I worked as a soda jerk at the Myrtle Beach pavilion the summer of 1960; for most of the time one of three men at the main counter on the 11pm to 7am shift. The graveyard shift. When all manner of man and women and mermaids and pirates and lost souls came in as the sun was coming up to our front. Everyone with a story. It was a fine coming of age for a 17 year old from a small town in the USA southern heartland.
The next summer I went back to work at the Myrtle Beach Pavilion. I drove down in an old station wagon junker Dad had bought for me to use at UNC, where I was enrolled as a freshman.
Wilson, one of the straw bosses greeted me as I walked into the upstairs offices.
“Welcome back, Jimmy boy. You ready for some hard work this summer? We got you on the three in the afternoon to eleven at night shift out at the outdoor counter because we need someone with your experience there. That’s all right?”
“No, that’s not all right. I won’t do it. I’ll quit and go back to Southern Pines and work for my father or something but I ain’t going to work the three to eleven outside. You ain’t got no one that wants to do that. Inside. Graveyard. That’s me.”
“Best I can do is inside, seven in the morning to three. The graveyard shift is locked up. My nephew beat you here for the summer by a couple of days. And by the way, we’ve changed the rules a little, like you got to pay for what you eat. Fifty percent discount though. But you pay for everything. Cokes, coffee, whatever. You put something in your mouth you put something in the register. Got it?”
“You guys are hard to like, you know that, Wilson? Were you this way before you got this job?”
“Hey, I don’t make the rules here, buddy. I just carry them out. You do your job, I’ll do mine.”
It was good seeing the old crowd those first couple of days after I got back. Sitting on the back of that park bench by the juke box listening to Pop, hugging the local girls, ruffling the hair of the local boys, talking down to the tourist girls, ignoring the tourist boys. Everything was the same as the year before, the pinball machines clanging in the background, the jukebox blaring Elvis, the lights from the amusement park across the street, the breeze coming in off the beach, Bumps slinking around, looking the crowd over like a predator.
Everyone was bitching about paying for food and most made promises to knock down extra money to pay for what was eaten. The previous summer I didn’t save anything. If we now had to pay for our food, I would have to write home for money.
On Friday of the first week, after we had handled the lunch crowd, I decided to fix a sandwich and hide out in the stand-up freezer to eat it. Wilson had been behind the counter only recently and chances were he wouldn’t be seen again until the end of the shift.
I walked down to the grill and put together a sandwich that was two inches high. Because I had so many slices of meat I put on an extra amount of mayonnaise and mustard. When I finished the grill man decided that I had what would have been a five dollar sandwich and he told me to put two fifty in my cash register. Sure, sure, I told him without looking up. I got a large coke and went into the walk-in refrigerator.
I turned on the light and closed the door.
It was another world. Cool and quiet. I sat down on a carton of lettuce and put my sandwich squarely on my apron which was stretched across my knees. It was good sitting down. I had been out late the night before with some bimbo and I had been busy all morning. I picked up the sandwich with both hands and opened my mouth as wide as I could. The sandwich barely fit. As I bit down dressing squirted out on my shirt. Mayonnaise and mustard was smeared all around my mouth as I took the sandwich away from my face and placed it back on my apron. I was chewing, with my eyes closed, when the door to the cooler opened. It was Wilson.
“Have you paid for that sandwich, Parker?” he asked hurriedly.
“Muffle, muffle, muffle.” My mouth was full and I couldn’t say anything. I stood up and part of my sandwich fell to the floor.
“What? I can’t hear you. Nod yes or no. Did you pay for this sandwich?”
I nodded yes. Then no.
“Yes? or No?”
I shook my head no, but I was trying to swallow the food so that I could say that I hadn’t paid yet, but I was going to.
“Fine, you’re going to be the one I’m going to make an example out of. You’re fired. Finish your sandwich, clean up, and by the time you get upstairs I’ll have your pay ready.”
And he closed the door. I sat back down, still chewing my food, thinking I could have talked myself out of it if my mouth wasn’t full. I reached up and for the first time realized how much mayonnaise and mustard I had smeared on my face. Jesus, I thought, it’s a wonder Wilson could recognize me.
