Since its inaugural issue in July 2006, The Surge has featured hundreds of folks who live and work on the Grand Strand in our Working 4 a Living profiles. These features have long served as positive and upbeat snapshots of people’s lives – highlighting what they do for a living as well as how they spend their downtime in our corner of the world.
These stories have varied widely, covering just about every profession along the way – from doctors, lawyers and academics, to mechanics, artists and entrepreneurs of all stripes. You name it, we have likely written about it.
But as important as the jobs and businesses we cover, Working 4 a Living has always been about the people involved in these pursuits. Everybody has a story to tell – complete with hopes, dreams and plans for the future – all being lived out right here at the beach.
Starting with this issue, The Surge is embarking on a series called Working 4 a Living: Cool Jobs, in which we take a look at folks who have compelling or unusual jobs that you won’t find just anywhere – gigs off the beaten path and the mavericks who embrace them.
The Grand Strand is a treasure trove of personalities, and each installment of our Cool Jobs series will spotlight a group of these individuals who light up our neck of the woods.
Read about four of them now.
Tony Klimas: Vigilance on the Beach
When Tony Klimas arrived on the Grand Strand in 2000, he was looking for a change. A friend lived here and Klimas decided to take a leap of faith.
He was living in Central Florida at the time, delivering milk for a living.
“Believe it or not, I was a milkman, and it was probably the hardest job I ever had in my life,” he said, adding that the image of the guy dressed in white with a bow tie, delivering glass bottles to waiting families in the suburbs is a long dead and romanticized image.
“I used to deliver to stores, schools and hospitals. Some of my workdays were as long as 16 hours. I missed my first daughter’s first year of life because when I got home I pretty much just slept,” he said.
Klimas always thought about becoming a firefighter or a police officer – in large part because his father was a firefighter in Chicago, where Klimas was born. For a time, he considered moving back to Chicago to see if he could get on with the fire academy there.
“But I always had in the back of my mind that you had to be a very large man to be a firefighter,” he said. “That’s what my dad was, and I was the runt of the litter, so to speak. I only stand under 6 feet tall and weigh 150 pounds soaking wet.”
Despite this, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he would wind up in one of these professions, but said that it just never worked out during his time in Florida.
But it worked out in Myrtle Beach after three tries – a testament to the adage that persistence pays off.
“The first time I applied as a police officer, I didn’t get selected. The second time, it was for a property and evidence clerk, and they didn’t take me for that job.”
The third time was the charm.
“I tried out for detention officer and that’s when they hired me. I spent two years as a detention officer before going on the road,” he said.
After completion of a preservice program and a stint at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia, Klimas’ first assignment as a certified police officer was bicycle patrol on the waterfront area around Ocean Boulevard. After a couple of years, an opening came up on the Myrtle Beach Police Department’s Beach Patrol Unit.
And it is as a beach patrol officer that Klimas hit his stride. This is currently his ninth summer with the unit.
My favorite part is knowing that I have helped somebody in any way.
Tony Klimas, beach patrol officer
You might spot Klimas in one of MBPD’s Ford Ranger pickup trucks or one of the department’s new golf carts, the de-facto replacements to the ATVs that used to be in service.
“We are a little bit different than the road officers,” he said. “During the winter, I still stay on the beach, but I will take road calls from time to time. But during the summer, I stay on the beach. We are almost like ambassadors, where we talk to the visitors and help them out and discuss the ordinances we have on the beach.”
Despite the passage of a beach tent ordinance in 2014, there still seems to be a bit of confusion.
“A lot of people still try to come out with their tents, so we try to make sure that we have plenty of compliance on the beach. We don’t want to rush right out and give you a ticket because you didn’t know you couldn’t set up a tent – so we talk to visitors about stuff like that and other issues like water safety and rip currents.”
Beach patrol officers are also certified lifeguards, but Klimas says he usually doesn’t have to do much ocean or swimming rescue because the lifeguards are usually on the scene right away and already helping out, especially this time of year.
“We remind people to protect their property while they are out there. Unfortunately, I have to do some reports once in a while for stolen beach bags and such.”
Klimas is big on staying in shape, and a couple of years ago was given permission to implement a curriculum of fitness and healthy eating for new hires. He works with these new hires for at least an hour each day.
His philosophy lines up with the City of Myrtle Beach’s motto, “First in Service.”
He takes pride in helping folks recover their lost or stolen property, but is especially meaningful for Klimas to reunite lost kids with their parents.
“My favorite part is knowing that I have helped somebody in any way,” he said.
Michelle Skowron: Keeper of the Menagerie
While completing her bachelor’s degree in marine science at Coastal Carolina University, Michelle Skowron took a summer job at Alligator Adventure in North Myrtle Beach.
That summer job morphed into a full-time position, and she is currently well into her fourth year as zookeeper.
Originally from the Pittsburgh area, Skowron has always loved animals. As early as 2, she said she absolutely loved going to zoos.
