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Sand Dollars



Published August 16, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

In the summertime, Jessie Eastman's job is a shore thing. From mid-June through Labor Day, the Burlington resident spends Sunday through Friday, 10 to 6, gazing out on Lake Champlain and grazing on French fries from the snack bar at Burlington's North Beach. Eastman, 23, wears a suit to work -- a bright red two-piece. "I really appreciate my job," she says. "Other people have to stare at a computer or their cubicle wall or the back of somebody's head. I get this."

Eastman, originally from Springfield, Vermont, landed in the lifeguard's chair in the summer of '03 after transferring from Syracuse to UVM. Since she's been surveying the shallow waters of North Beach, she's never seen a drowning. On a recent rainy Thursday, she climbed down from her tower to spend a little time in the lifeguard "hut," which also contains the snack bar and restrooms, and to share stories from North Beach life.

SEVEN DAYS: How much lifeguarding experience did you have before North Beach?

JESSIE EASTMAN: This was my first lifeguarding job. I had to get certified by taking a lifeguarding and CPR class at St. Mike's, which was every day, all day, for a week, classroom and swimming. It was tiring. We had to tread water for 10 minutes and swim 500 yards every day, but that was OK because I'm a swimmer; I swam in high school during the summer.

SD: How much time do you spend in the lifeguard tower?

JE: The rotations depend on how many people are swimming. Today there's five of us just sitting around, but on a beautiful day we have five people, three in the chairs and two people [in the hut]; one person has to be here for emergencies, to call 911. People aren't allowed to have flotation devices here, so the other person might have to talk to them. But it's usually half an hour in each chair. The third chair is the best, because there's always a party going on, with friends of ours down there. Chair 1 is where the little kids and the families are.

SD: What's the busiest day you've had?

JE: The third of July is always the busiest. Thousands of people here. But there's thousands of people here every single weekend. It's crazy, the parking lot is full, people everywhere. There are some straight-up parties, drinking all day. Every other summer there's been incidents with fighting, and they're just asked to leave. They're usually just drunken men, and I don't deal with that.

SD: What's the craziest thing you've seen among beachgoers?

JE: On duty, the worst thing that happened was when a lady spilled a whole pot of boiling water all over herself. Another time someone had had something removed from their inner thigh, so a tube was collecting all the blood, but the blood started gushing everywhere. One of the lifeguards had his thumb stuck in the leg to stop the bleeding.

SD: Yikes. What about off duty?

JE: Oh, OK, there was this guy last May, and he had done something where the police came down here to get him, like six cops, and he ran into the water and was standing about waist-deep and screaming obscenities at them, mooning them, the whole nine. So they start Mace-ing him from the shore, and that wasn't working, and the Coast Guard pulls up, and eventually the cops shoot him with those bean-bag things, three times in the back. He went down. Later that day, I saw him walking down Pearl Street, still barefoot, no shirt, still drunk, with big welts on his back. Three hours later he was standing in front of Radio Bean, still no shirt, still no shoes, still welts on his back.

SD: Wow, that is crazy. Speaking of mooning, have you ever had to bust up nudity or toplessness?

JE: Yeah. It's a bit awkward. They're generally Canadians.

SD: How is your job different from "Baywatch?"

JE: Being an ocean lifeguard is much more stressful. There are a lot more drownings from the undertow. It's a lot more competitive. And we've never really had to run down the beach to save anyone. Most of the things that happen here are when it's windy and the waves are huge and little kids will get knocked down by the waves and get really scared. Usually before we even have time to get out of the chair, someone has picked them up already. A huge part of our job is just preventing things from happening. Primarily we're here to make people feel safe.

SD: How many rescues do you do each summer?

JE: It's hard to call them rescues, but maybe five.

SD: Does that make your job boring?

JE: Some days are boring. But if the water's packed, you watch everyone and recognize who's a good swimmer and who's not. The first couple of years I was really nervous, but then you get the hang of it.

SD: What do you daydream about when you're up there and no one's in the water?

JE: Oh, I don't know, I'm contemplating life, thinking about how beautiful it is out.

SD: How hot does it get up there?

JE: If I was stranded in a desert right now, I could make it out alive. I'm used to the heat. I drink a gallon of water a day.

SD: What about the water quality; have you had any issues?

JE: There's been about three days that we've been closed for E. coli. I don't go in if it's rained the day before. But I swim most days on my break; I'll go out and tread water, or we have these rescue boards you can stand on. Wavy days, there's lots of seaweed, but we've had more clear days this year than any other summer.

SD: If you go on vacation, do you have any desire to go to the beach?

JE: Oh, yeah, I love the beach. But Saturdays, I usually go golfing.

SD: How would you rate North Beach compared to other Vermont beaches?

JE: It's definitely the best -- the size, the number of people. People slam North Beach all the time, they call it the Jersey of Vermont -- "The water's gross, people are dirtbags" -- you get the whole nine, but I think this community's fortunate to have this. Most city beaches aren't surrounded by woods and mountains and sailboats.

SD: What do you do in the winter?

JE: I'm a snowboarder and a photographer. And I was working at Colchester High School from last February until the day I started here.

SD: So you're going to go back to doing that in a few weeks?

JE: Actually, I'm moving to California.