I walked out and someone sitting down at the counter asked me for a hot dog. I told him I didn’t work here. The guy gave me the strangest look.
Upstairs Wilson handed me my wages. He told me to be out of the Pavilion house by nightfall and said good-bye.
“By the way, Parker,” he said as I turned to go, “I knew you were knocking down last summer on the graveyard shift. Remember that, you didn’t get away with it like you thought you did. That’s why it doesn’t hurt me to fire you now, ’cause I knew you were stealing.”
Sanctimonious sumbitch! Hell, I was one of the few the previous year who didn’t knock down a dime. We’re still fighting the Civil War.
I left, throwing, “Good Bye, Wilson,” over my shoulder as if that really put him in his place.
* * *
I cleaned out my closet at the Pavilion house and spent the night on the floor in Bumps’s messy apartment. Bumps was a Myrtle Beach staple, but basically a pick pocket by trade. He told me that he would show me the ropes if I wanted to skim the tourist his way, but that he operated alone; he wasn’t looking for a partner. I told him that I didn’t even knock down at the Pavilion, so I didn’t figure that hustling like he did was up my alley. I thought I could always get a job at the bingo parlor, but I was going out on the beach the next day and try to get something going there, out in the sun. Bumps said that the umbrella and floats guys made good money, but he didn’t know of any openings. Those guys tended to come back year after year.
Early the next morning I was down on the beach. I had been fired from the Pavilion so working on one of the Pavilion life guard towers was out. I sought out the owner of Baker’s Beach Service. He said he had a full crew, guys that had been working for him for years. He turned his back on me and went back to some repair work on a float shed. I walked up to the next concession area. A sign on the side of the lifeguard stand said Ladd’s Beach Service.
“Is Ladd around?” I asked the older of three boys sitting around the stand wearing Beach Service t-shirts. “I’m looking for a job.” The older guy, possibly in his early twenties, tilted his head to one side and shrugged his shoulders.
“Hey, I know you,” one of the younger guys said. He was no more than thirteen, one of the young boys that hung around the lifeguards, the ones they called “monkeys”. “You work at the Pavilion. You know this guy, Scott. He served us coffee last year. Naw, you probably don’t, you weren’t awake until about ten every morning. Hang around, buddy, Ladd will be here pretty soon. I’ll tell him you ain’t a tourist.”
The beach was crowded and as I waited on the steps to the boardwalk, I noticed how active the lifeguard and his two monkeys were. They approached almost every adult coming down to their part of the beach, trying to rent them an umbrella and chairs. Baker’s stands were on the south side of the steps on which I was sitting, Ladd’s on the north. Baker’s boys approached people heading south, Ladd’s two boy monkey group hit everyone going north.
I knew it was Ladd when I saw a sun-scarred old man come down the beach walking like a crab. He came up to the older boy the monkey had called Scott. I walked down the stairs toward him.
“Nope, I don’t need anyone. Can you talk, I mean talk-talk? You got a car?” Ladd said in one breath.
I was caught for a second and said “Awg, Yes, Yes, Yes.”
“Yea, Yea, Yea. But I don’t need anyone. So?”
“So,” I tried to think of a response. “I can do anything. Guys like me don’t come walking down the beach every day. And they don’t come walking up to you once a summer either. I can make us both money.” And I smiled, pleased with my banter.
Ladd looked me up and down and said, “I’ve the beach concession from here next to Baker all the way up the beach to Ocean Drive. Miles and Miles. And I got it covered with the fastest talking guys this side of the Mason Dixon line.”
This was not going anywhere, I could tell. It was going to be Bingo or going home to work for Dad.
“There’s only a three mile space up on the north end I don’t have covered. That’s all. Three miles.”
There was hope, after all.
“No one much comes to that part of the beach, however. No hotels there, you see.”
Desolate beach. I could see it in my mind’s eye. For as far as you could see, sand dunes and empty beach.
“Some tourists and some rich homeowners. Not many. A guy would have to bust his buns to make it go. I could do it. Someone with real talent could do it. You can have that three mile stretch if you want. I’ll put you on straight commission. If you hustle, if you’re good, you’ll make money. If you don’t, you’ll starve.”
