1900 Storm

By the time 1900 rolled around, Galveston was the undisputed cultural and recreational center of this part of the country. Almost 500 bars and 50 brothels put it on par with the historically raucous New Orleans, and it ranked 2nd in the country for cotton exports and 3rd in wheat. Dredging ensured a constant flow of vessels in its deep water port and beautiful mansions lined Broadway, which at 9 feet of elevation was the highest street at the time.

Brothers Isaac and Joseph Cline ran the Galveston office of the National Weather Service and did their best to warn people of the upcoming storm, although they did not have the early detection systems we enjoy today. With only three ways off the island, 3 railroad bridges and one wagon bridge, it would have made little difference anyway.

We all know the story, or at least parts of it. On September 8th the island was battered by 120 mile winds and a storm surge of 15.7 feet. Isaac’s wife took refuge in the Cline house with a crowd and a streetcar came loose in the floodwaters and demolished the house. Her body wasn’t found for two weeks. The first six blocks on the beach side was completely cleared of buildings. 90 orphans and 10 nuns died when the roof of the St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum collapsed. Over 6,000 people died on the island, and the total death toll was around 10,000 as the big storm lumbered all the way up to Canada. The morning after the storm many of those who survived had been clinging to floating wreckage for hours as they watched loved ones crushed and mangled all around them throughout the night. At first light they found a 30 block pile of debris comprised of parts of houses, businesses, as well as animal and human carcasses. Bodies were collected, weighted down, and sent off on rafts. They then floated back days later, bloated and almost unrecognizable. The task of burning the thousands of bodies was assigned to African American workers, often at gunpoint, which no doubt added to the increasing racial tension during this era of Jim Crow.

But, somehow we recovered. With the help of volunteers from Houston, the Red Cross, US Army, and Salvation Army, we cleaned up and started rebuilding. A new commission-style municipal government got things done. We built the first section of the seawall, raising parts of the island as high as 17 feet, deposited 500 city blocks of landfill, built a two mile concrete causeway, and made numerous improvements to the wharves.

At the recent kickoff for the large beach re-nourishment projects, Jerry Patterson described Galvestonians as being “resilient”. It’s hard to imagine us doing something of the magnitude of our forefathers. Often we seem to argue more than build. This project is, however, very encouraging. I wonder if this is a portent.

With the 1900 storm as our shared mythology and a beacon to what potential we as Galvestonians possess, who knows what we’re capable of?

 

Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

Surfing Mecca

Part of the surfing tradition is the mandatory pilgrimage to the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii is the spiritual ground zero for modern surfing. Part of this is that the islands are smack dab in the middle of the largest body of water on the planet and are basically mountains thrust up from the bottom of the ocean. So not only is there the most distance to gather swell, but going from thousands of feet of oceanic depth to shallow reefs is a guarantee for considerable energy to be dumped on the shoreline which results in impressive and consistent surf. But there are great waves all over the planet, so the question is why do surfers everywhere look to Hawaii as their surfing spiritual Mecca?

It’s not that Hawaiian surfing predated the rest of the planet. Throughout the Polynesian Islands, surfing was practiced before Hawaii was settled. In various parts of Africa it’s been documented that people surfed on short wooden boards hundreds of years ago. But only in Hawaii has surfing been such a key component in the tapestry of the culture.

At the time that Captain Cook arrived both men and women surfed regularly. There was a complicated governance structure where kings and queens demonstrated their power and competence at least partially in the water. But it wasn’t just surfing. Overall water competence was highly valued with the youth playing competitive games involving wrestling in the water, breath holding competitions, outrigger racing, and diving under big waves in the impact zone for sport. It was a breeding ground for water competence that had not been seen at that level perhaps throughout history.

The reasons are many that surfing was such an integral part of the Hawaiian lifestyle, religion, and power structure. First of all there was a sort of natural selection because the Polynesian people that actually reached the islands had to travel hundreds of miles in really small, open, outrigger boats. The first Hawaiians were water people who were closely and deeply connected with the ocean. There was an abundance of fish, lots of edible plants, and a perfect climate for growing. Surfing requires a great deal of leisure time and energy. Ancient Hawaiians not only fished, but grew vegetables on terraced farming areas, bred pigs and other farm animals, and even created fish farms in man-made pools. In fact they were so successful in taking care of the basic life necessities that their leaders reportedly outlawed any type of work for three months out of the year for a big festival. Along with all the religious obligations and parties, a large percentage of the population simply surfed. The ruling class could surf all year as well.

