2007-08-17 / Columnists

It's My Turn

Commentary By Frank X. Weiss Former Rockaway Lifeguard

Frank Weiss and Victor Martino (Circa 1964). Frank Weiss and Victor Martino (Circa 1964). I was recently contacted by a friend, Belle Harbor resident, who was my onetime lifeguard partner and lifeguard lieutenant, Victor Martino. His son, Victor, was a Rockaway Beach lifeguard and his daughter, Elena, was a Rockaway Beach lifeguard lieutenant. Well, Martino was interested in the old Rockaway lifeguard folklore, and knew that my late father, Frank A. Weiss was a "Borough President of Queens" lifeguard at Beach 97 and Beach 98 Streets from the late 1920's through the 1930's. (Martino and I patrolled those same beachfronts, 30 + years later - see photo.)

Martino sent me the photograph and The Wave article about the BPQ Lifeguards. I do not pretend to be an authority, but I know what I know. First, Dr. Boggiano is correct that the gentleman with the curly hair is Richard "Dick" Randle. Randle was a lifelong resident of Broad Channel, later in life a wire lather foreman and an all-around, "rough and ready" guy. My father's nickname for Randle was "Chinchilla", because of the unruly nature of his tresses. Rockaway folklore tells of a legendary "all day" brawl between Randle and another BPQ Lifeguard, Bill Bulloch. It supposedly went on forever, until the parties were exhausted and the scuffle produced a reluctant draw. At least that is how I heard the story; perhaps the folks at The Wharf heard a different version.

The uniform being worn by the BPQ Lifeguards was blue-black with white lettering. The one-piece construction and venting of the swimsuit reveals that it was the type worn in the mid 1930's. (I append a picture of my father, in the model swimsuit that was worn in the late 1920's and early 1930's. You can see it is not as modern). The gentleman directly to my father's right is Larry Sunsire or Sohnsire. He was the owner of Cooney's Bar at Beach 105th Street & Rockaway Beach Boulevard, across from The Palace Hotel. The bar, then located in Seaside's Irish Town, was founded earlier by his immigrant German father Cooney Sohnsire, who thought it more diplomatic to use his first name than his surname for that establishment.

Photo of Daily News story, circa 1965. Photo of Daily News story, circa 1965. I am convinced that the photo showing the front steps of the NYPD Police Sub-Station, which housed the BPQ lifeguard station at Beach 102 Street in Seaside, which would have been on or near the boardwalk at that time. The place would be what I estimate is now Shore Front Parkway, between Beach 103 Street and Beach 102 Street. It is now occupied by basketball courts and handball courts. The edifice, like so many other boardwalk-facing buildings, was removed in Robert Moses' renovation of Shorefront Parkway and boardwalk.

When the New York City Department of Parks assumed control of all lifeguard functions at Rockaway Beach in the late 1930's, the lifeguard stations or "shacks" as they were affectionately called, were constructed under the boardwalk. So, the replacement lifeguard station remained on Beach 104 Street, under the boardwalk, until the mid-1960's when a series of consecutive seasonal hurricanes compromised the structure so badly that it was abandoned and ultimately demolished.

Lifeguards were then moved to the basement of the Beach 106 Street concession and first aid station and finally to portable trailers, located as they are now.

In an era when it is difficult to even recruit lifeguards, wouldn't it be a good idea to recognize the ones you have, and those you had? If lifeguards are heroes on Reality TV, (from patrols in Miami, Malibu and Honolulu), then why not Rockaway? You have a nautical rescue tradition that is long-standing, precious and unique; I ask that you please do not neglect its memory and that you merely recognize the just and valuable contributions of this group of deserving civil servants.

Rockaway lifeguards were taught surfing and how to rescue using a surfboard in the 1920's by none other than Duke Kahanamoku, famed original Waikiki beach boy, founder of modern surfing, 1905 world swimming record holder and gold medalist at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games.

A Long Island Railroad train once derailed into Jamaica Bay and Rockaway lifeguards were summoned to search the submerged cars for survivors and/or bodies.

An early Rockaway Chief Lifeguard, Harry Miner, regularly rode his white horse down the beach to supervise his lifeguards. It is rumored that he could not swim a stroke and got his position through political patronage, during the James J. Walker administration.

Senior Supervisor of Park Operations, Jack Goldstein, a former 1930's and 1940's lifeguard himself, used to swim several miles each day and often pretended to drown to test the reaction of his lifeguards.

He also rowed a catamaran daily into his 60's, just to stay in shape.

Rockaway lifeguards used to sit on plank chairs fastened to the tops of the pier heads of the old wooden jetties. They often dove from these perches to rescue bathers. The original lifeguard towers were tall, wooden, two stories high with upper and lower berths (sometimes they had poles or ramps attached for easy exit) and they were fixed in a permanent location. Later they were portable wooden platforms that were often carried forward and rearward, as the tides changed. Now, they are metal and buried into the sand.

Rockaway lifeguards used to routinely enter the ocean (by swimming or rowing boats) in flash thunderstorms to retrieve stranded bathers, notwithstanding lightning and rough seas. Rockaway lifeguards once patrolled from morning to evening (8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.), seven days a week, rain or shine. Many a wet lifeguard prevented suicide attempts on rainy, dreary summer days.

In the early 20th century a majority of Rockaway seaside beach patrons could not swim a stroke. The practice of erecting ropes and barrels for patrons to grab onto emerged and gave origin to the term "bathers" as opposed to "swimmers". The lifeguards derisively called bathers "fanny dippers".

Rockaway Beach lifeguards wore 1920's-style male bathing attire until the mid 1960's, when the lifeguards organized into Local 461 under District Council 37 AFSCME and petitioned for a change of uniform regulations. After the BPQ uniform colors of blue-black and white, Department of Parks uniform colors were green with orange stripes, or orange with green stripes.

Headgear varied from the straw boaters in the 1920's to various colored baseball caps, to naval "gob" hats, to pith helmets. Supervisory lifeguards at one time wore naval officer-type saucer caps. Just as the Armed Forces, NYPD, FDNY, etc., the Rockaway lifeguards amended its entrance qualifications to permit female applicants in the late 1970's, and a female uniform of orange with green stripes was then created.

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Great article! A few other names that were famous and renowned were; Chief Mike "Mickey the Mole" McManaman and Chief Ernie (M.D.) Horowitz. Growing up on Beach 114th Street in the fifties, my friends and I would be "crowned" junior lifeguards. Every Wednesday night before the fireworks display, a few of the lifeguards in our area would take the kids out for an ice cream cone. It wasn't the ice cream but the fact that these "idols" cared so much for us.
Brian McManus
brianjmack@gmail.com


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