An Ocean City passage to adulthood [Commentary]

Over the next few weeks, graduation gowns will be discarded for shorts, bikinis and sandals as local high school graduates swarm Ocean City for their annual spring rites. Some will stay on for the summer as waitresses or busboys, others staffing the candy stores and French-fry stands along the boardwalk. A few dozen others will bear late May's cold water and waves and try out for the Ocean City Beach Patrol, as I did 37 years ago.

When I graduated from high school in the mid-1970s, the political upheavals of the late '60s and early '70s were behind us, and my friends and I wandered through life without the calling or purpose of our immediate predecessors. The hippies and campus protests were passé; the British Invasion had given way to disco, even then on its last legs; and we had not yet grasped punk's nascent cultural force still stewing in the small clubs of New York. Laissez-faire parenting had given us much freedom and a high degree of irresponsibility, and so we drifted into young adulthood trying to latch onto something.


In 1977, seeking to avoid another summer of tedium at home and kiddie pool duty at the neighborhood swim club, my roommate and I decided to go to Ocean City to try out for the beach patrol. The perks were decent: a small but livable paycheck; plenty of sun; city-issue gray sweats with the OCBP logo; and best of all, complete control over your stretch of beach — no nagging parent or bossy supervisor in sight. A summer at the beach promised plenty of parties, opportunities to meet girls, and a release from school and menial summer jobs, all tinged in a deep shade of cool.

We made the five-block ocean swim and the deep-sand run and learned the semaphore telegraphy system for signaling information across distances, enabling us communicate the age and swimsuit color of a lost boy last seen trotting north as easily as the style and color of a bikini swaying south. Everything that we thought about becoming a beach lifeguard was true — we met plenty of girls, we developed fabulously unhealthy tans and, for a few brief summers, lived a life full of independence, sunshine and parties.


What we did not anticipate — but most certainly also received — was a shocking dose of adult life. Our captain told us that we were responsible for everything we could see from the stand: Every bather from your stand to the next was ours; if a boat sank in view, it was our duty to go and attempt a rescue. Senior guards taught us how to swim directly into a riptide and to use the prevailing currents to pull a struggling victim around the rock jetties. We learned how to identify a heart attack, how to give CPR and how to signal in semaphore for paramedic assistance. There were days when the riptides pulled so many swimmers out into the ocean that we repeatedly swam out: I saw more than one guard fall to his knees, retch on the beach, get up, crash through waves again for another "pull" — a rescue in guard lingo. We learned what it was like to return the lost boy to his weeping mother who had assumed the worst when toddler meets ocean. We were, at 19, barefoot and in swim trunks, first responders.

In the next few weeks, a few dozen young men and women will take the Ocean City Beach Patrol test. They will run the deep sand and do the ocean swim in the late-May ocean. If they succeed, they will get life-saving training that will teach them the ways of the rip currents and the rocks, they will learn the language of the flags and how to apply CPR. Those who make it will get what my friends and I got — an end to drifting adolescence, and the beginning of adult life.

Stephen B. Awalt is an attorney in Towson. His email is

To respond to this commentary, send an email to Please include your name and contact information.