But I think the main reason modern surfers look to Hawaii is the echo we still hear from the idea of surfing as both a lifestyle and a quest. The Hawaiian word for surf is “nalu”. It also means to search for the true nature of things, and is used for the liquid covering a baby at birth.

 

Photo Credit: Stan Shebs

Winter Is Here

Water temperature in the 50’s is a game changer. Even our hard core surfers don’t last long with the 3 millimeter wetsuits most Texans wear, and the only swimmers we encounter seem to be Russian or Canadian.

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving and got to spend time with people they care about. This is always a great time to reflect on things we’re grateful for. I personally feel really appreciative of the hard work our staff did this season, the support of all the groups we work with and the community of Galveston, and the chance to slow down for a bit, recharge the batteries, and fill in some details that we couldn’t get to during the busy season.

We’re almost at the end of our patrol season with this weekend being the last where we’re proactively out there checking the beaches for a while. Most of our crew has been working hard refurbishing our 28 lifeguard towers while alternating the days they take a patrol shift. They’ve also been doing one last pass of replacement and repair of the 300 or so signs we maintain along 33 miles of beachfront. But starting December 1st everyone will focus on finishing the towers up so they can spend the remaining time until everyone is able to work on individual projects.

Each of our full time supervisors has an area of responsibility that they take full charge of. There is a window of time from late December until March 1st when they have time to get the bulk of this work done. Some of the areas are board and craft repair/maintenance, website upgrades, virtual lifeguard museum, recruiting/water safety video projects, policy and procedure manual updates, training material preparation, and ordering supplies and equipment.

One major change we are trying to make is to move to an almost completely paperless system. We recently purchased computers for each vehicle so reports can be done while overseeing a zone of responsibility. We’re getting close to purchasing an electronic records management system for storage and easy retrieval of reports and other documents. My hope is that by 2016 we can operate with 90% digital files and documents.

There’s an upcoming event that I wanted to mention. We’ll follow up with more details, but the annual public safety Christmas parade is scheduled for Saturday, December 13th in the morning. This event has been growing and has been a fun X-mas holiday kick off. It’s been a nice way for first responders from different agencies to show our community how appreciative we are for the support we receive. Also it’s an opportunity for the community to show support for everything these hard working public safety organizations’ men and women do.

From all of us at the Galveston Beach Patrol we hope that you and yours have a wonderful holiday season. Hopefully you’ll have the time and opportunity to reflect on and appreciate the things and people that are most important to you.

Aloha Doc

As a wide eyed 16 year old surfer, I made my first pilgrimage to the west coast in 1980. I flew into LAX and hitchhiked down the California coast while camping, absorbing the west coast lifestyle of the day, and surfing at all the famous spots I’d read about in the magazines. During that trip I was fortunate (or destined) to meet one of the biggest heroes in lifesaving, surfing, and Galveston history.

I was sitting on the beach at San Onofre after surfing the morning at Trestles, which is just south of San Clemente. An older man came up and started talking to me. Normally while traveling alone you’d be a little wary about strangers but there was something in this guy’s demeanor that caused me to instantly trust him. He was soft spoken and unassuming but had a real presence. We fell into an easy conversation, and he was excited that I was from Galveston like him. He invited me to eat with his family. Turns out, his family was huge and ran a surf school right there on the beach, where they seemed to be permanently camping. One was nicer than the other, and only later would I realize I was meeting a whole tribe of living legends. The surf school was the world renowned Paskowitz Surfing Camp.

Surfing, Lifesaving, and Galveston lost one of its greatest legends recently with the passing of Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, who was the elderly gentleman who’d sensed my loneliness and been so kind to me.

Born the son of Russian and Jewish immigrants on March 1921 right here in Galveston, Doc rode his first wave at age 12 and never stopped surfing throughout his long life. As a young teen he moved to San Diego where he worked as a lifeguard at Mission Beach. In 1946 he graduated at Stanford Medical School and eventually made his way to Israel with the mission of trying to get “Jews and Arabs to surf together”. Kelly Slater, who is touted as the greatest surfer to ever live, said that Doc “…believed that those who surfed together could live together peacefully”.

After coming back to California he practiced what many believe is the true spirit of surfing and lived with his wife and all nine of his kids in a large surf van for many years. He was a big believer in a healthy lifestyle and touted that throughout his medical career and his commitment to the traditional surfers’ lifestyle of living simply, exercising regularly, and eating well. He once said that “Health is a presence of a superior state of wellbeing, a vigor, a vitality, a pizzazz you have to work for every single day of your life.” He put belief into practice by founding the Paskowitz International Surf School, the Paskowitz surfing Psychiatric Clinic, the Paskowitz Surfing Camp and Surfing for Peace.

