Lifeguards: The author flanked by guards who served with his father in 1970s in Tower 18. Courtesy photo

The eldest shuffle cautiously as they take a seat for their annual photo. Decades of sun have spotted their forearms and their eyes have become milky with age. A retired beach lifeguard, now nearing his 90s, stumbles as he edges around a backyard swimming pool. He grabs a comrade’s shoulder to steady himself. Younger family members look around nervously.

“Don’t worry about him,” one wag in an aloha shirt yells. “If he falls in the water, there’s plenty of guys here who can save him. We’ll throw him one of our canes.”

Verbal jabs are sharp among this band of brothers, who all served in the City of Los Angeles’ lifeguarding corps from the late 1950s to mid-70s. And memories are clear, even if the exact facts get a bit jumbled. About two dozen veterans, marshaled by Santa Monica’s Harold Dunnigan, gather each year to talk story and celebrate deeds now receding into history. Bodies may be bent by time, but humor, pride and camaraderie endure at the reunions.

L.A. County’s fire department now manages all Southland beaches. But before 1975, Santa Monica and other coastal cities had separate lifeguarding units. The men that gathered recently at the Santa Monica home of former guard Bob Berson patrolled L.A. City beaches: Will Rogers State Beach in Santa Monica Canyon and other sites in Venice, Dockweiler and San Pedro.

Most of the men in attendance served as seasonal guards, meaning they worked summers for spare cash. Many attendees worked in Tower 18 in the Canyon as young men with my late father. They describe a scene that was part Eden, part Wild West and part Damon Runyon.

Out-of-work actors lounged against the stone wall, working on their tans, ever alert for the pay phone to ring with an agent’s call. NBA great Wilt Chamberlain would drive up in his Ferrari to play pickup volleyball. Shocked mothers would trudge to the tower and complain about Speedo-clad men kissing openly by the Green Wall – a section of sand adopted by L.A.’s newly emboldened gay community.

Guard Sean Holland, now 81, jokingly said he had a bone to pick with me. He recounted his early guarding days and how his girlfriend Valerie broke up with him. She said he lacked ambition. She didn’t want to spend the rest of her life with a beach bum. Then a few weeks later, he learned that she had taken up with my dad – then a bachelor and confirmed lifer with the guarding service. Ouch.

All the guards had to fight the beach-bum perception, judged by those who never had to dive into pounding surf and haul a flailing 200-pound man out of a riptide and back to shore. Back in the day, there was no technology or high-end equipment to help rescue drowning swimmers. And fewer people knew how to swim. It’s worth noting that County guards today oversee 55 million visitors each year and perform more than 50,000 rescues.

But between rescues, tedium reigned. Before cell phones, lifeguards served as human clocks. Beachgoers would endlessly ask the time. Guard Tom Snyder told me my father used cardboard to fashion a makeshift sundial worn on the wrist like a watch. To beat the boredom, he’d teach beachgoers how to read the sun.

Some attendees made a career out of guarding. Steve Snyder, who served with my dad in the 70s, still works at Corral Beach in Malibu. But most moved onto other endeavors. Many dentists, teachers and lawyers held court at the reunion. Greg Bonnan, whom my dad mentored as a rookie, may have been the biggest star though. After guarding he produced TV shows, even naming his company after Tower 18. You might know one of his series – “Baywatch.” Greg enjoyed hearing that the show became appointment TV for me and my retired dad, who hooted wildly while watching all the kitschy action.

And while “Baywatch” is fabricated derring-do, real moments of violence did erupt on the beach, even in a simpler time. Tom Snyder recalled breaking up frequent fist fights between fabled badboy surfers like Mikki Dora and Terry Lukoff. They would even nearly come to blows with the guards, who had the unenviable duty of raising the No Surfing “meatball” flag in the late morning and kicking out board-riders even as a decent swell was pumping. (Back in the day, there was good surf at State Beach until a monster storm in the ‘80s tore up the bottom for good.)

I remember standing dumbly by my father’s side as a tween-ager as he waded into a crowd of sunbathers and asked a drunk, wild-haired guy that looked like the actor Bruce Dern to stop waving his pistol around. My father reminded him what a beautiful day it was at the beach, how we’re all having a good time, and why he should give him the gun. In a flash of insight, the man simply placed the gun in my dad’s palm, slumped down and gave his relieved girlfriend a kiss. We trudged back to the tower, where my dad placed the gun on a shelf, where it sat for hours! (I shudder to think what my mother would’ve done if she knew that I had been my dad’s wingman during this dangerous episode.)

All the guards still bristle at the County taking over in ’75. Sure, pay and benefits improved. But paperwork and politics increased exponentially. Friends were squeezed out of jobs and promotions. Rules and regulations cut down on the hanky-panky and hijinks that made guarding fun.

But the twinkle still glimmers in those milky eyes. Certain moments in the sun can never be eclipsed. For a few idyllic summers, they were ocean-kissed heroes. And so they always will be.

Matthew King grew up on the beaches of Santa Monica, where his father served as a County lifeguard for 30 years. He sneaks away from his communications and marketing consultancy as often as he can to surf Bay Street and other local breaks.