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Some beach veterans keep jobs for decades


NEW YORK - The old adage that age is a state of mind is a bunch of bunk, said Reggie Jones, who, at the age of 73, may be the oldest lifeguard in the Western Hemisphere. Age, in the opinion of Jones, is a state of nature.

"You can't beat the Reaper, but you can put him off," he said, and to prove his point, Jones pulled an old photograph of himself from a chest of drawers inside Lifeguard Shack 5 at Jones Beach State Park on Long Island. It was an old black-and-white of a young Reggie Jones dated 1944 - his first year on the beach - and he looked something like a muscular Sal Mineo.

The beach was not named after Jones, he would like you to know. (It was named after Maj. Thomas Jones, an 18th-century whaler and part-time pirate.) Reggie Jones is, in fact, two years older than the park that Robert Moses built. He is also older than the dark, cake-shaped shack that he works from. The shack has no plumbing or glass windows and it houses a half-dozen men like Jones who have been on the job over 35 years.

It is affectionately called Jurassic Park by the other lifeguards at Jones Beach. And these old men with the boyish faces think Ponce de Leon was a fool. Instead of traipsing around the Everglades in search of the fountain of youth, they believe the explorer should have known he was sailing on it.

"You spend a life staring at shells and sand and salt and swells, it does something good to you," said Jay O'Neill, 66, a retired insurance broker who is working his 48th year on the big white chair. "It is the best job I ever had."

It is halfway through the summer and, on many beaches, lifeguard jobs still go wanting. From Westchester to New York City to the Jersey Shore, it seems young people no longer find the clean, glamorous job appealing. Not even for $10 an hour. It's gotten so bad that Ocean City, N.J., is digging through its personnel files and asking the old-timers to fill the empty observation chairs.

But on the Long Island waters there is a surfeit of young candidates who want to work. The problem here is that the young bulls must wait for the aging pachyderms to ramble off to the tar pits. This season, 120 applicants tried out, 80 qualified and 50 were hired. The job on Long Island is popular.

The reasons are many, the lifeguards say. State parks pay more than others, from $11 an hour for a beginner to $20 for a captain. The state park lifeguards have a union, and they are paid for inclement days. And then there is a certain esprit de corps that comes from working on one of the world's most famous beaches.

"I'd rather watch the tomatoes walk by than watch them grow in the back yard," said Jones, who has the old habit of pardoning himself before he curses or says something risque, as he does in a complimentary fashion when beautiful women pass by. "Jeez, I'm a terrible character."

None of the guards can coast on their reputations. Each year, the applicants - new and old - must swim 100 yards in 75 seconds to requalify, and every year Jones has done it. "I go ocean swimming in the winter," he said. "It's my physical. If I don't drop dead from a heart attack, I'm back for another year."

Henry Stern, New York City's parks commissioner, who has had trouble over the last few summers attracting enough qualified people to guard his beaches, was flabbergasted to learn that a man of Jones' age was still employed as a lifeguard. "How's his vision?" the commissioner asked.

Perfect, he was told.

"Hmmm," said Stern, who is 65. "I've got to find something to do after I retire."

Of the 240 lifeguards at Jones Beach, one - Jones - started in the 1940s, nine in the 1950s, 36 in the 1960s, 58 in the 1970s, 74 in the 1980s and 62 in the 1990s. They performed 2,079 rescues at Jones Beach last year, and no one drowned.

"As far as anybody knows, Reggie's the dinosaur of the ocean," said Joe Scalise, the water safety director for the state beaches on Long Island. "He keeps himself in phenomenal shape. He outdoes a lot of the young people."

His skin is clear and cancer-free, his mind is sharp. He maintains a rigorous training regime throughout the year that includes running, swimming and weight lifting.

With a youthful body, the leathered neck of a turtle, sea-kelp eyebrows, and an old hat with a button that reads "older than dirt" and a grimy sea-gull feather, Reggie Jones is hard to miss from his perch atop the lifeguard stand. He reckons he has made more than a thousand rescues in his career, including saving a swimmer's toupee and a few sets of dentures.

"The toughest rescue was the fat man who floated out to sea, with me holding onto him," Jones said. "It was '47, in the middle of a fog bank. He had to be 300 pounds. I got him, though. I never lost anyone."

Jones met his wife near the Jones Beach concession stands 50 years ago. He is still happily married, still thick-chested, but carries an extra 10 pounds and has lost half his hair since then.

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