“It is easier to die when you have lived than it is to die when you haven’t” – Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz

 

 

Low Profile

One of the most interesting of our 111 guards is Jeff Lewis, who has been with the Beach Patrol for 20 years and works part time as a seasonal Supervisor.

I like having Jeff on staff for many reasons. He’s a very competent, professional, and experienced lifeguard. But he’s also someone who is a great role model for the younger guards. Jeff runs both several Nationwide Insurance offices and several Century 21 offices in the Clear Lake Area.  He is also an extremely good triathlete who competes periodically in full Ironman races where he trains to swim 2 miles, bike over 100 miles, and run a full marathon continuously. But he loves lifeguarding and still manages to find the time to keep up his certifications, and work 2-3 days a week throughout the summer.

Imagine being a 16 year old and working your first job. As you drag yourself in to work and whine about having to do an hour of physical and skills training at the beginning of every shift to keep your competency up, you notice Jeff and a small group who showed up a couple of hours before the shift even started and did a full hour and a half of running, swimming, and paddling a rescue board. Then Jeff, who hit the 40 year mark recently, jumps in with the shift workout and blasts past all of the young high school team swimmers without breaking a sweat. And he rearranged his busy, busy life just so he can come do the same job because despite all the other things he has going on, there’s nothing quite as fulfilling as mentoring younger guards and keeping beach patrons safe for Jeff.

Jeff has an identical twin brother Greg. They worked Beach Patrol while running track at Rice University. They were young back then, but are small and looked (and still look) much younger. Because they were such amazing athletes they qualified to represent Texas in the National Lifeguard Championships in Cape May, New Jersey. “Team Texas” was sitting a diner eating breakfast the day before the competition started. Jeff and Greg were sitting together peering over the top of the table when a cute waitress came by to take our order. The diner was busy so she was in a hurry. Greg decided to lay down his “Mac” vibe and started trying to chat her up. When he inevitably said he was a national competitor she kind of snickered, obviously not believing him saying “REEEALLY?” Greg, without missing a beat, quipped, “We like to keep a low profile in Texas”. To this day Jeff and I while training will toss out that line and almost bust a gut.

But my favorite Jeff story is once while he and I were doing a race he pulled a leg muscle and barely finished. At the finish line Greg called and asked what happened to Jeff’s leg. Greg’s leg had a searing pain in the same spot. Greg lives 4 states away and didn’t even know Jeff was racing that day.

 

Frat Story

The freshman sat in his dorm room on the bed as the 3 older guys formed a semi-circle around him. They all wore khaki pleated pants, button-up shirts tucked in, topsiders, and neatly parted hair; contrasting sharply with the surf shirt, baggy shorts, scruffy hair, and flip flops that the younger guy wore.

“You can’t survive on this campus….” Said the leader in an overly deep voice “…without joining a fraternity. (Long pause here for emphasis). ….And the Chi Delts is the most respected frat on campus. We have the pick of the crop, the best parties, and you’ll come out of college with the most useful connections”. The younger guy laughed and looked up at them and said, “If I choose to join a frat I’ll consider you guys, but right now I’ve got some stuff I need to do”. The older guys looked shocked. One said something about how the younger guy would regret not going to the mixer with them and they filed out to round up other recruits.

The thing is that the young guy grew up in Galveston. And for those of you that grew up here you know what I mean. Kids that come from this environment have a very different set of experiences. Galveston has a long, long history of diversity, tolerance, and worldliness. He had grown up with big beach bonfires, high school fraternities and sororities, exposure to all kinds of different people, friends that were from varied backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and religions.

Most of all, he and his peers had grown up on and around the beach. From beach bonfires on the weekends, surfing, mixing socially with friends’ parents, to long bike rides along the seawall hanging out with all kinds of characters.

For better or worse, kids grow up fast here, but the good thing is that when they leave, they have social tools that other kids don’t have at the same age. They also have a strong core and basic sense of fairness that shines through. You can always recognize who’s from here even if you don’t know them.

Galveston is in a real transitional phase right now. This is normal for a city of this age as power transitions to some extent from dynasties to newer immigrants. New blood and a fresh point of view is a good thing, especially if old values are retained and the end product is a fusion of what’s good in both groups and change is not merely made for its own sake. There is room and need for both camps.

So the conclusion of this story is that the young man did not join the fraternity. But he did end up being friends with many of the fraternity members along with friendships he cultivated in a variety of groups. As a Galvestonian he wasn’t able to limit himself to one type of friends. But thanks to his Galveston roots he was able to look past differences and focus on commonalities.