The guard named Scott stepped back behind Ladd and looked me in the eye. He opened his mouth, waved the palms of his hands back and forth and shook his head no. The monkey who had helped me out when I first came up put his hand over his eyes and shook his head.
“OK,” I said, “it’s a deal. Tell me where to go and when to be there and I’m ready for work.”
“Twelve o’clock. 78th street. On the beach.”
And at twelve o’clock that day I was there. I was alone though. There was no one else around for as far as I could see in either direction. Ladd had put out some floats and three umbrellas with a brace of chairs each but they were unoccupied. It was quiet except for the crash of the waves and the sea gulls squawking. A slight breeze was coming in off the ocean and the sun was hot.
Ladd’s old beat-up Jeep station wagon clamored to a halt beside my junker.
He was talking to me before he got close enough for me to hear him.
“….in the world. Opportunity, that’s what it is. Yours to make a go of it or not, it all up to you. A challenge. I could do it.”
“Ah, Mr. Ladd, there’s no one here. No one other than you and me. Who am I going to rent these floats and chairs and umbrellas to? No one here.”
“They’ll be here. It’s the hottest part of the day. You want the job or not? It’s a great opportunity for you.”
“Yea, I want the job. I do. There’s just… no… people… anywhere… out here.”
“OK. You got the perfect auto there for this job. You bring these floats and umbrella in to my house on 67th and Ring Street tonight when the sun goes down and in the morning come by and pick them up. And we’ll see how it goes. Strike your own deals with people. I’ll check around and see if there is a room left at the lifeguard house. OK. I got to go. Good luck. Oh here’s a t-shirt. That’s your uniform. This t-shirt and Bermuda shorts. Don’t give the t-shirt away for anything less than a full piece of ass. That’s what it’s worth. If you work out and make me a little bit of money I’ll let you buy another shirt.”
I looked him in the eye as I mouthed, “Buy another shirt?”
“Come on down here and I’ll show you how to put these umbrellas in the sand and stack and carry four chairs at a time. Now you got to remember to turn the umbrellas in the wind. When you feel a wind come up, remember, turn the umbrellas into the wind. You got some of ’em set up and there’s a quick burst of wind, stop what you’re doing and go turn those umbrellas into the wind.”
After showing me how to work the umbrella poles into the sand and carry chairs and floats he left. It was quiet again. I went over and sat down in one of the chairs. The umbrellas were all old and patched. The chairs also showed age. One or two had been repaired with wire. All the floats were patched. Some had patches on the patches. There was a stack of rate cards on a clipboard. “Umbrella and two chairs, $3.00 a day or $17.00 a week. Floats, $.50 an hour or $3.00 a day.”
Using my toe, I wrote the date in the sand: June 11, 1961. I looked up and down the beach. No one. I wrote my name: Jimmy Parker. My age: l8. My job: O. I had nothing to do. I had bought some zinc oxide and put it on my nose just like I had seen the guards do last summer. I looked down at my t-shirt. Ladd’s Beach Service on the front. I knew it said Life Guard on the back. I was wearing a pair of madras Bermuda shorts. I looked into the sun and smiled.
I had heard many stories over the previous summer about rich women handing guards keys to their rooms and young girls, barely through adolescent, making bold propositions. Opportunities like that weren’t afforded to soda jerks at the Pavilion. But they were to lifeguards. Lifeguards at Myrtle Beach were as close to being celebrities as could be found in South Carolina in the summer. Whether it was the job that made them seem so attractive or it was handsome boys that were hired for the job, I wasn’t sure, but every guard at Myrtle Beach turned the heads of the young and the restless when they walked by. Maybe it was the tan. Maybe it was their attitude.
So I felt pretty good. I was a Myrtle Beach lifeguard.
Only I was on 78th street. Alone. No one around to look at me.
It suddenly struck me that Ladd had not mentioned anything about the lifeguarding part of the job. It was part of the responsibility of the beach concessionaire to provide lifeguard services, but Ladd hadn’t even asked me if I could swim. He wasn’t very concerned apparently.
I looked down the beach again.
Way in the distance to the south I could just make out a group of people coming out. A family.