“I always told my dad I was going to be a marine biologist or a zookeeper or something,” she said.
When she was a student at Waynesburg College in Pennsylvania, she interned for two years at the Pittsburgh Zoo.
“I originally went there to be an aquarist intern because that was my plan for my career,” she said. “I wanted to either work in an aquarium as an aquarist or I wanted to work with marine animals – like training dolphins and whales and sea lions and stuff – that was my original plan.”
And that was still the plan when she moved to South Carolina and to CCU, which boasts a top-notch marine science program.
I want to try to network and connect with other zoos to help with conservation, predominately.
Michelle Skowron, zookeeper at Alligator Adventure
“Once I moved down to South Carolina and started working at Alligator Adventure, I realized that aquarium work wasn’t for me – and that working with marine animals wasn’t my thing because I fell in love with different animals I didn’t expect to really connect with.”
At first she was afraid of alligators, but Skowron wanted to conquer that fear. Alligator Adventure, obviously, was the perfect place to do just that.
“When I first started working here, I was kind of nervous about the [alligators], but once I listened to my supervisors I learned that usually alligators are more scared of you than you are of them and try to get away from you,” she said. “I learned more about them from my coworkers and realized that they are really not all that scary.”
Once she had some experience under her belt, she was trained to catch the smaller alligators for the shows there.
“I started to understand that there is no real reason to be scared of things that I don’t really know much about.”
Of course, many would probably think of Alligator Adventure in terms of the reptiles in residence there or perhaps the huge tortoises, some reputed to be nearly a century old – but the zoo maintains quite a diverse menagerie.
“Obviously, our main attraction is the alligators and crocodiles that we have at the park,” she said, adding that there is a big building dedicated to snakes and another that houses lizards, turtles, frogs and toads. But Skowron said that the park has been working to incorporate more mammals and birds into the lineup.
“Right now we have a really cool bobcat exhibit,” she said. “We just got our wolves two years ago and we have Chilean flamingos, which are really beautiful. We have a nice new enclosure for the kangaroos and they hang out with the emus, which are big, flightless birds native to Australia and New Guinea.”
This “little bit of everything” approach is good for folks who aren’t necessarily keen on reptiles.
Skowron’s typical workday includes making sure the enclosures are clean and observing the animals for unusual behavior to catch possible health concerns. And she has been tasked with keeping track of the younger alligators and crocodiles.
“We have at least one or two clutches of alligator or crocodile eggs every single year – so once they are hatched, it seems like it has been my duty lately to make sure that they are all well-fed, all clean and taken care of. If there are any problems with certain ones, I alert my supervisors and the veterinarian that comes every week to see how to help out.”
And then there are the daily educational shows, where Skowron teaches people to better understand some of the animals.
“I also like to preach conservation and why these animals are good for the ecosystem – why you shouldn’t be always scared of animals you don’t understand,” she said.
At first, she was nervous about public speaking, but over time and with positive reinforcement from coworkers and the public, she said she has come to really love doing the shows.
“It seems like after every show, people come up to me and tell me I did a really good job or that they didn’t know something about a certain animal. I love hearing that. I have been changing my shows a little bit every year and trying to incorporate different things into them based on what the guests talk to me about.”
For Skowron, it’s all about learning as much as she can from her coworkers on an ongoing basis, with an eye to understanding the animals on hand at Alligator Adventure and beyond.
“I want to try to network and connect with other zoos to help with conservation, predominately,” she said.
Ryan Boggs: The Man Who Would Be King
Jousting, horseback riding and sword fighting are all in a day’s work for Ryan Boggs.
The Coastal Carolina University senior and computer science major is also a knight at Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament in Myrtle Beach, where he has been on the payroll for the past five years.
“Since I grew up here in the Myrtle Beach/Socastee area, I saw the show a lot,” he said. “It was kind of a family tradition that we go see Medieval Times, and that sparked my interest in the whole fantasy thing – reading novels and things like that.”
When he was about 19, he saw the show again and thought it would be a really fun job, so he applied and was ultimately hired as a squire.
“In the medieval era, [squires] were the assistants to the knights,” he said. “They tacked, cleaned and prepared the horses. They also handled the knight’s armor and all of that stuff. We basically do the same thing here. They’re kind of like roadies for a rock show.”
According to Boggs, the squires set up the arena, fix the weapons, paint the shields, break down the arena after the show, and take care of the horses before and after the show.
“They basically just do everything they can to make the knight’s life easier so that he can focus on doing a good show for the audience,” he said, adding that although the squires are seen in some parts of the show – perhaps in a procession or parade – they try to be unseen and do all of the work without causing distraction.
He was a squire for a year, and over time Boggs systematically moved up in the hierarchy, through several ranks – and is currently classified as Senior Knight 2.
“You are given more responsibility, per se,” he said. “It’s a rank showing that you are very experienced with the show for three years. You have to know all of the parade spots and you have to know almost all of the long lines spots.”