The Galveston Way.

 

Sand Projects

For those of us who went through Hurricane Ike and were part of the rescue and recovery efforts afterwards, it was easy to think that things would never get back to normal.

On Monday afternoon at the Casa Del Mar listening to Kelly de Schaun, Executive Director of the Park Board, talk to a crowd about the potential for three separate re-nourishment projects all within a years’ time made me shake myself. It felt almost too good to be true after all we’ve been through to see forward motion, but it was encouraging to see a person in a leadership position put herself out there and do what she could to make it happen.

The first project is coming up within a month or so. It involves putting over 118,000 cubic yards of sand at the west end of the seawall. The second is scheduled for next fall, about a year from now. It would involve putting 16.5 million cubic yards of sand from 16th to 61st street. And the third, the one that we’re all hoping will happen, is to put sand from 61st street to 103rd street. This third project is probably the most interesting of them all as it would involve creating a beach where there is not one already and the sand comes from a source that is new for Galveston. The sand would come from the Corps of Engineers when they dredge the ship channel. We’d only have to pay the extra cost to move it by Hopper Dredge to the site.

Surfers, fisher folk, Lifeguards, and beach people develop a sense of how sand moves and is affected by ocean processes. Any of these people will confirm what the engineers say about sand replenishment projects. Nature abhors a vacuum. Since there is sand almost all the way down our 33 miles of beach with the exception of the stretch from 61st to 103rd it is essentially a dead spot that sucks sand from other areas. If it is filled, the entire beach benefits. Sand moves up and down our coast line. By the same token, by putting a bunch of sand at the end of the Seawall, the west end will see a subtle increase of sand, even if currently it’s not feasible to directly re-nourish the west end.

The other big deal about the possibility of creating a new beach is a new income stream. The 2008 Angelou Economic Report for every dollar we invest in the beach we get 4 back. Now some say it is much more. Either way, we’ll see an increase in hotel tax, property tax, and beach user fees. In ’93 when the big re-nourishment project was done on the seawall we had to increase Beach Patrol (which went from receiving 1 penny to 1 ½ pennies of hotel tax) and Beach Cleaning budgets to cover the new areas. These are areas that will have to be addressed creatively, but at least we’ll have some increased funding streams to choose from. And the returns will be exponentially increased.

Why They Come

Early Saturday morning I took my daughter, Kai, to the D’Feet Breast Cancer run at Moody Gardens. She had a great time and did the kids 1K, which was the first race she’d ever entered. Afterwards there was a kids’ party that had a whole lot of sponsorship tables with art projects for the kids. She and a couple of her friends from school were manically jumping from one table where they made stain glass windows to another for pet rocks, to yet a third where they made necklaces. It was a really wonderful event.

My wife was out of town and I really don’t know what to do when I don’t work on the weekends. Kai cooked up some scheme that I went along with. She invited a friend for a sleepover and then we invited a few of her friends and their parents to our place for beach and surf time.

It turned out to be a beautiful day. Kai and her friend Chloe, both 8, went with me to the store to get snacks, which they prepared as if they were top chefs in a fancy restaurant. The mob showed up and we set up umbrellas and chairs and boards and sand toys. I grabbed a 12 foot longboard and took 3 or 4 kids at a time out to chest deep water and pushed them into wave after wave. They squealed and laughed till I thought they’d bust a gut. They switched out and made sand castles, looked for shells, played with hermit crabs, and then came for another round of surfing. I got relieved by another couple of parents and went to hang out under the umbrellas.

Sitting under the umbrella I started to relax a bit. Some parents were chatting quietly and others were just sitting and watching the kids play together. The day was perfect and sunny and neither hot nor cool. And that’s when it hit me:

People do this all the time! And they do it because there’s not much better than sitting on the beach under an umbrella in a comfortable beach chair with friends. And I’ve been missing out. Since I’ve been 16 I’ve always worked on beach holiday weekends and pretty much every weekend that’s warm enough for the beach. I’m not complaining at all, it’s a fantastic job. But when there are 300,000 people on the island there is nothing relaxing about working the beach.

Spending that time made me realize why we have almost 6 million visitors a year. We live in a wonderful place. When they get tired of the beach there are so many great things to do between the strand, Moody Gardens, historical buildings, Schlitterbahn, nature tours, great bars, restaurants, and shopping and more. But mostly they come for the beach.

Sitting under that umbrella and listening to the kids playing, the waves rolling to shore, birds, breeze, and all the sounds that make up the stillness was a real reminder of why they come.

