(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 — In the summer of 1971, Mark McCleskey had a pretty good job at a summer camp in Lenoir, N.C. Camp Patterson had hired him to be its water safety instructor and guard at the lake for the season.
Unfortunately, that season only lasted until mid-July. As luck would have it, his friend, Roland Kruger, told him all about a place up north that needed lifeguards. Roland had been attending Wake Forest University and had been listening to dozens of stories about life on the Ocean City Beach Patrol from his roommate, Chip DeShields. Chip knew what he was talking about, because he was a lieutenant on the patrol.
When the offer came from Roland to drive up to Maryland and try out for the OCBP, Mark jumped at the chance. “I had never even been north of Virginia,” he would later admit, but was willing to take the risk. Mark and his friend rolled into town in mid-July and were both soon trying out for the patrol. Mark passed the test. Roland did not. And so, in a state he’d never even driven through until that week, in a town he’d only heard of second hand, Mark started his life on the beach patrol.
“I didn’t know anyone,” he recalled. Mark was immediately assigned the job of “Rover,” and moved around to different beaches whenever and wherever he was needed. He moved into a boarding house on 7th Street and soon discovered that one person in town that he did know, Lt. Chip DeShields, was living just a few blocks away.
“Chip lived with Captain Bob Craig, so I could be found hanging out with Lt. Chip and Captain Bob for the rest of the summer,” he said.
Mark was able to learn a lot in those visits and improved his knowledge of the ocean and the workings of the patrol. “Talk about being at the right place and time,” he said.
“The next year, the OCBP was being pushed hard to guard more and more beachgoers,” he remembered. The second Bay Bridge span was to be finished in 1973, so in preparation of more vacationers, the beach patrol needed to prepare itself for growth.
“All I wanted in my second year was my very own stand and beach. I was surprised when not only did I get my own stand, it came with crew chief responsibilities and more money,” he said. “Five dollars a week. I was thrilled. Truth is, however, that I would have done all of it for free. I loved it.”
Mark would be a crew chief for the next 6 summers as his love for the resort and the beach increased. During those years, he had his share of “nail biter pulls” that guards often talk about. But the pull (as guards refer to rescues) that sticks with him most was different. Guards worry about misjudging a situation or second guessing yourself. No one ever wants to look foolish in front of a crowded beach full of spectators by going in too early. But waiting too long can be even worse.
Mark remembers, “It was the summer of 1974. It was July and I was working my stand on 45th Street. We had this recurring rip that came out of nowhere and would disappear without a trace. It was like a ghost, so we called it ‘Casper the friendly Rip.’ Most times, this rip would result in just a little pull here and there. But this particular day, Casper was strong, and the waves were bigger than normal. A father and daughter got caught in the rip. It looked as though they were making their way back in, but I soon realized they were not.”
Mark went in after them but couldn’t shake the feeling that he should have gone sooner. “I made it to them, but they were exhausted. I will never forget how bad I felt. I realized that it’s better to be early and have people wonder why you left your stand than to be late and feel guilty for 50 years,” he recalled.
After that day, Mark never questioned his take on a situation again. He took to heart the adage often repeated by generations of Ocean City guards, “Early is on time. On time is late.”
Mark learned a lot about the beach in those summers with the OCBP, and he has carried those lessons through his life. He learned the value of trusting your instincts and the benefits of listening to those who have something to teach you.
Mark currently works in partnership with Chesapeake Smart Energy LLC and is a vendor member of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association arranging Delmarva Power-sponsored building tune ups and HVAC tune-ups for properties in need of services.