Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Hazed and Confused.

Erect Tower
Jones Beach Lighthouse:
always glad to see me.
Hell hath no fury like a rough day at Jones Beach. I got my ass kicked thoroughly at the beach last Sunday.

I love the ocean. The salt water purifies me inside and out, clearing sinuses, disinfecting minor wounds and washing away any hair care residuals. The surf's vocal roar flushes out my bosses' voice, the insistent demands of teenagers and that crappy One Direction song my daughter likes. Once in the water, all that surrounding blueness instantly anonymizes me--I'm literally just another piece of flotsam in a vast ecosystem. The ocean doesn't discern, pick and choose or discriminate; with my head bobbing in the waves, the water is indifferent to wants, needs or any stubborn acne from eating chocolate.

I didn't plunge in immediately, though. The usual rituals were performed first: setting up beach chairs and blankets, slathering on the SPF 900, attending to the all-important umbrella in the sand anchorage. Sitting in my beloved rusty beach chair for awhile, I acclimated to sun, surf and any discernible bikini cleavage that could be viewed from a discreet distance. When the first bead of sweat rose on my chest, I ventured to the shoreline.

The water was rough, which I usually enjoy. With my son's boogie board securely tethered to my wrist, I was ready for some waves. I raced in, quickly diving into the shallow water to avoid that creeping penis-shock that slow-wading males are forced to endure. Beyond that point the breakers were towering and insistent; it took quite a few self-dunks to avoid them. I felt a vicious undertoe pulling at my feet, shifting the sands below me. Once past the breakers, I rested in the slipstream of bouncing headers and incoming sets, looking for a good wave. I didn't have to wait long.

A tremendous crest was gathering on my right; I quickly turned the board towards the shore and kicked for all I was worth, trying to gain momentum. The frothy tip of the wave was upon me in a heartbeat; for one or two glorious seconds, I was surfing in the Maui championship, briny breeze in my hair, water droplets glistening on the tv camera lens filming me--then suddenly I was airborne. Like a colicky baby tossing a pacifier, the wave spit me out of its crest, dropping me into the trough as it crashed on top of me. Pummeled to the sand and trapped in the churn, I helplessly thrashed, tumbled and bottom-scraped. The board had the good sense to remain buoyant, violently yanking on my arm socket. Finally able to surface and gasp for air, I was instantly pounded by another crashing wave, repeating the entire wash, spin and sandblast process.

When I finally staggered to my feet in shallow water, both lifeguards were standing on the steps of their chair, gazing at me with a mix of disdain and detached amusement. Satisfied their assistance wasn't needed, they sat down again, turning their attention to a curvy young thing modelling a tight one-piece.

I'm actually a pretty good swimmer, having learned my aquatic skills at a young age. Later trained by the Red Cross, I worked as a lifeguard for five summers at Lake Carmel, a rural community 60 miles north of New York City. I never had to save anyone.

Lifeguard whistle
My original Acme Thunderer--
not that I'm sentimental or anything.
I applied for the job at 15, lying about my age. At 5'11,'' 140 pounds soaking wet, I was hardly Muscle Beach material. My first day on duty, I stood on a floating dock, blissfully twirling my whistle on its lanyard. A flabby punk approached, wearing an oversized white teeshirt and cut-off jeans. He appraised me from head to foot and sneared. "You're a lifeguard? Dude, there's no way a stringbean like you could save me." My first instinct was to reply that I wouldn't dream of jumping in after him; our rowboat was equipped with a long-handled grappling hook, especially designed for spearing cooties-infested yokels. Instead I recited my soon-to-be-standard line: lifesaving was about technique, not size or strength. I declined to add that rotund, semi-buoyant objects like himself could be easily manipulated in the water and towed to shore, sans winching cable or industrial tugboat.

Due to the lake's tranquil nature, I had no fears about anyone drowning. As an added preventative measure, rookies like myself were teamed with more experienced lifeguards, known as regulars. Within those words resided my deepest dread--Lake Carmel had a vaunted history of regulars hazing the rookies.

Hazing hell
Lake Carmel. Looks peaceful, right? Sure...
At five and a half square miles, it was a big lake, boasting six beaches. We had a crew of about 20, entirely comprised of late-adolescent males. The focal point and main torture chamber was the Shack, a tiny, two story clapboard building. There was a room downstairs, a loft upstairs, and a revolting, fly-infested shitter. We met there every morning for roll call and beach assignments.

