Summer Guard

BY Pam Miller

Try this. Next time you’re strolling down Wrightsville Beach look out at the ocean down the narrow strip of sandy beach and erase 40 years of development in your mind’s eye. Imagine one-third less people. Imagine finding a parking space as soon as you cross the bridge. Imagine it’s 1960. Not many of us can do this but Val Edwards can.

A few months ago Edwards picked up a copy of Lumina News and found his 17-year-old self staring back at him. The newspaper had run a photo of a group of lifeguards dating back to the 1960s and Edwards was one of them. The photo drew Edwards back in time.

After graduating from New Hanover High School in 1960 at the age of 17 Edwards took a training class in an attempt to become a lifeguard over the summer. As the youngest in the class the odds were against him. To be considered for a position as a Wrightsville Beach lifeguard Edwards and his classmates had to take a number of tests. His swimming skills proved to be superior and he received one of the open spots. It was a most unusual appointment for a 17-year-old since the cutoff age was 18. “There were about 20 of us for three spots so I was lucky enough to be one of them ” says Edwards.

The town provided the lifeguards with a blue or red bathing suit — a much shorter suit than lifeguards wear today — that faded as the summer months went on and a whistle which was used often. The lifeguards bought their own jackets and hats.

At that time there were three main parts of the beach — Johnnie Mercer’s Pier Lumina Pavillion and Station One. Eight lifeguards patrolled the entire beach: three at Mercer’s three at Lumina one at Stone Street or Station One and the head guard.

Edwards and the other lifeguards would walk down the beach every hour or so to check the surrounding areas something not so easy to do at the time. “Wrightsville was a lot different. We didn’t have any vehicles back then. We walked everywhere. We didn’t have those four wheelers that they got today ” says Edwards. There weren’t jet skis either and he was forced to leap from Johnnie Mercer’s Pier several times to save someone who had been swept too close to the pilings. In 1960 there were jetties dividing the beach every 500-600 yards making the lifeguards’ jobs even harder.

Almost every day swimmers found themselves stranded in the shallows between Wrightsville Beach and Figure Eight Island. “[Mason Inlet] was real shallow and you could walk across it at low tide. People would get down there and walk across it and couldn’t get back. So we had to patrol that inlet ” says Edwards.

The lifeguards would keep records of three categories: assists rescues and first aid. Assists were when the lifeguards had to help someone get away from the pier or the jetty. Rescues were when a lifeguard had to save someone from drowning. “One Fourth of July weekend we had 74 rescues and assists ” says Edwards “just at Johnnie Mercer’s.” That Fourth of July broke the record though even Edwards claims the amount of people at the beach that weekend was nowhere near the amount that come to the beach on weekends today.

Even with all the hard work the lifeguards put into their responsibilities they knew how to relax a little with their $40-per-week earnings. The end of Stone Street was the place to be all summer with countless house parties taking place. Also Mercer’s was a hot spot since that was where the tourists gathered. At lunchtime the lifeguards headed over to Mercer’s for the affordable food. “Hot dogs were a dime French fries were a dime and hamburgers were a quarter ” according to Edwards.

Even with all the developments over the years some things never change. College students and tourists ruled the beach then and now. Beach property has continued to skyrocket and people are still addicted to the endless ocean. “Growing up on a beach like I did … It’s hard to get away from it ” says Edwards “It’s habit forming.”

After living in Wilmington for 22 years Edwards moved to Washington D.C. and became a golf pro. He slowly made his way back down the East Coast living in Hilton Head South Carolina and Florida before once again calling Wilmington home. Val Edwards will never forget the three summers he spent as a lifeguard at Wrightsville Beach. It’s easy for him to imagine a simpler time when a sunset over the sand meant a day’s work was done.