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His view from the lifeguard’s chair? A season like no other

‘I knew this was going to be a weird summer’

A new summer on the sand in Provincetown will begin soon, and veteran lifeguard Gordon "Gordo" Miller will be on the job this summer on Cape Cod.
A new summer on the sand in Provincetown will begin soon, and veteran lifeguard Gordon "Gordo" Miller will be on the job this summer on Cape Cod.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PROVINCETOWN — From his lifeguard post on a breathtaking stretch of the Cape Cod National Seashore — a place of blue skies, white sand, and sunbaked tourists — Gordon Miller thought he had seen it all.

He has plucked frightened kids from deceptively strong rip currents. He has taught younger lifeguards the skills of razor-sharp attention and lightning-fast reaction. He has contended with unforgiving surf and with dark shark fins in the near distance.

But the veteran lifeguard — considered a legend among his peers — has never encountered what the summer of 2020 promises.

As historic marches roll through the streets of America from coast to coast, as the coronavirus pandemic’s death toll eclipses the 100,000 mark in the United States, Miller is entering a season like no other since he first took up his post 35 years ago.

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“I just knew this was going to be a weird summer,’’ Miller told me the other day in his office at Race Point Beach.

“The way we’re going to be on the beach, it’s going to be different,’’ he said. “We’re going to have only one lifeguard in each chair at one time. Normally, we’d have two. We’ll sanitize the chair between shifts. And there are going to be situations where social distancing during a rescue is not possible. You’re going to be up close and personal with a victim.’’

And those who have watched “Gordo” Miller perform his duties across the decades say few are better prepared to patrol the tip of the Cape Cod coastline during this national emergency.

He’s got the swimming skills of an Olympian. He possesses diplomacy worthy of an ambassador. And he carries himself with a genial certainty that conveys these twin messages: Have fun. Obey the rules.

“He’s a rock star among our lifeguards,’’ said Brian Carlstrom, superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore, who acknowledged the unusual circumstances greeting his lifeguarding crew this year.

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“How can you wear a face mask in the water?’’ asked Carlstrom. “You can’t. There are circumstances where they have to have contact with who they’re rescuing. That’s for a short duration of a time. But it’s a risk. And that is a concern.’’

Gordon Miller, 58, knows about those risks. And if anybody has prepared to confront them with an uncommon confidence, it’s this native of Bolivar, Tenn., where he grew up the third of eight kids. His dad, a Navy veteran, ran the local grocery store, the East Side Market. His mom was a civil rights activist.

He got his Red Cross certification and was a lifeguard by the time he reached the 11th grade. It would be his ticket to breathtaking vistas, including Acadia National Park in Maine, where in 1982 he took a job, lured by the promise of housing that came with it.

“That was my first time being in the ocean,’’ said Miller, who majored in literature at the University of Memphis before graduating in 1985. “And it was an extremely cold ocean.’’

It would become his workplace. It was his passport to New England, now his home. A place where he has made a name for himself at the sandy tip of the Cape.

“It’s almost like there’s no problem when you talk to Gordon,’’ said Luke Nowack, a former lifeguard and now a carpenter-builder in Eastham who was Miller’s first Cape Cod roommate in the mid-1980s. “You present a problem and it dissolves as you talk to him. He comes up with a quick, easy solution that just seems to work.’’

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Along with superlative swimming abilities, those polished interpersonal skills are valuable when you walk out onto the sand and then up into the lifeguard chair.

“I used to say that people are coming here on vacation and, as a result, their minds are on vacation,’’ said Jack Farley, a former supervisory lifeguard whose job Miller assumed when Farley left it in 2000.

“Your main job is the water and now you’re adding another level of fear,’’ Farley said. “Gordon has one of the toughest beaches on the Cape to supervise. He’s got the concern about shark sightings and, now, throw on top of that the social distancing situation. I don’t envy him.’’

But if his 6-foot, 250-pound build didn’t already convey it, Miller wears his authority lightly. He’s here to help. If he needs to morph from helper to enforcer, he’s capable of that, too.

He credited Dave Murray, his first supervisor at the National Seashore, for teaching him a key skill: the ability to see things happening before they happen.

“We’d be sitting in the chair and [Murray] would see this family coming down and he’d say, ‘We’re going to keep an eye on that family.’ Because he could see by the way they were walking down the beach that the parents weren’t particularly watching their kids,’’ Miller said.

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“He worked here for 40 years as a lifeguard. So he would say, ‘OK, we’re watching that family when they’re here.’ He would always pick out areas where we might have a problem.’’

Now, Gordon Miller is doing that, applying the skills he collected along the way at places like Lake Meade in Nevada and in those chilly waters off the coast of Maine.

He has never forgotten the frightened faces of four young girls he rescued after they became trapped in a rip current. He remembers the guy waving frantically after he got swept off a sandbar and then down the beach.

What makes a good lifeguard?

“Attention,’’ he said. “Being aware of what’s going on around you. If you can’t do that, you have no business being a lifeguard. You have to be able to focus. A human being can only focus for like an hour. Really focus. But if you can’t focus for 5 or 10 minutes?’’

Time to look for another job.

“Don’t sit up in that stand and bake,’’ he said, repeating useful advice to newcomers. “Go down and talk to people, explain the rules. Because people don’t know. They have no idea. They come from Ohio and it’s their first time in the ocean. Explain to them how things work.’’

As the years passed, all those lifeguards that he has worked with have moved on. Moved on to new careers. To wives and children. Cape Cod, for them, just a pleasant memory.

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Miller, who has a master’s degree in philosophy, sees them now at lifeguard reunions. They always say the same thing about life on the sand here.

“It was the greatest job I ever had,’’ Miller told me, recounting those oft-told reunion war stories. “If it wasn’t for my career, I would have stayed here.

“I always tell them, ‘I did stay.’ ’’

And that’s why he is here and headed for a summer like no other.

It’ll be a summer of sunbathing and demonstrations.

“As a human being and a citizen of the United States and being an African-American person, I feel it,” he said of the protests from coast to coast. “But as far as working here on the beach, I don’t see it having very much of an effect.

“But I do work with law enforcement. I am part of a larger law enforcement grouping at the National Seashore and one thing I can say about all the rangers I work with here: They are very respectful about people’s rights.”

It’ll be a summer of social distancing and face masks. And death counts.

A summer of fear on the sand — a fear that has nothing to do with perilous currents or shark fins on the Atlantic Ocean horizon.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.