A moment on the beach turns into a lifelong career

sjones@thesunnews.comSeptember 1, 2013 

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    This is the latest in a series of stories about people who make the Grand Strand work.

— Keith Moore said he can remember that he’d found the place for him while standing on a Grand Strand beach when he was a kid.

“I knew it then and there that I always wanted to live on the ocean,” he said.

Just watching the water, looking at the clouds and feeling the sand blow on him was mesmerizing, an experience as essential to his routine now as it was captivating then.

Moore, now 61 and a manager at Lack’s Beach Service, started to make good on that vision after his freshman year at USC. He and his best friend worked as lifeguards that summer more than 40 years ago and left only to return to college each fall. After graduating with a degree in physical education and health science, Moore got a job with the Myrtle Beach Beach Patrol when it was part of the city’s recreation department.

He said many people underestimate career lifeguards, thinking of them bums. But it’s just not so, he said as he cites his college education and time since at the Police Academy. Most of those manning the stations along the Grand Strand are college students.

As a teenager, Moore was a lifeguard at a pool and he said that there are few, if any, similarities in guarding at a pool and at the ocean. To be an ocean lifeguard, you need to be able to read the water and know how to watch for and warn ocean goers in all types of conditions.

“The ocean is always, always changing,” he said.

Sgt. Philip Cain, head of the Beach Patrol Division for the Myrtle Beach Police Department, said lifeguards and beach service companies such as Lack’s are essential for any place with as much water and as many visitors as the Grand Strand.

“They make our job a lot easier,” Cain said.

Moore said that part of a lifeguard’s job along Myrtle Beach’s 12 miles of oceanfront is to try to enforce the city’s beach rules. But when someone refuses to obey, lifeguards call the Beach Patrol to put the teeth into the rules.

Moore said lifeguards need to understand that most tourists don’t appreciate the power of the ocean the way locals might.

He recalled the big, bulging eyes of one man who was shocked by the power of the riptide that dragged him from the shore. A woman holding her young child and ventured too far out in the water didn’t realize how easily the waves could knock her over until it happened.

“Luckily, she didn’t let go of the child,” Moore said.

George Lack recruited Moore to work for him three years after he had started with the Beach Patrol. A few years later, though, the Horry County Beach Patrol offered him a higher-paying job, where he stayed for another three years before returning to Lack’s.

“I had a hard time sleeping in the day time,” he said of leaving police work.

The beach work at Lack’s isn’t year-round, but there are only a few months with no oceanfront duties. For instance, Moore said some of the lifeguards he oversees were on duty at the Marriott resort on 82nd Avenue North until November last year. Active lifeguarding starts again in the early spring.

During the downtime, Moore said Lack’s employees take their vacations, work on equipment and cut back on the hours they work during the season.

Moore said one advantage of lifeguard services for vacationers along the Grand Strand is that lifeguard towers are placed just 80 yards apart, versus the 200 yards that he said separate them on some Florida beaches. The Grand Strand distance is not so far that a guard at one station can’t run to the next when extra assistance is needed.

During peak times, such as the Fourth of July, extra lifeguards are at each location.

“I think that’s a plus for us,” he said. “We have a lot of lifeguards out there and they’re not that far apart.”

The strangest thing Moore can recall of his days along the beach involves a set of false teeth someone lost. A man brought them to Moore and he dropped them into the console of his Beach Patrol jeep.

Two years later, he said, another man approached him complaining that his false teeth had been knocked out when he was hit by a wave and was looking for help getting them back. He complained about the cost of the teeth and bemoaned that they were gone.

“Believe it or not,” Moore told him, “I’ve got a set right here.”

He reached into the console and pulled out the set by then covered with dust and other little things that seem to inhabit such dark places.

The man took them and walked to the ocean where he washed them off.

Then he put them into his mouth and pushed them into the space left by those he just lost.

“They don’t fit just right,” the man told Moore, “but can I have them?”

Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.

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