JOHN RYAN DOESN’T REMEMBER exactly how old he was when he learned to swim, sometime probably between the ages of 4 and 6, only that someone — a friend he guesses — pushed him off a dock at the bay on Long Beach.
So, given the alternative, he swam. That was usually the way they did it in those days, around World War II. He has always loved the ocean, never feared it.
“Some days, when it’s rough, you don’t go in, you’re a non-swimmer. Children know that — they don’t go in recklessly when it’s rough. It’s the pools that worry me, and the flotation devices.” Interestingly, the unofficial elder statesman of East Hampton Town’s lifeguards and the founding father of the town’s impeccably monitored junior lifeguard program never had any formal training.
"I want every kid by the age of 9 on the South Fork to be able to tread water for five minutes in the deep end.”
For him, it was largely sink or swim: His father died when he was 4, leaving his mother with six children to rear.
But for this imposing, garrulous 81-year-old father of nine (eight of whom became certified lifeguards) and grandfather of 23 (19 of whom have remained here), the support of a large family is a consolation.
“Both of us come from large families,” Ryan said the other day during a conversation at the house on Meadow Way, East Hampton, he shares with his wife, Pat. “Our mothers were very close. I always said her mother was the best mother-in-law I ever had. I said to myself if my wife is anything like her mother I’ve found a gem. I always tell my grandkids that their cousins will be their best friends.” Ryan became an ocean lifeguard at 16, and is still “watching the water” from the uppermost seat of a stand he built at the Amagansett Beach Association. From up there, “where no one can bother you,” he can control things. When he’s riding the pines, as it were, it’s his beach, and his responsibility that everyone’s safe.
Vigilance is John Ryan’s watchword. He learned the hard way. “I missed one once. We worked 9-to-5 and 10-to-6 shifts at Long Beach. I distinctly remember being on the lower part of the stand and saying goodbye to the 5 o’clock guys, looking at my toenails. All of a sudden, I saw two people with their heads together. It was a rough day. One guy was trying to save the other.
“I missed it: I didn’t see them get in trouble, and that’s bad. I blew my whistle, and a guard ran down from the next beach. I ran out, and one guy said, ‘I’m okay, get him!’ I turned around. Nothing. I dived down and got him. He was blue. Oh, my God! By that time two other guards came out and, as we carried him out he threw up and started breathing.
Thank God I got to him soon enough. . . . I was maybe three years in at that time, 18 or 19.
“Those kinds of things stick with you forever. Making rescues is terrific if everything comes out all right. I wasn’t vigilant that day, but, again, if I didn’t grab him, he would have been dead.” Needless to say, over the course of a long lifeguarding and teaching career, he has participated in numerous rescues.
And that’s not to mention the lives presumably saved through his persistent efforts to “waterproof” the population here.
“I want every kid by the age of 9 on the South Fork to be able to tread water for five minutes in the deep end of a pool,” he said, describing one of the requirements made of the countless youngsters who make it through junior lifeguarding.
“Our in-school training at the Y is unique. We’ve got all of the schools. Still, there’s work to be done. We’ve got to do a better job of engaging the Latino community.
“Kids will give you tremendous effort. It’s natural for them to take risks. Adults don’t. I glory in working with young people because of the effort they give you. I’ve always believed, as a teacher and as a swimming instructor and a test-giver, that you don’t inhibit, you facilitate.
“I was at our Nippers program on Sunday, where kids 6, 7, and 8 can go to get ready for junior lifeguard tests. A boy had finished four laps and was crying. He had to do it in two minutes and 15 seconds, and he’d done it in 2:18. He was going to throw away his control card, where we keep track of their progress in the basic strokes. Haley, my granddaughter . . . is talking to him. She convinces the kid to rest and try again. He does and he makes it in within the time allowance.
There’s a big smile on his face. That’s it! That’s important to us. I gave him an award. We celebrated.”
Coming out of a proud tradition of lifeguarding at Long Beach, Ryan, who stands 6 feet 6 inches and once played for Joe Lapchick’s St. John’s University men’s N.I.T. basketball champions, first moved here in the early ’60s. In half a century, he’s built a proud East Hampton tradition, what with the volunteer ocean rescue squad and the comprehensive lifeguard training that begins now with the Nippers.
Still riding the crest of the wave at 81 — “on a rough day I know I can still go in and get through the break” — John Ryan is content to have passed the torch to such people as his son, John Jr., who heads the town guards, Tom Cohill, Norma Bushman, Helene Forst, T. J. Calabrese, Bob Pucci, Tim Treadwell, Vanessa Edwardes, and Steve Brierley, among others.
“I was down sitting with my new beach boys the other day, saying to them, okay, America is probably the best country to live in in the world, that in America a pretty good place to live is in the Hamptons, and if you’re in the Hamptons you naturally want to be on the beach. And, look at us — we get paid to be on the beach. Isn’t that ridiculous? It’s a responsible position, but that’s it. To have that opportunity to work on the finest beaches in the world and to be paid for it. Absolutely, I feel blessed.”