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One fewer eagle in Clearwater's watchtowers

Lifeguard Joe Lain hauls off a dead catfish that had been hurled and stuck in a woman’s back. Lain has great stories to tell in retirement.

CARRIE PRATT | Times (2005)

Lifeguard Joe Lain hauls off a dead catfish that had been hurled and stuck in a woman’s back. Lain has great stories to tell in retirement.

Joe Lain and David Hasselhoff don't have much in common except their red shorts.

Lain, chief lifeguard on Clearwater Beach, isn't rich or wildly popular in Germany. And unlike his counterpart on Baywatch, Lain can't sing or dance, though he'd like to, and when it comes to hair, let's just say he has no need for conditioner.

Truth be told, this beach guard's life isn't all that glamorous. While Mitch Buchannon battles terrorists and sea monsters, Lain's trials have been far more mundane.

"I've been swung on, spit at and called pretty much every name in the book of bad stuff," Lain wrote in his resignation letter last week after more than 20 years on the job. "I even stepped on a couple of stingrays for good measure."

Sure, he had some drama, like the day he and his colleagues shocked a guy back to life who had collapsed on the beach.

"He was appreciative," recalled Lain, 54. "I know because he brought us a box of donuts when he got out of the hospital, which made us appreciative as well."

Then there was the time a couple of years ago on a busy July afternoon when a big bull shark bit a 200-pound tarpon in half in the middle of the swim area.

"One of my guys paddled out to pick up the bloody half of the tarpon that was left and another got on our wave runner and went out to chase the shark away," Lain wrote. "I thought to myself, these guys really are brave. And you know what? As soon as we opened the water back up, folks went right back in like nothing ever happened."

Lain also had some somber moments, like the day he found a dead girl on a sand dune who had taken more drugs than she could handle. That same year, an airplane had to make an emergency landing at Sand Key Park.

But most days, it was business as usual, treating stingray victims and returning lost children to their parents. "Some were appreciative," he said. "Some weren't."

Over the years, Lain spent countless holidays hoping just to get through the day without getting hurt or beat up by drunken beachgoers.

"I've been sunburned, stitched up, had my ribs broken and bloodied by jetty rocks and barnacles too many times to count," he said.

But every now and then, the Gulf of Mexico would throw a little curveball to make it all worthwhile … like the cloudy summer morning when a Kemp's ridley sea turtle crawled up on the beach to lay her eggs in the sand.

That same summer a rattlesnake swam up on the beach. "It coiled itself up and started rattling and hissing and doing the stuff snakes do," Lain said. "So a couple of snake hunter/lifeguards and I trapped the poor thing in a bucket."

Lain called the police who came and got the reptile. "Where they took him and what they did with him, I don't know," he said. "But I don't think it was good, at least not in the snake's mind anyway."

But the true value of Lain's 20-year tenure cannot be counted in the number of lives saved. As he explained on my first day on the job, "The idea is to keep people from getting in trouble."

The measure of a good lifeguard, he said, is not how many successful rescues he or she makes, but how many rescue situations they foresee and prevent. "That is why we plan for the worst and hope for the best," he said.

When Lain retires May 8 he may return to teaching English. Over the years, this surfing sage from Roger Mills County, Okla., has taught dozens of young men and women, including this writer, one of life's most valuable lessons, to put others before oneself.

Like all unsung heroes — the firefighters, police officers, park rangers, and men and women in uniform who keep us safe — this beach lifeguard has done his job quietly and without fanfare.

Seldom, if ever, do we show our appreciation. So from all of us whose lives you have touched, whether we knew it or not, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at (727) 893-8808.

One fewer eagle in Clearwater's watchtowers 04/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 30, 2009 4:30am]
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