The show includes a parade of several horses, with each spot being a bit different. And long lines refers to a way of walking a horse with long reins, beside the animal while giving the animal cues for specific exercises.
“You can get confused if you are in another parade spot, so you have to work hard in riding the entire pattern of the routine with those different spots – and since you have to be put in on a horse in that random spot per show, it could change.”
Boggs knew nothing of horseback riding, sword fighting or acting when he started at Medieval Times.
“We get to ride every single day for hours,” he said. “We have an accelerated learning curve and do rigorous training with the horses in our shows.”
For the Senior Knight 2 ranking, Boggs says he knows basically everything about the show – all of the fights, all of the routines and all of the speaking roles.
“I try to teach other people everything that I know,” he said. “I try to teach them all of the ways that I learned things – and how to do them properly and safely with good technique.”
All in all, Boggs’ job is to be an equestrian and to be a good sword fighter. There is also choreography involved in these spectacles.
“Our main choreographer, Tim Baker [director of stunts and choreography], is our corporate head knight. He develops all of the fights for us to maximize the showmanship and the safety of the fights. He has done a really good job of that.”
Currently, Boggs is cross-training for the role of king as well, making him a true utility player.
“That’s another speaking role I will have under my belt, because I do the bad guy in the show. I have run out of things to learn as a knight, so I am just kind of dabbling in other disciplines.”
Recently, Boggs volunteered to travel to another Medieval Times castle in Schaumburg, Ill., after a knight there got injured during a practice.
“We are a big family all around the nation,” he said. “We try to help each other out wherever we can. I am looking forward to doing more of that, because that was the first time I ever got to do it.”
Boggs is preparing to head into his senior year at Coastal, and he likens computer science to modern-day magic.
“If you write a program, sit there and code everything up and press play – and it does something – it’s kind of like creating your own spell. You can do something magical with the technology we have today.”
Nate Francis: Things That Go Boom
Not everybody gets asked to blow stuff up for a living, but when Nate Francis got a call from an old high school friend, that was the deal.
“My friend asked me if I wanted to go get certified and shoot fireworks. I said, ‘sign me up,’” he said.
Turned out that Pennsylvania-based company Pyrotecnico needed somebody to help with the Tuesday night fireworks show at Broadway at the Beach.
Francis was already a busy guy with a primary job at Flagship Construction and a 3-year-old son. He also mows yards on the side.
But there is an old saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person. Francis had a job selling fireworks while he was in high school, so he jumped at the chance to take this to another level.
Before he could start work as a fireworks shooter, or more formally a pyrotechnician, he had to get certified. This is achieved by attending a daylong class presented by the company.
“The people from Pyrotecnico actually come down, and we have to sit through a couple of PowerPoints and listen to a couple of lectures – and then you have to take a test at the end,” he said, adding that everyone has to clear a background check, as well.
On Tuesday nights, the magic happens.
“I get to Broadway around 5 o’clock in the evening,” he said. “The lead shooter is there with a box truck and we unload all of our tools and everything we need for the show and set it up. Then we get the fireworks and start wiring up everything.”
The fireworks are hooked up to modules, which are hooked up to a cable box – and the cables run down a pier on Lake Broadway into something that looks like modem that syncs up with a sound mixing board. The fireworks shoot from a metal dock at the end of the pier.
“Everything syncs up together, and once it does, the fireworks shoot off to whatever the music for that show is. It’s all fired electronically. There’s not any hand-lighting – but we just have to wire up everything and make sure it’s in the proper condition – and pretty much go from there.”
Not everybody is a fireworks guy, and surely the job is an enviable one.
My friend asked me if I wanted to go get certified and shoot fireworks. I said, ‘sign me up.’
Nate Francis, pyrotechnician
“The main reason they picked me over somebody else is that I carry myself a lot differently than a lot of other 24-year-olds,” he said. You don’t see me out at Broadway until 3 in the morning – drinking and partying, you know? I’m sleeping, getting ready for the next day. It’s just responsibility.”
At Flagship Construction, Francis drives a skid-steer loader, doing grading at home construction sites.
“After a house is done, we go in and level everything out and make sure that the water is going to be flowing away from the house towards the street or towards a pond – and make sure that everything is smooth so they can lay the grass down.”
And Francis makes the best of his time with his son, Jon.
“I get him on weekends every two weeks,” he said. “Whenever I have him, I don’t do any work – no side jobs or anything like that. I only get him four days a month, so I take advantage of that,” he said.
But what does Francis do in his downtime?
“I really, really enjoy to go fishing – and during duck season you won’t really see me much. During the week, though, it’s just going home, sitting down and having a beer. I’m a pretty normal guy that has a lot going on.”
He plans on having his own home by age 30.
“I am 24, so I am giving myself six years to see if there is a wife out there for me. A family is definitely in the future, regardless.”
Francis has six sisters, and he is the only brother. Surely this experience has taught him how to interact with the opposite sex.
“Well – I like to think of myself as a professional in the female species, but of course I have been proven wrong.”