Sunsets with Tommy were my favorite days of summer. Closing up the beach, picking up trash, watching over the last few kiddos desperate to hang on to their beach time for just a little longer. While mid-day lifeguard shifts featured up to twelve guards and two managers working the beach, closing shift was made up of just a few of us lifeguards and one guard manager.
Tommy was the best guard manager. And closing with Tommy was the best shift to get, if you had to get closing shift.
I loved those shifts more than anything. Us lifeguards, we ranged in age from 15 to 21 and Tommy treated us like we were humans who had thoughts when many adults didn’t. He listened to our opinions, he made us think about real stuff.
Unlike most adults, he didn’t talk at us, he talked with us. He didn’t pretend to listen. He listened. And when we were being dumbass teenagers, he helped us see that.
We gambled on the sunset with Tommy…
I don’t think we ever actually played for money. We played for bragging rights, maybe we played for a $1 once or twice, I can’t remember – it was fifteen years ago after all.
The rules were: you had to be closest to the exact time the top of the sun went under the horizon, but if your time passed and the sun was still there, you were out, even if it set the very next minute.
The lake we worked on was big, you could barely see the trees on the other end of the beach. The lake itself spread out into a long corridor before you. It was a wide enough body of water that the surrounding tree line was pushed out enough to allow for a massive tent of sky to sit above you.
Put another way, sunsets were magnificent on that lake, as evidenced by the picture I’ve included on this post.
There was a method to guessing the exact sunset time – 8:28, 8:17, 8: 21. Well, a method plus a little bit of luck.
Guesses were accepted starting one hour before beach close. There was always some back & forth banter about our sunset guesses, but once we submitted ours, Tommy would make his prediction, too.
He’d write them down, and then, as we finished cleaning the beach and one of us was up in the guard stand covering the last patrons in the water, the rest of us would come out to a bench to sit and do nothing but watch the horizon and see who won.
The truth is, we all won, but we didn’t realize that then.
It never occurred to me to check the sunset time listed in the weather section of the paper, and Tommy was the kind of person who wouldn’t do that. He didn’t need to know things ahead of schedule. He was chill like that.
He wore flip flops every day but was barefoot for most of his work shift. With his red swim trunks, he wore the standard issue white manager’s polo shirt with the red lifeguard cross symbol on the back. The shirt was always untucked and usually had grease, sand, or dirt streaked across it somewhere. Not a tall man, most of us could look him straight in the eye – except for those of us who had massive growth spurts over those summers.
Maybe it’s because I always did the tasks he asked of me without complaining – raking seaweed anyone? Maybe it’s because we shared a love for the Chicago Cubs – god, it was so painful to love those guys. Who knows?
But somewhere in the 6 or 7 summers we worked together, he deemed me worthy of learning his method for guessing sunset times so accurately. More importantly though, he taught me how life could be done differently.
He always smiled. I mean, always. The creases next to his eyes proved that. You smiled more when you were around him. He said ‘yah man’ a lot.
He high-fived you every day for no other reason than to celebrate life via high-five. He walked slowly, and you walked slowly too when you were around him. There wasn’t a job in the beach park he wouldn’t do if it was needed.
He wasn’t the kind of guy to say ‘let me tell you a story and the lesson that goes with it’. It was the way he talked about life, not what he talked about – that’s how you learned life lessons from Tommy.
When I was stuck on whether or not to date the hot lifeguard with the jeep, he noted a potential positive and a potential negative in doing so, and then he’d laugh and remind me life is life so go live it.
(I dated the hot lifeguard with the jeep. worth it.)
Teaching us to sit and watch those sunsets, it was the tiniest thing. But it was so massive.
To have a boss who actively encouraged calm reflection, without us realizing that was what it was, at the end of every day…
To have a guide during those rough and tumble teenage years who got you to peek your head up and realize this magnificent thing called a sunset happened every day and whatever issues you were dealing with (friend drama, boy drama, all the drama that teens seem to find themselves in) you could set all that down for the 15 minutes we all watched the sunset….and you didn’t have to pick them back up again if you didn’t want to…
To have someone who made work fun by getting us to care about the quality of work we put into it…
We’d sit and watch those sunsets, and despite the feigned contempt we’d display when the sun didn’t align with our guessed time, all of us went home happy and appreciative after those shifts.
I hope you have a Tommy in your life. And if you do, I hope you realize what you’ve got.
When I watch sunsets now, Tommy is one of the people I think of. As I accumulate more sunsets under my belt, I’m realizing more and more just how lucky I was to get a Tommy in my life so early on.