With Her Eyes on the Ocean...and Beyond
Mamie Hobbs is like a cold drink of spring water on a hot summer's hike-natural, refreshing and energizing. She is 22. At that age I remember being silently irritated with my grandmother for describing every young girl she met as "lovely" or "beautiful." Now, decades later, I appreciate that youth has its own appeal. But Mamie is an authentic beauty. More importantly she has spunk and intelligence. By the end of our interview my face hurts from smiling so hard.
She is part of a Hilton Head institution; members are easily identified by their red swimming suits, flawless tans, fit bodies. The 80 members of this elite group can be found from mid-May through mid-August at numerous locations around Hilton Head's 13.5 miles of beach. Mamie is a lifeguard for the Shore Beach Service. This is her third summer on the job.
With buoyant enthusiasm (that keeps my pen racing to keep up) she tells me she is from Champagne, Illinois- "home of the University of Illinois"-and grew up vacationing with her family on Hilton Head. Her grandparents have a home in Wexford. Five years ago, family friends told Mamie and her older sister, Allie, that they had questioned a lifeguard about how she got her job. The lifeguard was a college student, who applied on-line, and after a follow-up phone interview was hired for the summer. Allie applied and was accepted, paving the way for Mamie, who followed two years later, after finishing her sophomore year at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Mamie graduated with a degree in elementary school education this past spring.
Mamie convinced her best friend, Jane, to apply and join her (coincidentally, Jane is the younger sister of Allie's best friend, who also joined her in HH.) All four girls lived with Mamie and Allie's grandparents, although the older girls stay didn't overlap with their younger sisters. Mamie says her grandparents are great-few rules, just lots of pictures. At first the girls felt a little cut-off from the other lifeguards who usually stay at the Hilton Head Resort. That didn't last. The big problem is her grandmother's amazing cooking. Mamie worries about staying in shape. (Hah!)
Her first year, Mamie was required to rotate to each of the lifeguarding stations around Hilton Head. For the last two years Mamie requested, and has been assigned to, the Hampton Place Villas at Palmetto Dunes. She says, "It's quieter there and tons of families come back each summer. I have one family who rents for the summer and they've adopted me. At the end of the day their daughter, who is in fifth grade, helps me break down the umbrellas and chairs. The family is great!"
Mamie's workday starts with setting up between 40-45 beach umbrellas, each with two chairs, before nine a.m., and ends with breaking them down at five p.m. She looks delicately slender, but digging the holes for the umbrellas, particularly on a windy day, requires real strength. She's had no scary incidents on the job, although she had to swim out to a "buoy swimmer"-someone who swims too far offshore-and ask him to come in closer.
She's mostly required to help swimmers with sting ray and jelly fish stings. "A sting ray has a tail with a sharp barb that punctures the skin and releases a poison. The only thing to do is apply heat for 60 to 90 minutes to draw out the poison. It can really hurt." She applies a spray of seawater and vinegar to jelly fish stings.
What about her social life? Her dark brown eyes flash, her thick long brunette hair falls forward when she laughs. She is wearing a flattering black and white print dress; light colored sandals; and a very big watch. "Well, of course you have to have summer romances. It's great to meet new people who are like you: adventurous and fun; but nothing serious so far." Her sister Allie got engaged this past Memorial Day to the lifeguard she met near the end of her second season on Hilton Head, four years ago. One never knows.
Mamie has some wistfulness about this summer. It may be her last, although as a teacher she will have her summers free. She is taking a 10-day leave to go with her father on a church sponsored mission trip to Malawi. In September, she leaves to work in an orphanage in Ghana for 14 weeks. "I'm nervous. But these last three years, meeting so many people from different parts of the country and even Ireland and Scotland, has taught me a whole new world is open to me. Getting out of my comfort zone helps me grow as a person and be more aware. I want to bring this to my students; to be open to their strengths and weaknesses, and introduce them to the bigger world."
She appreciates that she has come to know the island as an insider. "I've always loved Hilton Head, but I see it in a different way now. I hope my parents will retire here and my sister and her husband will come and I'll bring my own family here for years and years." I watch Mamie walk away towards her future. I feel sure it will be big and eventful.and good.