So why the hazing? Heck, it was tradition. It was pointless to argue that certain traditions rightfully landed in the dustbin; human sacrifice being a relevant, shining example. My own Jungian belief was that the need to debase and torture others resided deep within the cerebral cortex, a collective unconsciousness dating back to neanderthal mating rites and territoriality. Perhaps bashing in the skull of your neighbor with the jawbone of an ass was a jocular prank, eliciting a giggle from macho troglodytes...who knows? I soon learned that these and any other personal opinions I harbored were better left unsaid. As a result, I secretly formulated psychological profiles of our lifeguard crew, using the now widely-accepted CSPQS standard (Chuck Steak Psycho Quotient Scale):

Pacifists -- None, zero, nil. Perhaps existing in some remote, goat herding village in India, but certainly not in Lake Carmel, New York.
Run of the Mill Sadists - This comprised the great majority of the crew, in a casual, take it or leave it fashion. A typical conversation between regulars would go like this:

"We're sending some rookies out to buy breakfast. You want something?"
"Yeah...get me a bacon and egg on a roll. Salt and pepper, extra ketchup."
"Anything to drink?"
"Hey...whaddaya say we assign a few orders to each rookie. We send them to different diners, and whoever comes back last, gets paddled."
"'Good idea."

Presto! Just like that, the potential was born to have your ass beaten. It was nothing personal, just some offhand whimsy to pass the time. If Angry Birds had existed back then, perhaps hazing would've been avoided altogether. The whole trick to surviving was to act invisible; fairly easy for me, since I had little personality to begin with. All rookies without exception lived by one Golden Rule, though: avoid Billy Ritello at all costs. Which brings us to the final category on our scale: the Complete and Utter Psychopath.

In the same way that a lab full of test tubes and Bunson burners would be a wet dream for an aspiring scientist, our hazing environment was a heavenly playground for a sick fuck like Ritello. Being able to walk up and sucker-punch someone squarely in the face without recrimination was a dream come true.

Disgusting SyrupThere were six of us rookies. We had to follow three predictably pointless, mildly degrading mandates each morning. Wear a tie, address all regulars as sir, and lastly, kiss Grandma every time you entered the Shack. Grandma's was a brand name of molasses: a sickly-sweet, brackish syrup, commonly used in cookie baking and roof tarring. If any of the three mandates were forgotten, a generous dose of molasses was rewarded. Told to kneel on the ground, it was poured straight from the bottle from a precipitous height, with some intentional spilling into the eyes, hair and whatever clean shirt was worn. I eventually got accustomed to the taste, and would take my Grandma's without a quibble, fairing much better than another rookie named Ernie. Immediately dubbed Upchuck, poor Ernie couldn't hold the stuff down. The entertainment value of his eruptions automatically earned him a daily dose, mandates followed or not. A main rule of hazing was that there were no rules.

Big Toe Dismemberer
A fine specimen of a big toe remover.
Rookies were unworthy of the Shack's benches; we had to sit on the floor in front of the captain's desk. No one wanted to sit anywhere near Ritello, who had the unnerving habit of leaning forward to kick us in the face. He did serve one useful purpose for the greater community: champion snapping turtle wrangler. They usually roamed the swampier thickets of the lake, hunting frogs, fish and the occasional unsuspecting duck. Occasionally one would migrate to a nearby beach, assuming residence under the shady dock. Older adults weighed in at over 40 pounds, with shell sizes approaching a trash can lid. A rumor would eventually surface around town about a swimmer being attacked and bitten. It was always a big toe dismemberment; smaller toes or fingers were obviously too paltry for a discerning snapper to consider. Billy's total disregard for health and safety extended to himself, so they'd send him under the docks to catch the monsters.  He'd take a deep breath in the shallow water and disappear into the murky darkness, magically emerging with the ugly beast in his arms a minute or two later. The cops would be called to cage and remove it; they'd take it to a remote location and shoot it in the head. My recurring fantasy was for them to come and take Ritello instead.

The only rookie who Billy occasionally spared malice was a young burn-out named Tommy Briggs, solely because he was a reliable source of schwag, a low grade of Mexican pot. Ritello would take any drug, in any quantity, at any time. I once saw him pop five purple microdots into his mouth at 10 am, displaying them on his tongue to prove it. The tiny, hard pills were known as mescaline, but actually consisted of speed mixed with acid. Many years later, I found out that Billy Ritello had died from an overdose of heroin. He was 22.

The mortal enemy of a rookie was a rainy day. A morning downpour still had the potential to earn a half-day's pay, but we were obligated to hang around the Shack until noon, in case the weather changed. This left two and a half hours to kill, trapped in a room with 20 testosterone-pumping elders. It meant a morning of terror.

They would send us up the ladder into the tiny loft, board the window up and turn off the lights, until they decided what havoc to wreak upon us. Banging the rowboat oars on the floor in a rhythmic thunder, chanting all the while, I pictured my head on a sharpened stick, reminiscent of a scene from Lord of the Flies. Sometimes they'd drag us down one by one, sometimes all at once. We might have to put on a talent show for them, or compete against each other; other times they would simply yell, "Rumble!" and leap upon us. In those instances, I'd try to find one of the McManus brothers, two older crew members who didn't quite relish beating up someone smaller than themselves. They'd simply tussle with me in a clinch until the captain declared the brawl over. First aid would be administered to anyone bleeding.
First Aid kit
My demise, my sore ass.

