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Original Issue


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

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."

For an adult visitor, he perches on a graying deck chair and talks at considerably greater length about how he and the ocean love each other, and how he has guarded lives and spent his own.

"When I was five my Uncle George threw me right into the ocean," he says. "That should have scared me for life, but it didn't. I was reckless right from the start—a quarter of a mile out on water wings and happy as hell.

"I made my first rescue when I was a little kid, at Orchard Beach in the Bronx. I was standing in the water and a lady was doing the sidestroke past my knees. She started yelling for help. I thought, 'Well, she wants to get into the vertical,' so I lifted her up. I didn't even know when I left the water that I'd saved her. I couldn't even swim. But I got quite a write-up for it in the Bronx Borough Record: BRAVE RESCUE BY TREMONT BOY."

Uncle Jim snickers. "I'd have done the same if the woman had fallen in the street. But it meant an awful lot to her, I guess. She came by later to my father's place to buy a memorial carving and pointed at me and said, 'That's the little boy who saved my life!"

"My father sold monuments in the Bronx. Havender Monumental Works—it's still there at the end of the Lexington Avenue subway line. My two brothers went into the business. They're dead now. I wasn't going into anything but swimming. My brother Joe was well known as a great athlete and he could swim all right, but when he got on the beach he'd shiver and turn blue. I was no good at anything but swimming.

"I got started as a lifeguard at 14, on Coney Island. I couldn't save a life on a bet, but by then I had spent enough time at Orchard Beach and on North Beach, where La Guardia Airport is now, that I could swim like hell. I swam in the East River and I used to swim across the Hudson and back just to show off. I always had the feeling that I was the greatest swimmer in the world. Potentially. If I weren't holding back. That's ridiculous, but it makes you a good swimmer.

"One of my problems as a young man was how was I going to get the summer off for the rest of my life. That's the only reason I went to college. I was on the swimming team and played water polo at CCNY, and in the summers I'd be on the beach all day lifeguarding. I went on to graduate school at Columbia so I could have one more summer off. Then I enlisted in World War I in the Navy. I was known as a guy who on just any kind of bet would jump off the submarine chaser into the middle of the ocean. I got to be a chief bosun's mate, and I had a pretty tough bunch to handle. Once I heard some of them talking, various ones saying they could handle me.

"Well, I popped up and said, 'Maybe I can't lick any of you on deck, but someday one of you will get too close to the edge and I'll shove you over and when we hit the water I'll be boss.' "

Uncle Jim winks and nods his head.

After the war he found a way to keep on having his summers free. "I had flunked Latin so much I had a good foundation in it," he says. For the next 30 years he taught that language in New York public high schools. When school was out he repaired to Fire Island or to Lake Ontario or to Nauset Beach on the ocean side of Cape Cod. He saved occasional lives and got deeper and deeper into natation.

"I'm not the greatest lifeguard in the world," he says, "but I'm probably the best swimmer among them. At Lake Ontario there was this big fat boy who must have weighed 300 pounds. He couldn't swim a lick, but no 20 guys could sink him. They'd get on him and push on his belly—he was an island. The reason I mention him is that I could be a little bigger. But I know the ways of the surf.

"When I run a surf beach, I get up on the tower and see thousands of heads bobbing. It looks almost hopeless. But the first thing I do is jam them. Make them all stay close together. That way they all rescue each other.

"And I watch for things. When you've been at it as long as I have you don't save anybody, because you anticipate. 'Jim, we fished out two yesterday,' they tell me. I say, 'Well, that's fine, but if I'd been here, there wouldn't have been anybody to fish out.'

"These college boys are a very colorful bunch, but they're likely to be playing around with each other when somebody calls for help, then they turnaround and start after him. But when you hear somebody yell you don't know where he is. Lots of heads out there. If you're watching all the time, you'll see something you don't like, and that's where your call for help is going to come from."

There is nothing about the water itself that Uncle Jim doesn't like, but he knows that some people can't cope with certain aspects of it, such as undertow and sea pusses.

" 'Cramp' is not a word in my vocabulary," he says. "The word is 'panic' That's what happens to people. The ocean can do things to you. If you're standing in it, it lifts you a bit. It can throw you right out of the water. Then this thing they call the undertow—something pulling at your ankles a bit. It's not dangerous. But for people who're not used to it, it's something they're not in control of, and most of these people come from swimming pools—they don't like things that have no end. They panic.

" 'If you're scared of undertow,' I tell them, 'just get up on your belly and swim till your stomach hits the sand.'