I picked up an umbrella and a couple of chairs and started trotting in their direction. Halfway to them I saw the group open up a small, cheap K-Mart umbrella and then set out a couple of plastic and aluminum lounge chairs. They wouldn’t need to rent my equipment. I stopped and returned to 78th street. Maybe they would need floats. There were kids, I could see them running towards the water. I picked up a couple of the better floats and started back down. A straggler in the group came over the sand dune carrying two inner tubes on each arm. So much for my floats. They had as many inner tubes as they had people. I went on down to them anyway. As I suspected they didn’t want any umbrellas or chairs or floats. They wanted a beer opener. I gave them my best smile and some very friendly conversation. They were underwhelmed and told me again they didn’t want to rent my floats. Further south I saw some more people lying on the beach. I picked up the two floats and continued on down.
The people I saw were two ladies in their fifties. They said they lived a few blocks off the beach. They had been coming out to the beach for some early morning and late afternoon sun for years. They never went into the ocean. They hated salt water, in fact, and they didn’t need any floats. But they were nice and I sat down in the sand beside them and we talked. One of the ladies told me to leave the floats and if anyone came out they would try and rent them for me. They said they thought one of their neighbors was due on the beach soon and they knew he had too much money.
I left the floats with them and walked back to my stand. Someone was sitting in one of the chairs. Good, I thought, a customer. When I woke the old man up, he had trouble focusing on me and could not understand why I was asking him for money.
“I only got, I ain’t sure. Fifty cents, maybe.”
First person interested in what I was renting had fifty cents to his name. Maybe. I shrugged. Least I had someone to talk with. I sat down next to the man. He told me he was living with his daughter and she asked him to leave the house during the day. He usually went to the park near the high school but today he decided to walk along the beach. I asked him what time could he go back to his daughter’s and he said at seven when she went off to work.
“You want a job? What time do you usually leave the house in the morning?
“A job? What kind of job? I’m seventy-two.”
“I’ll level with you. I just started working today, this afternoon as a matter of fact. Down the beach close to the Pavilion where there are a lot of people, the guards have people that help them rent chairs and umbrellas and floats. They’re called monkeys. But I’m the one that needs help. See I’ve got this whole area, as far as you can see that way, and that way,” I said, pointing up and down the beach. “And it’s just me. I can’t cover the whole area myself. But now I got some ladies down there that are trying to rent me some floats and if you want to work for me I’ll put you way up there in the north with some chairs and some umbrellas and some floats and you sit there and if anyone comes down you rent ’em the stuff.” The old man was sitting up and his eyes were alive. He looked up and down the beach. “No,” I said continuing, “Don’t you rent this stuff, I’ll do that, all I would want you to do is to offer the stuff to people and just tell them I’ll be along and collect. That’s all. Could you do that?”
“Now let’s see, you’re going to put some umbrellas way up there and some chairs and these inner tube like things and I’m going to ask people to sit in them and you’ll come by sometime and collect money from them. Right? That’s all I do, just tell them to go ahead and use ’em and you’ll collect.”
“Yea, that’s basically it. You can do it. I think you’re perfect.”
“How much are going to pay me?”
“I’m not. But you won’t have to pay me for sitting in the chairs all you like. I’ll set ’em up and you sit all you want.” I couldn’t help but smile.
The old man noticed my smile. Finally he said, “OK, I’m your man… your monkey.”
I went down the beach later and the ladies had rented my floats to their neighbor, who also agreed to rent an umbrella and two chairs for a couple of weeks. I gave them a good rate because they agreed, the ladies and their neighbor, to act as my sub-agents renting floats and umbrellas to people who came on their section of the beach.
Returning to Ladd’s house that night I turned in twelve dollars and a quarter. I asked for more equipment the next morning. Ladd had not been able to find out if there was room left at the lifeguard house so I spent the night again with Bumps.
After I picked up a station wagon full of umbrellas and chairs and floats the next morning, I drove to the section of the beach where I had met the ladies from the day before. They were waiting for me and took half of my equipment, saying they were sure they could rent them for me. They had nothing else to do all day.
Arriving at the stand on 78th street I saw the old man standing off near a sand dune with another old man. They came up when I parked.
