifeguard agency in Southern California in 1906.
Los Angeles beaches hired lifeguards in the ’20s, as did Newport Beach and Huntington Beach as coastal recreation became a popular pastime.
In 1970, Brousard, then 19, was a swimmer and water polo player for Long Beach City College.
Lifeguarding was a natural fit with those activities and his athleticism, he said, adding, “It’s sort of a rite of passage to be a lifeguard somewhere.”
He took the state lifeguard test, hoping to nab a spot in Huntington Beach, but was sent to San Clemente State Beach. It was the early ’70s, before much of the quaint coastal town was developed.
“Where the hell is that?” he remembers thinking.
“It was just a quiet town, a lot more open space than there is now… This place stole my heart from the minute I got here.”
His first rescue came on his first day, when 6-foot waves hammered Calafia State Beach.
“I just opened my tower up and a family came down. One of their kids got swept out into a huge rip. I completely froze. I had to be sent to the rescue by one of my elders. I learned from that, I have to be proactive.”
He learned an old adage for lifeguards: When in doubt, go out
By 1977, Brousard became a full-time lifeguard, much to the dismay of his parents’ friends and others who didn’t take his career choice seriously.
“Lifeguarding was not considered on the list of professions you wanted to go do,” Brousard said. “It was not a profession that had a lot of respect in the general community.”
Baywatch gave some exposure to what lifeguard did on the job — and a lot of misinformation — but it wasn’t until recent years that the public really started to understand the challenges of the job.
“I’ve been in situations where I thought I was going to drown,” Brousard said. “It’s a real wake-up call.”
Lifeguards tend to downplay the seriousness of their profession, he said. “We have not done a good job of showing the public how dangerous it is.”
Changing the public’s perceptions of lifeguards was one reason Brousard wanted to write the book after his retirement in 2013.
He based much of “Warm Winds and Following Seas,” on notes he’d jotted down during his 43-year career, detailing rescues and other personal experiences from lifeguarding, as well as stories from his time as lifeguard chief toward the end of his career. He retired only because his body couldn’t handle the physical demands of the job.
“They had to drag me out, I loved that job,” he said.
One of his worst days was a call he got toward the end of his career. His wife had injured her spinal cord during a surf lesson, saved by fellow lifeguards before he started his shift. It was a moment that gave him clarity on “what the stakes are.”
“I’m just happy there was a lifeguard to help her through it,” he said. “It’s a miracle she’s able to walk.”
As lifeguard try-out season approaches, Brousard offers words of wisdom for aspiring lifeguards in search of their first summer job.
“You have to show up every day with your A-game and display to the public, your peers and yourself that you’re taking this seriously,” he said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that what you’re doing is not important.
“There’s nothing more important than making sure everybody makes it home safe from the beach.”
Source: Orange County Register