The Lifeguard

Daniel V. Klein © 2004

Not a morning person – that was an understatement.  Mornings were objectionable things, filled with noisy chirping birds and annoyingly chirpy type-A personalities.  Daylight was a time to enjoy, but the quiet dark was a time to get things done, when his brain kicked into gear, when he really soared.  Mornings were best seen after staying up the whole night, on the way to bed.  And weekend mornings were the best, because those were the days that you slept through them.  Yet here it was Saturday at 7 a.m., and Mark was fully dressed, water splashed on his face to banish the sleep from his eyes, walking to join the line, as he had done every Saturday for the past three years.

And on this morning, as on every Saturday morning for nearly that whole time, he wondered what the hell he was doing here.

Mark could take the weekly dose of abuse, it didn't bother him anymore. Born-again's spitting on him, flinging epithets, cursing him.  Jesus said to turn the other cheek, and so Mark did. There was no use playing their game.  Jesus said to love thy neighbor as you love thyself.  Mark wondered what had happened that they hated themselves so much, to treat him like this.

Then there was the abuse from within his own ranks.  Militant feminists who hated him simply because he was male, meddling in women's affairs.  Never mind whose side he was on, that piece of protuberant flesh made him an enemy, a quisling, a wolf in sheep's clothing.  It was politically incorrect to judge someone by their body type – apparently that rule didn't apply to gender.

In the winter, Mark bundled in layers until he looked like a six-foot two-inch tall pumpkin.  Long underwear and knee socks.  T-shirt, shirt, sweater, and a down coat.  Two pairs of gloves and a hat.  The sun didn't even come up for an hour after he got there.  And after five hours of walking the line, he'd get home again, and stand under a hot shower for 30 minutes just to get the circulation back in his feet.  To get the chill from his bones, to make his skin feel warm again.

But he had a gift for leadership, so they elected him captain; and he had a gift for observation, so he acted as a spotter.  Anyone could walk, anyone could guard, but no one could see as well as Mark could.  He'd see the car approach from a block away, and spot "the look".  The tenseness in the driver's shoulders, the fear in the passenger's eyes.  The way they slowed to watch but avoided all eye contact.  And this car – there was more than just "the look" in this one.  It silently screamed for help.  So instead of sending one of his team of escorts, Mark took it himself.

Every Saturday morning started by him once again wondering what the hell he was doing here.  Every noon came and he'd once more know why.  The 40ish mother of three teenagers.  The college graduate starting life on her own.  The high-school student, determined not to make the mistakes that her minimum-wage mother had made.  The any-age couple, both scared, holding hands.  He'd saved all their lives, one weekend at a time, making sure they got into the clinic safely.  Carelessness, chance, accident, bad timing, drunken indiscretion, rape – he never knew which reason belonged to whom.  Pro-choice meant that it didn't matter, because it wasn't for him to say.  Pro-choice meant that it wasn't his choice to make – it was theirs.

Mark knew he had a saviour personality.  He had had too many girlfriends he could "help", it was too easy to fall into the role of teacher, he was too eager to give directions to the lost.  Bullied as a child, the perpetual underdog chosen last for every sport, he'd always wanted a white knight to save him.  And unable to change the past, in his broad-shouldered adulthood he became the white knight himself, the white-hatted cowboy to their Black Bart, Flash Gordon to their Ming the Merciless.  Three years ago he had seen a "rescue" on the news.  Hundreds of praying protester had blockaded a women's clinic that performed abortions, and a few dozen of them had chained themselves to the door.  A "rescue" of the innocents, funded by the religious right, and staffed by zealous anti-choice people bused in from out of state.  It had so infuriated him that Mark called the clinic that afternoon and volunteered to help.  He'd rescue them from the righteous.

Today wasn't a particularly big day.  Spring was finally in the air, and there was no "rescue" scheduled this weekend.  Just the usual protestors, marching in a circle on the sidewalk, always moving so they wouldn't be guilty of obstruction.  But last month the anti's had found a new tactic.  Persuasion didn't work, grisly placards didn't work, chanting and praying didn't work, so they tried intimidation.  Video cameras filmed every patient and escort – blackmail photos.  Big cameras, professional looking ones, and some of the photographers even had press cards.  But the police said that anyone could take pictures, that it wasn't officially blackmail unless they tried to use them.  Yeah.  Right.

Mark rounded the corner to where the car had parked.  Two girls were getting out of the car, and when they saw his yellow "Pro-Choice Escort" shirt their tense apprehension faded a little.  The clinics had told them to look for the shirts, that those wearing them were friends to be trusted.  The driver looked like she was in her early twenties, but the passenger looked barely sixteen.  She had "the look" etched into her face.  Scared and resolute, certain and uncertain, torn and determined.  A boy her age emerged from the back seat and took her hand, trying to look brave.  Mark had seen this scene a hundred times before, and it still tugged at his heartstrings.

He told them that he'd walk them through the crowd, and get them safely to the door.  But when they rounded the corner and the young girl saw the massed cameras, she broke Mark's heart.  She whirled around and crumpled into a quivering little ball.  "I can't be on TV," she wailed.  "My mother doesn't even know I'm having sex yet."  After three years, Mark thought he was callused, but his heart had shattered.  "Don't worry," he said, "I'll take care of it."

He walked up to the line of cameras, and said "Not this one.  Take all the pictures you like, but not this one."

When you wear the white hat, you always give the black hats a chance to reform.  In the movies the bad guys never do, and so the good guys reluctantly take up the fight.  And when the smoke clears, they're the only ones left standing.  When Mark asked them to put down the cameras, he truly meant it as an appeal to their humanity.  No malice, no threat, just a request, a plea: can't you see that this girl was different?  And remarkably, everyone put down their cameras.  But on reflection, Mark thought that perhaps they saw the whirlwind of retribution that might have been loosed that day.  Over six feet of massive politeness still has a hint of menace, and on the warmth of that sunny spring day, Mark's eyes were bone-chillingly cold.

He walked back to where the older girl now had her arms around the younger, the boy standing awkwardly off to the side.  Together the four of them walked to the clinic door, and three slipped inside.  Mark stayed outside, just like he always did.  His responsibility was out here, with the hurled abuse and the damsels in distress.  He wore the white hat, rode the white horse, so he politely thanked the cameras for doing the right thing.  As he walked back to the line, Mark saw them come back up, one by one, ready to photograph the next people as they walked into the clinic.

Every Saturday morning he wondered what the hell he was doing here.  Driving home every Saturday afternoon he knew.  He saved lives, one weekend at a time, and Saturday nights he slept well.  Not a morning person – yes, that was certainly an understatement.  Tomorrow morning he'd sleep late.