“This is my buddy George. He’s going to be my monkey. What do you think?”
“My 72 year old monkey’s got a monkey? I think that’s a super idea. You guys get in and let’s go on up north and set you up.”
The old man’s friend put on a baseball cap as we got into the car. “Beach Dude” was on a patch on the front. Rock-and-roll music was on the radio.
When Ladd came down to 78th street at mid-day we had most of the people under our umbrellas if they were on the beach or on our floats if they were in the water. I had fifty-four dollars in my Bermuda shorts. I asked Ladd for four t-shirts for my monkeys.
He came back later in the afternoon and told me he had gotten me a room at the lifeguard house behind the Sands hotel. He told me to identify myself to the people at the Sands as Ladd’s guy from the northern territory.
When I closed up that second night I drove down to the Sands which was close to the Pavilion. The lady at the desk told me I had the room off the porch of the Life Guard house at twenty bucks a week; the price included clean sheets and towels. She walked with me to the back of the hotel and pointed me toward a shabby one-story house down a side street.
I drove the junker around back and found the empty room off the porch. I was inside hanging my clothes up on a rod that ran along the wall behind the door when Bob Somers walked in.
Somers was my height, about six foot two, but he was older and heavier. Although it was only early June he was tanned the color of cocoa. His hair was bleached by the sun and after a day on the beach and in the ocean it was pulled back straight. His eyes and his teeth were sparkling white. He had on the same Beach Service, Life Guard t-shirt like the one I was wearing and faded khaki shorts.
Uncommonly handsome, his eyes were steel gray and intense. He exuded confidence. He walked up close to me. His voice was low but had resonance. His spoke in a crisp, precise tone, pronouncing each word.
“You are only a kid. Ladd came running back down to my stand early this afternoon to say he had just hired a guard who in one day had wrapped up the northern territory. He said you had hired every local in the area to work for you. He made it sound as if you were going to expand south, taking away all of our jobs as you moved on to conquer the world.”
Somers was standing very close, so close in fact that I was distracted in what he had to say. It was not usual for a stranger to stand so close. I backed away. Somers stood his ground, smiling.
“You are not going to take my job, now are you? I am only a poor law student trying to make the nut to pay my fall tuition, and, if I’m lucky from time to time, to get a little nookey on the side. Honest endeavors, my friend. Have mercy on my soul and do not take my job. Kindness would befit you, young fellow.”
He backed up a step.
“I like the way you look. I think you are going to fit in. Ladd has a pretty good eye for talent. He’s as crazy as a loon, you know, but he knows character. He knows people who can make him money and you look the type.” He extended his hand.
Somers had big world presence and sounded intelligent. And he appeared to be neither mean spirited nor threatening. He was, despite his glitter, approachable.
Two other very tan lifeguards came in.
Somers made the introductions. “This is Don Edwards, the king. And Worry Smith, the character. We represent, the three of us, and now you, the best of Ladd and that is the best of Myrtle Beach, which in turn is the best of the south, which is the best of the known world, the whole spectacular universe. If you stay with us long, you will understand that this is true.”
“What’s your name?” asked the individual introduced as Don Edwards.
“Welcome. Don’t let Somers scare you, he’s harmless. He is a mile wide but only a couple of inches thin. His brains are in his mouth. He has nothing in his head, he has no soul, no morals. He is going to law school at North Carolina, which is one indication to me that we are in for some rough times ahead, with someone as immoral as he is, getting training to administer the laws of the land.”
Edwards also spoke in a precise, confident tone.
Two girls walked into my room from the porch unannounced as Edwards was talking. Somers had sat down on my bed. Worry was leaning against the wall near the door.
Somers, propped on his elbows, said, “Ladies welcome. You have your choice of any of three known, tanned men who have enormous skills to impress ladies of all ages… and wait, we have here a new member of our group who is yet unproven in the art of laying a loving on a lady, but is probably worth your time. If you’re interested… if wild funky beach sex is what you’re doing here… you’re in luck. If getting naked for the pure joy of humping offends you, you’re in the wrong place.”
I looked at Somers, amazed at how his brashness didn’t sound offensive. Maybe it was his confidence.
