(Editor’s Note: The following is a series on the men and women who have spent their summers protecting all those who came to Ocean City for fun and safe vacation.)
OCEAN CITY — As he was growing up in the 1970’s, it seemed that Mark McCulloh was destined to be a lifeguard. His father had been an ocean guard in California back in the late ‘40’s, and Mark had grown up hearing the stories about rescues and big surf. Many of his good friends and relatives had already made their way down to the beach and joined the Ocean City Beach Patrol.
“I came from Catonsville, where there is a long history of OCBP guys,” he said. So, it surprised a lot of people when Mark headed down to spend his first summer at the beach in 1980 and ended up working at Tony’s Pizza on the Boardwalk instead.
“To be honest, I was nervous about trying out,” Mark admitted. “My cousin, Johnny Barrett, who was a guard at the time, came in one night to Tony’s. He asked me why I wasn’t trying out and let me know that my Dad was disappointed.”
Mark knew he needed to try out, and despite feeling nervous about his chances, went to the Inlet the next week and tried out. It would turn out that he didn’t need to worry.
“They sent us out on the swim in two groups. I was in the second group, but I was doing so well that I came in with the group ahead of me. It was funny because at first, when I came out of the water, the officers couldn’t find my name on the list,” he recalled. “I had to convince them that I had started in the second group.”
In the early days of the OCBP, new guards were given green shirts to wear on the stand. These green shirts identified to other guards who the rookies were and served as a visual reminder to crew chiefs to sit them near more experienced guards to help in their training. Thus, “Green Bean” became the nickname for new guards. And so, Mark started his first summer on Bruce Silvano’s crew on the north end of the Boardwalk. A few days after starting, Mark recalls “sitting 31st Street. It was a cloudy day, early in the season, and there was no one on the beach. Suddenly, a guy comes down from the Boardwalk and yells to me asking if I know CPR. I had to go into the hotel behind me and run up 19 floors. The elevator was out. I entered a room of 15 people standing over an older man who had just suffered a heart attack. I had to perform CPR by myself. Another guard had run up from 29th Street and joined me as we both worked on him. The man started to breathe again, but only for a second. He threw up on me and was out again.”
Despite their efforts, the man didn’t make it. Mark could only clean himself off and head right back to the beach. It was my first week. Later, Sgt. Hammond came to my stand and said, ‘you ain’t a green bean anymore’.”
Despite this tough introduction to the OCBP, Mark was hooked. He would continue coming guarding every summer for the next four years. During those summers, Mark recalls one of his best moments. It was the summer of 1982. “I was on 126th Street. It was a big shore break day coming off a strong Nor’easter,” he said. “The beach was packed and kids were getting slammed by the shore break. Between me and Dave Wigham, who was guarding on my north, I see an older couple start doing the crab walk to the water line to do a little wading. Unfortunately, they were in front of a massive rip. Wigham saw the same thing and I could see him watching four blocks away. Sure enough a huge wave broke right in front of the couple and down they went. They slid right into the rip and they were gone. I saw this unfolding and was already running down the beach. When I got to the rip, I literally jumped over some kids and dove right into it. The rip was so huge that I think I only took a couple of strokes and I saw a single hand above the water. I grabbed it, pulled the man to the surface and then swam over and found his wife. He held onto the buoy while I took the exhausted woman in through the shore break. Then, I came back out and got the man. Later, they wrote a letter to the city that was pretty dramatic and very touching. Captain Schoepf read it aloud at the weekly meeting.” It meant a lot to Mark and their gratitude stays with him to this day.
Mark would end his beach patrol days after the summer of 1983, but is certain the experience made him a better person. “Most people don’t know that ‘pit in your stomach’ feeling when you show up for work to your rock jetty and you see nothing but raging waves. I think it really taught me how to step up when needed and assume responsibility for heavy situations. It taught me just how much we need to respect the ocean. And it also developed a deep love of the ocean in me. But, most of all, it was the fraternal feeling of working together with the guards on my crew. It truly was a ‘club’ that was special and I enjoy that to this day. I loved being a guard.”
Mark now splits his time between Annapolis and Bethany. His son also became a guard and carried on the family tradition, working several summers in Fenwick Island.