"Then there's a sea puss. That's when the surf is rolling in, but a lane opens up all of a sudden that goes backward and it takes everything out with it. But it's only going to be a few feet wide—get up on your belly and swim to the side, out of it."

A sea puss is as domesticable as that to Uncle Jim, although to Webster's it is "a dangerous swirling." He does not evince much sympathy for people who can't ride out or sidestep the ocean's quirks. He doesn't have much good to say, in fact, for anyone he's saved from drowning.

"I got kind of mad going out after one man—this fellow was a fine swimmer. 'What you yelling for help for?' I asked him. 'You can swim as well as I can.' 'Yeah,' he said, 'but I can't turn around.'

"But usually when you get to a drowning man he's facing the shore, taking his last look." Uncle Jim chuckles. "The book says you're supposed to dive down under him and turn him around so you can tow him in. I have a little different trick. I get in a ball with my foot up toward his face. 'Turn around, if you don't want a kick,' I tell him.

"One woman got so mad at me she said, 'The next time I'm drowning I'd rather drown than be saved by him.' But I make 'em swim in. Make 'em work. I say, 'I'm not a ferryboat.' After all, they didn't fly out, they must know how to swim."

These methods are apparently sound, because Uncle Jim maintains that "There's never been a drowning on any beach I've worked on. That includes the phonies. A phony is when a man drowns and the lifeguard says he didn't drown, he had a heart attack. When I was starting out at Coney Island, there were so many people we were always afraid to go back to work—afraid somebody would show up dead that we hadn't noticed. 'What would you do if that happened?' I asked the older lifeguards. 'We'd launch him again and let him come up on some other guy's beach,' they said. But it didn't happen. I've never had any kind of drowning. And now my reputation is made."

Uncle Jim came close to a watery grave himself once off Bermuda, when he got caught in a driving rainstorm while swimming a couple of miles alone. The rain happened to be slanting in on his breathing side. He disappeared, and his friends on shore had given him up for dead when he strolled up behind them. He had switched over to breathing on the other side, had kept on plugging and had drifted with the wind and tides until they washed him up miles down the beach.

"I'm the type of swimmer lifeguards hate," Uncle Jim says with pride. "I always swim alone. I was out half a mile one day and some camper came by in a sailboat. 'We were taught that you should never go out by yourself.' he said. 'That applies to everybody but me,' I said. 'I'm an exception. The ocean loves me, or it would've drowned me long ago.'

"I've even felt cramps coming on, a mile out, but that never bothered me. You just relax. Just take the strain off your feet and let 'em wiggle like ribbons.

"I get a great kick out of being sort of a master of the ocean. I feel it belongs to me. That's what makes me say the ocean loves me. I know it's a cinch to cut through the breakers. Hit 'em low and you can cut through three or four of 'em. The people on shore don't know that. You can do exercises in the ocean you could never do on land. Lying on your stomach, twisting your body left and right, moving ways you never could with your feet on the ground. Sometimes the water out there is so nice and warm I wish I could drown, and stay in it.

"I love to submerge. I love to go down to the bottom. You can't see anything—a film of water forms over your eyes. But you know the bottom's there, and you can say you're detached from the world—away from people, away from all the problems. The other guys try to be, but I am detached."

And now, because of his ears, Uncle Jim can't submerge. In the tower he may seem to be in his element, but there he is naggingly attached to all those bobbing heads. He stands erect, arms akimbo, looking for trouble, sending a junior counselor in a rowboat over to the adjoining public beach to see whether a man out shoulder-deep with his baby boy wouldn't like a little assistance, which is Uncle Jim's way of suggesting that the man take the baby back into shallower water.

"I see an old character on the beach in a wheelchair and I can always tell if he's been a lifeguard," Uncle Jim says. "He's watching. Every now and then he looks up at me, as if to say, 'Did you notice that?' I can always tell an old lifeguard. He cannot comfortably sit on the beach."

Away from the beach Uncle Jim has perhaps never sat very comfortably. He didn't marry until the day before his 40th birthday, and he was separated from his nonswimming wife for the last 16 years of their marriage. "I didn't get along so well in married life," he says. "It's hard to hit it right." His wife's death in 1968 left him with a three-story house in Woodlawn in the upper Bronx to rattle around in for nine months of the year, with no company except the late Mrs. Havender's $25,000 doll collection. He practices mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (which he has had to use only half a dozen times) on the largest doll.