“Excuse my friend, girls,” Edwards said with an engaging grin, “How can we help you?”
“Worry Smith,” one of the girls said. “We’re supposed to look up Worry Smith.”
“That would be me,” said Somers, maybe because he just liked being the center of attention, even though Worry was standing closest to them.
“We’ve got a message from Judy Rankin in Columbia. You remember Judy? It’s personal, the message. She asked us to give it to you privately. Can we go somewhere to talk?”
“Sure, we can go into my room where we can talk this over away from these animals, who I can tell you, honestly, though talented should not be told anything in confidence.” Somers got up and began escorting the girls out of the room. “Did Judy mention Bob Somers or Don Edwards?”
Edwards turned and looked at Worry Smith after they left.
“I don’t remember Judy Whateverherlastname was.” Worry said. “I would have shown a little more concern, possibly have identified myself, but I have the ‘catch of the day’ down in my room. Bobby can have those two and whatever comes from my dealings with the Judy Whatsit.”
Worry and Edwards left after we had talked for a few more minutes.
I soon heard the door to Somer’s room open. “Holy Mother of Jesus,” Somers came out on the porch, followed by the two girls. Looking in at me he said with a smile, “Judy Rankin has V.D. and she thinks I gave it to her. What a terrible thing.” As he turned back to face the girls his face became sober. “Please tell Judy that venereal diseases are curable. Tell her to go to a good doctor. She shouldn’t be concerned that anyone will find out. Tell her I love her. You tell her that. It’s a difficult concept to understand when you have been stricken with something like this. It tests the bond. I do not have now, nor have I ever had, a venereal disease. I cannot explain her condition. Please excuse me, girls. I need some time to sort all of this out. Since it’s not me, who could it be? Good bye girls.”
Somers seemed in great pain.
After the girls left he came to my room and did a fast calypso step in a circle. “Oh boy, you have to love this. I love it. Only Worry Smith is the least likely fool for this to happen to, because he has never worried about anything in his life. Come on let’s go down to his room.”
I followed Somers out of my room and down the hall to a door near the rear. Somers entered without knocking. Worry was intertwined with a naked girl on his bed. She screamed when we walked in. Somers pulled a chair up close to the bed and sat down. Worry did not stop his slow pelvic grind. He turned to look at Bob without expression and then turned his head away. He buried it on the far side of the girl’s face, forcing her to look at Somers.
“Please go away, please,” she said.
“Worry, I had a very interesting conversation with those two young girls just then and I thought it might be something you would want me to share with you as soon as possible. Their closest friend in the whole wide world, Judy Rankin — you remember Judy Rankin, Worry?– Well Judy is still madly in love with you.”
Worry continued to move slowly in his love making. The girl’s face was flushed but she was still responding.
“That was one thing the girls said, the other thing was that Judy Rankin may have V.D. she can only assume she got from you. V.D.”
The girl stopped moving. She gave Somers a hard look. Worry did not raise his head.
“Is that right? Do you have V.D.? Do you?” The girl had turned and was talking into the side of Worry’s head, which was still nestled in the crock of her neck. What she said next was a line we used amongst ourselves the rest of the summer.
“Oh my God, My husband just would not understand. “
“So there you have it, Worry. Thought you would want to know.” Bob said with a look as if he just did Worry a favor.
Worry finally looked up. He twisted his mouth to one side. “Thanks, Bob.” He propped himself up on one elbow and looked down at the girl, “It’s OK, you have nothing to worry about.” His tone was reassuring.
“Except Worry himself,” Bob said as he got up, slapping the guard on his naked rump.
On my stand mid summer 1961
Now working as a life guard, this photo was taken at the same photo concession as the photo of me as a soda jerk.
On my float stand, have no idea where my monkeys are.
My second pair of monkeys. First set was in their 70s.
Group of mostly Baker’s guards with some vacationing ladies… or girls working at the beach. Unsure which. That is the famous Darrell McCall standing in the plaid shirt, me standing behind his left. Picture taken in the same photo booth as previous ones of me as soda jerk and in white pants.
Bob Somers from UNC Law School yearbook 1961. He never wore glasses at the beach.