One dreadful rainy day, my luck ran out; I lost a competition. Part of a rookie's job was to check the first aid kit every morning before hitting the beach, restocking any supplies expended the day before. The kit contained an ace bandage, gauze in varying sizes, scissors, tweezers, a notepad and pencil, tubes of hydrocortisone and first aid cream, bottles of iodine and mercurachrome, along with a ton of band aids. It probably weighed about five pounds. We were told to assume the usual kneeling position; each of us were handed a kit. We were instructed to extend one arm, holding the box out straight. Whoever dropped it first was the loser. Simple and elegant. Within five minutes, we were all screaming in pain. I felt my meager strength ebbing away, unaware that other rookies were propping up their armpits with their other hand. Unfortunately I hadn't thought of that; cheating was always allowed and encouraged in competitions. Unable to foist the weight any longer, I watched my arm surrender, kit crashing to the ground. A momentary hush fell over the room; then the oar pounding and chanting started, with my anointed nickname ringing in my ears: Chuckles...Chuckles...Chuckles (don't ask). All other rookies were banished to the loft. I was to be paddled and windmilled, in short order.

The paddle of choice was a specially sawed-off oar, sporting a smooth, sanded handle and aerodynamic holes, to reduce drag, and aid swinging speed. One or two swats stung like hell, but were bearable. More than that hurt like a mother. Only the captain, co-captain and a few senior regulars could paddle rookies, which was just as well. Any additional turns at bat might've broken someone's spine.
The oar: innocent, laconic, innocuous --unless deployed as a torture instrument.
Still worse was the windmill. Regulars spaced themselves out in a long row with legs spread, each holding a wooden Lifeguard On Duty sign. These signs couldn't be swung as hard as the paddle, but still packed a collective wallop when multiplied by 15 guys. The goal was to crawl through their legs as fast as possible to avoid the brunt of blows. No matter; a few regulars squeezed their legs together as my torso passed under them, getting an extra swing or two. I took my beating in stride, without complaint. From one perverse, twisted perspective, I passed through a rite of passage that day, gaining some respect. It was little comfort to my skinned, sore-as-hell buttocks, though. Scabs stuck uncomfortably to my bathing suit and underwear for days. 

Why did I put up with it? Rituals of youth, I suppose. Besides, it really wasn't so bad. When not getting beat up, I actually had a lot of fun. Our crew played softball and volleyball together, drove down to Yankee games, and partied hard in general. The older guards lent me their IDs (not that I resembled Sean McManus) to get into bars with them, bought me drinks, and treated me like one of the guys. In retrospect, lifeguarding was the best job I ever had (which doesn't say much for my career choices). 

Life may or may not be a beach. But if you can get paid to sit on one, you're ahead of the game.

P.S. Trying something new...submitting this to a cool blog, http://dudewrite.blogspot.com/. Check them out!


  1. Welcome to Dude Write. That is one Dudely story. I love riding the waves. I sometimes wish I had been born on the West Coast and been ingrained in the Surfer culture from the get go. But, I'm boardwalk white bread East Coast, so I settle for getting my boogie on, lol.

    Great Post.

    1. I rented a real board once...was hard as hell to get past the break line, and then I couldn't stand on the damn thing to save my life. I just wish they had named the boogie board something a bit more macho...like the Shark Killer or something.

  2. We had a few initiation ceremonies in the navy – line ceremonies. I'm a Shellback and a Blue Nose. Maybe I'll write about them one day.

    1. Absolutely! People love reading anything that degrades their fellow man.

  3. I really like your writing - well done! Your description of your arrival and acclimation period at Jones Beach is right on with our day at the shore yesterday. Until it got to the boogie board action! Hang 10 Dude!

    1. Appreciate the compliment, MM...maybe I'll stick with the kiddie pool from now on...

  4. Welcome to Dude Write Charlie. You have a great writing style, I enjoyed it. This story brings back memories when I moved from the city to the country and had to endure "manhood tests" on a daily bases until I earned my cred.

    Michael A. Walker
    Defying Procrastination

    1. Thanks, Michael. Sounds like you have the basis for a good story to tell...

    2. Charlie... that story had already been told. Check it out and let me know what you think.



  5. Thanks to you, I'll be having Vietnam-esque flashbacks of hazing and initiations long past...

    The horror... THE HORROR...

  6. It is a tribute to your writing ability that I continued reading this, even though I was cringing...I'm a wimp and hazing sounds awful (as well as baffles me).

    Really well done post!

  7. Welcome to Dude Write! I lifeguarded for a few summers at camp amongst other duties and I can relate to your story. Great post!

  8. I went through my hazing as well. It is a rite of passage. Well written. Welcome to Dude Write.

  9. When I went into Jr. High school, they used to have an initiation day where the grade 9's would welcome the grade 7's in humiliating fashion. Nothing too violent, but intimidating, none the less. By the time I got to grade 9, the school decided it wasn't really a good thing to be supporting so they discontinued it.


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