His two sons visited him occasionally, but he was away lifeguarding or pursuing such projects as attending night law school a good deal of the time while they were growing up—"I never even taught them to swim"—and he sometimes hints that he should have spread himself a little thin and got to know them better.

"I live a very simple life," he says of his lifelong concentration on matters of the surf. "And I think I ought to be criticized for it," he adds with less than perfect conviction. His off-season habits now are austere. Thanks largely to an inheritance from his father, he is worth "close to half a million," he says, "but I go around switching off all the lights." He practices a little estate and real-estate law and frequents the New York Athletic Club.

Because of matters concerning his property, Uncle Jim is unable to move to Florida where he could lifeguard year-round. Besides, he says, "A lifeguard down there is just another guy doing a job. He isn't worshipped by the girls the way you are up north, where you make an appearance only one-fourth of the year." But he goes down there occasionally to visit the Swimming Hall of Fame and he takes in a few swim meets around the country. Sometimes he is asked to officiate, "But I'd rather pay my way in, and sit in the stands and decide for myself who is great."

The greatest man of all in Uncle Jim's estimation is Lindbergh. "I can't see anybody but Charlie. I was at a Jack Sharkey fight and they announced that he'd taken off. We had a moment of silent prayer. 'He's out in the darkness. Nobody knows where he is,' the minister said." Uncle Jim doubts that he has gone far enough in his own life.

"I wrote a letter a while back to a girl I know real well, and told her I'd figured out I wasted my life. I should've been traveling, going somewhere." He reads everything he can find about polar exploration, and he wants to go to Antarctica.

But the thing that galls him the most is that "I miss being able to do those somersaults under the water. They're part of my little routine. Oh, do I miss 'em. Maybe I can get a better nose clamp and carry on.

"But what the hell, I'm 81. I used to porpoise for a quarter of a mile. I don't think I could do 40 yards today. I used to get two new bathing suits every year, but I'm 81, I'm through with stocking up. I'll just use these suits until I quit.

"I may not quit. I may die out here. I'm on the way to 90, and I want to croak before I get there. I don't know anybody 90 years old who amounts to much. I know people in the NY AC who were Olympic athletes who can hardly walk with two canes today. They end up with a male nurse putting on their shoes for them. There isn't anybody spared."

But gloom is an undertow, which Uncle Jim can still get up on his belly and swim out of. He has interests. In the summer, at night, alone in his folding bed, with lights flashing into the windows of his shack from bomb-run practice offshore, he reads up on ecology and natural history. He wishes now he'd become a marine biologist as well as a swimmer. He is thinking of taking up writing.

"I have another feature I don't brag about," he says. "I know the name of every plant that grows. I thought everybody knew 'em. I was 50 years old before I knew I was a rarity. Now they got me giving the campers lectures on plants in the mornings."

He talks about plants in very friendly terms. "When the island of Surtsey was created off Iceland by a volcano under the sea," he says, "the first green plant that began to grow on it was the sea rocket. I have the same plant right out by my tower. I look at it and say, 'Sea rocket, your finest hour: the first plant on Surtsey.' Occasionally I eat a little of it. It tastes like cabbage." Sometimes, as a joke, he plants an ailanthus in the surf and tells people it is a saltwater tree.

"This little house keeps me coming back every summer," he says. "What other lifeguard gets a little house? They must love me here. Sometimes when I'm gloomy at home in the winter I'll call the number here and think. 'Well, the phone is ringing in the little bungalow.' "

And, after all, the sea has not lost its savor altogether. He can still go out and do his crawl a long way, at 6 a.m. or at night, whenever the tide is high. He can still do a little cavorting. "People come up to me and say, 'You look like you have a lot of fun in the water.' 'I do!' I tell them."

Yes, he says, he would be glad to show a visitor the tricks he still can manage. He leaves his shack, limps across the beach, wades out and begins rolling in the water and nosing rhythmically in and out of the waves, his feet flipping up together like a tail. His movements are not acrobatic; you wouldn't even call them tricky or think to applaud. But they are so relaxed, wriggly and economical that he does in fact look like a marine animal. And he looks like he feels it. It is something to see.

"I always felt that the ocean loved me," he says once again, after drying off and changing into another of the 14 suits. "It would drown other people. But not me. I would go out in the ocean at its worst, but I always loved it, and it always brought me back.

"Of course, that was blissful ignorance. I didn't seem to know then that the ocean goes somewhere, and it could take me."

But the ocean still brings Uncle Jim back to a point. And it won't be some little sea puss that takes him out in the end.