Surf Story

The 10 year old boy lay on his battered surfboard on the west side of the 10th street pier. He had caught a couple of waves by standing besides the board and pushing off the bottom. Now he was a little farther out and was trying to paddle into waves.

He’d had success a couple of times and had caught a couple of rides where he actually stood up, turned and surfed down the wave staying ahead of the white water. He was hooked.

More success increased his confidence and he went farther and farther out after each successful ride. He was about ¾ of the way out to the end when he spotted a pack of surfers just off the edge of the tip of the jetty. He sat up on his board and stared in wonder as one of them caught wave after wave, flowing gracefully. The surfer would take off and make a hard bottom turn that led straight into an off the lip, cutback, or short tube ride. Then he’d meld that seamlessly into another and another maneuver before kicking out right next to the jetty and float effortlessly back out to the end.

The young boy wanted to see more and paddled even further out. As he sat on his board peering over the waves the surfer he’d been watching came screaming down the face of a larger set wave heading right for the boy. Everything happened too fast for the boy to get out of the way and, instead, he ditched his board and dove for the bottom. He grabbed sand and waited to the wave and pointy boards passed over before resurfacing. When he broke through the older man was right in front of him.
“YOU STUPID KOOK!” the man yelled balling up his fist. “I was here first!” he yelled, his little tween voice cracking. The older surfer looked like he was going to hit the boy for a minute, and then seemed to think better of it. Instead he paddled off, a deep gash on his leg trailing blood (which he glued together with crazy glue and kept surfing). He turned, glared at the boy and yelled, “GET OUT OF THE WATER AND GO HOME GROM!”

I learned a lot that day. And now, almost 40 years later, I’m intimately familiar with all the rules I broke. The person on the wave has the right of way. The person closest to the curl has the right of way. The first person to stand up has the right of way. Beginners (“groms”) should stay away from the pier, the rip current, and the pack at the end. And in every surfing pack there’s an “alpha”. That guy or girl gets their choice of waves and should be shown respect at all times.

Nowadays there are more surfers and fewer fights. But the unwritten rules haven’t. Fortunately, it’s a gentler learning process for those versions of the early me out in the water today.

 

Photo Credit: Stan Shebs

Colombo

I’ve written before about Leroy Colombo, the most well-known lifeguard to come from our island, but someone so larger than life deserves multiple visits.

We all know that he was formerly credited in the Guinness Book of World Records with saving 907 lives, the most of any lifeguard in recorded history. Most also know that he was stricken with spinal meningitis at age 7 which left him deaf and without the use of his legs. With the help of his brothers he started swimming to rehab and eventually became a champion distance swimmer. As a champion swimmer and the first hearing impaired lifeguard he is a real testament to the human spirit’s ability to overcome adversary.

But it wasn’t until much later in life that he was considered a hero. As with almost all lifeguards it isn’t a career that leads very often to accolades. He did reportedly get a tip for saving a woman’s false teeth and for saving a poodle. And he got a couple of cans of beer once for saving a young girl from drowning. But there were hundreds saved without any type of recognition, even though he is said to have nearly drowned 16 times while making rescues.

He made his first rescue at 12, and by the time he turned 18 in 1923 he tried out for Galveston’s prestigious “Surf and Toboggan Club”. To do so he had to swim 3 hours without stopping. He officially became a Galveston lifeguard that year as well. We continue this tradition today with our “night swim”, the final physical challenge for the incoming lifeguards. All the staff joins them in completing a tough course involving lifeguard skills including swimming, rescue board paddling, running, climbing, and even some knowledge based activities, which can also be as long as 3 hours.

He followed the tradition of the Hawaiian “Waterman” (which included women) in that he lived in a way that was close to the ocean and practiced many of the disciplines related to the surf environment. In fact he was one of the first people in Galveston to practice the sport of surfing. His close childhood friend and fellow lifeguard, Ducky Prendergast, told me stories of how they used to overinflate long surf mats so they were rigid enough to surf on. We were fortunate to receive a wooden surfboard that he owned that eventually will be a focus point in a Lifeguard museum here on the island.

He exemplified the “Lifeguards for Life” motto of the United States Lifesaving Association. Even after he retired at 62 due to a heart condition, he kept swimming for the remainder of his life. That level of commitment doesn’t end just because the flesh wears out or the job is no longer an option. He’s a real role model for those who carry on with the tradition.

Hopefully those of us who share his love of the ocean and commitment to serving others through lifesaving will inspire future generations. He has certainly done this for us.