Just Following Orders | Letters | Chicago Reader

Just Following Orders 

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Dear Ben:

We were surprised and encouraged to read your article "Lake of Ire" (Chicago Reader, 8-13-99) about the situation at the beaches in Rogers Park. A week and a day after Craig Greenman's confrontation with the lifeguards at Columbia Avenue beach, we had a similarly frustrating experience.

It was a gorgeous, 80-degree day--quite a relief from the sweltering temps of the preceding days. A breeze off the lake not only cooled the air but kicked up some nice two-to-three-foot waves, making the lake even more enticing. Unfortunately, the lifeguards were refusing to let people into the water. The lifeguard posted on the small pier at North Shore Avenue stated that they were only allowing swimming further north toward Columbia Avenue.

As we grudgingly trudged up the beach we saw the lifeguards corralling people into a roughly 40-by-100-foot area just south of the Pratt Boulevard pier. If a person were to venture outside the invisible "corral boundaries," they were promptly yelled at and told to get over closer to the designated swimming area. This small area was guarded by no less than four and sometimes five or six lifeguards: one in a boat, two or three on the beach, and occasionally one in the water. In this area, and only in this area, were people allowed to swim.

If this wasn't frustrating enough, visitors to the beach were being told that swimming was only allowed in half-hour intervals. A lifeguard in a boat would go out, people were allowed in to swim for 30 minutes, and then the guard came in (no one replacing him or her), and people were ordered out of the water. Most of the lifeguards who were patrolling the water during "swim time" then retreated out of sight, leaving one lifeguard to watch the water and reprimand people who attempted to swim. When the roughly 30-minute time period was over, a lifeguard would get into the boat and reposition him/herself at the east edge of the swimming corral, people were allowed back into the water for another 30 minutes, and the process repeated itself.

This entire situation came much to our surprise, as we hadn't seen such a thing in the eight years we've been frequenting this stretch of beach (which lies just outside our doorstep as well). The situation seemed poorly organized, and although almost all swimmers, adults and children, obeyed the lifeguards, none seemed at all pleased with the 30-minute time limit. It was quite embarrassing and frustrating for everyone. Even the lifeguards expressed frustration at the difficult attempt to corral and control the 100-150 people who were trying to enjoy the water. At one point a male lifeguard mounted the white guard tower and started screaming to the crowd commands to the effect of "Don't disobey the lifeguards and don't go past the designated swimming area boundaries." This not-so-eloquent oratory was a sure sign things weren't working out as the lifeguards had hoped.

The behavior of the lifeguards was embarrassing and stands as proof of their poor organization and ineffective regulations. When Jamie confronted one of the supervisors in blue on August 1, he got nowhere. It wasn't quite as hostile as Craig's confrontation, but similarly fruitless. The agitated supervisor with whom he spoke, surrounded by four or five underlings, tried his hardest to defend himself and his policies, by referring to the practice of "preventive lifeguarding" and saying that "the rule is that you can go in up to your chest." When Jamie pointed out that the guards out on the beach weren't allowing people to go in much over their waists, the supervisor said in response, "We assume people aren't going to follow the rules and go in only up to their chests." Huh? He also stated that "it's the kids we're worried about," to which Jamie inquired why adults were being held to a child's standard. The supervisor replied that "they can't make exceptions to the rules." When Jamie asked how a beach full of adults with a handful of kids put adults as "exceptions," he got no response.

Then there was the wonderfully irrelevant comparison to driving: the supervisor asked Jamie if he disagreed with speed limits on roads--and would he argue with those? To which Jamie replied, like the lifeguards, traffic cops "assume" people won't follow the speed limits to the digit, but unlike the lifeguards they've not forgotten that the main point of the limits is general safety, that is, not simply to zealously impose a regulation--and of course, an important key difference is that other people's lives are not endangered when a grown man swims in chest-deep water for, God forbid, more than 30 minutes.

In the end he was told to talk to the supervisor's boss, Joseph Pecoraro, manager of beaches and pools for the Chicago Park District. The lifeguards were, not surprisingly, simply following orders.

We applaud Craig Greenman's protest of the limitations imposed on responsible, adult swimmers. We understand that some precautions need to be taken when lake waters are choppy, and we appreciate the attendance of the lifeguards--that is hardly the issue. But the conditions that occurred August 1, while possibly hazardous to small children (most of whom were under the watchful eyes of parents), were perfectly manageable to most adults. The sequestering of swimmers into such a small area was quite unnecessary and the time limits imposed simply ridiculous, especially with the abundance of lifeguards on staff that afternoon.

As we sat there at the beach that day, watching the disturbing display of "power" these lifeguards had over the swimmers on our beach, I wondered what would happen if people simply did what they thought was right. What if everyone refused to get out of the water? Then reality hit and I realized people will do what they are told, they will follow orders as easily as the lifeguards will follow orders. No one (excuse our puns) wants to rock the boat. No one wants to make waves.

Emily Long

Jamie Fillmore

Rogers Park

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