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On guard

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Earlier this summer, I took my grandsons to the pool. They don't swim, so I was somewhat nervous, especially given my son's commandment: If you take two, you should return with two.

I had little to fear. UNC Farm Camp includes a large but shallow pool for the kids. From toes to nose, though, Henry and Tate are each still shorter than three feet, meaning even the little waters offered challenges. Accordingly, I doled out a small plastic truck, a squirt gun and a floating dinosaur, hoping the toys would aid hours of safe entertainment.

Of course, an army of youthful, red-suited and bronzed lifeguards oversaw all of this, which made me wonder about the pool's human safety net. Armed with only a whistle and a red floatie (a lifeguard rescue tube, properly), they are commandants of the chlorine-scented waters. From atop their white-painted thrones, they oversee swimmers and nonswimmers alike, from Memorial Day to the final moments of the Labor Day weekend, when many return to that other career—yes, college. So, I wondered, how did they get there? What made them worthy of such responsibility?

For the answers, I went to the source: several lifeguards and the pool director.

At this particular pool, I discovered, lifeguard is a legacy job. Nearly all attended Farm Camp as 3-or 4-year-olds; they subsequently joined the swim team, then graduated to junior and senior counselors herding squads of small boys and girls through the preliminary paces of tennis, lacrosse, basketball and (when it got too hot in the sun) checkers tournaments. When siblings no longer needed this cushy summer job, they handed the coveted whistle and a tube of zinc oxide to a younger brother or, rarely, a sister. Currently, 11 males and one female guard these lanes.

But how do these youth keep track of the scores of bobbing, jumping and splashing children? Some have as many as five years of experience in the post, and all have Red Cross certification. During high-use times, as many as seven guards are on duty, switching between short shifts. They watch out for swimmers in distress and enforce rules such as no running on the deck and no diving in the shallow pool. They know many of the summer's swimmers by name. Pay starts at $7.25 an hour; cleaning pools and bathrooms is just part of the job. As Seth, the pool director, put it, "They get paid for what doesn't happen." I quizzed each guard about any close calls this season. They could only think of the rather heavy elderly woman who fell off her noodle and had to be tipped back up.

By 5 in the afternoon, we'd persevered through several requisite age-6-and-under water breaks, presumably for the purpose of visiting the potty, having snack time and re-treating bodies with sunscreen. My arms were giving out from constantly hoisting the fearless Henry onto the side of the pool so that he could jump off.

Mercifully, a dark cloud appeared overhead, followed by a clap of thunder. The pool emptied immediately. Grandmothers and lifeguards could relax as one.

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