What it’s Like to be a Bradford Beach Lifeguard

Lifeguard Reid Van Dunk shares a story about spending summers along Milwaukee’s lakefront.

By Reid Van Dunk, as told to Zach Brooke

Photo courtesy of Reid Van Dunk.
Photo courtesy of Reid Van Dunk.
As a teacher now, summer means a time to let go, a time to have fun. I can conjure up the scent of sand from memory. You wouldn’t think that sand has a scent, but Bradford Beach does. I’ve been lifeguarding since I was 15. This is my ninth year guarding, eight of them at Bradford. It’s one of the best things you can do growing up. My crew and I, we run across the lakefront quite a bit. All the way down near the art museum and back around the bike path, you just get that great scent as you run.

Working as a lifeguard means getting paid to become a better person. We guards are compensated by the county for developing our bodies. We practice rowing, running, do a lot of pushups. We love those. It definitely helps.

Then there’s the parties. We play water polo every Sunday night. We also have guard games, where we compete against each other. We run. We swim a mile. We do something called rescue race where you go out and rescue a teammate, see how fast you bring them in.

In the cold months, I teach 5th grade at Bruce-Guadalupe Community School in Walker’s Point. As a teacher, I constantly need to be aware of what my students are doing. On the beach, it’s a different awareness. On the Fourth of July, it feels like there are 4,000 people out there. You can’t walk without bumping up against people in front of you. Other days, if it’s raining, we get 20 people tops. Those days can be a fight against boredom.

Sometimes the job requires decisive action. Last summer, I swam out 100 yards to rescue a capsized kayaker. Another year I watched a man, intoxicated and suicidal, leap from the second story of the pavilion. I went to assess the situation, and he was just mumbling and his eyes were flashing. We stabilized the leg and called EMS. It felt like an hour but was likely three or four minutes, tops.

Being a lifeguard isn’t just guarding life. It’s a way of life. It feels like I’m younger again because I’m hanging out with my buddies every day, like I was in college and high school. It’s a family.

That’s why I stay.

“Sand Chronicles” is part of the essay collection, “True Stories,” which appeared in the 2016 City Guide issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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