Do you recognize yourself – or someone you know – in the above photograph? If so, Herman Sahrmann wants to hear from you.
Sahrmann, fourth from the left, spent his summers from 1957 to 1961 on the eastern beaches as a lifeguard stationed at the Leuty THP sub-station. He has been documenting those summers as a personal project and, nearly 60 years later, hopes to reconnect with his fellow lifeguards – and anyone who wants to speak about their shared love and memories of that time in history.
“As you may know, documenting one’s experiences from memory alone can be a highly selective undertaking, in that some experiences can be vividly recalled while others have been completely forgotten,” he said, on the phone from his home in London, Ont. “It helps to compare your memories with those that were there.”
Working off writing on the back of the photograph, he has been in touch with two of his former colleagues already – one is a retired professor and the other is a retired neurosurgeon – and would like to arrange a reunion with others, if he can find them. Part of the fun, he said, is finding out if people followed through with the dreams they spoke of during those hot summer days or if life took them in an entirely different direction. He has also been comparing his memories to past newspaper clippings and historical records.
Sahrmann got the job as a lifeguard two years after arriving in Canada from Germany. He completed high school in Scarborough and went to university at the University of Toronto. The lifeguard gig was perfect because he was a strong swimmer – a strong swimmer with less than a year of English under his belt, so chatting with colleagues offered opportunity to improve. He passed his test at Sunnyside pool and, at 18, suited up for his assignment at Leuty Station.
“I loved the job,” he said. “So I came back until I had to get some practical engineering experience in 1962.”
He has about 50 photographs from those five summers, some from atop the lifeguard station, others from a rowboat in the lake. “That was in the pre-digital era,” he said. “In those days, a roll of 24 slides cost $4.25 and the minimum wage was a dollar an hour. So I had to work over four hours to buy a roll of film. So we didn’t do too many colour pictures.”
From the station, to the lifeguards and beachgoers, to the arrival of the royal yacht Britannia in the Toronto Harbour on June 29, 1959, Sahrmann’s photographs have a unique, eagle-eyed, yet personal perspective – thanks, in part, to his harbour police officer who knew he liked to take pictures.
“I was very fortunate with the harbour police officer, he was really accommodating and he knew I liked to take pictures,” he said. “So (when the royal yacht arrived) I was assigned the position at the bow to get closeups – scary being that close in my little rowboat.”
That experience, seeing Queen Elizabeth’s first visit to Toronto from a rowboat in the water, is a clear highlight of his lifeguard career.
“They opened up the St. Lawrence seaway, the royal yacht came out, followed by three cruisers,” he said. That same year, he remembers a number of warships docked in the Toronto harbour.
Aside from once-in-a-lifetime views, the job taught him practical lessons he carries with him to this day.
“The one thing it really taught me was prevention,” he said. “If you did get a rescue, you also got questioned – how come the kid got into trouble? You weren’t a hero. (They asked you) why weren’t you out there preventing him getting into trouble?”
The last time he visited the Beach was a couple of years ago – he noted that the lifeguard station had been moved. “When we were there it was right against the boardwalk,” he said. “When you stepped out the door, you stepped out onto the boardwalk.”
Sahrmann credits those five years on the boardwalk with a 50-year love affair with the Great Lakes – he now has a cottage on Lake Huron. He recalls the feeling of being a recent immigrant from Germany, and seeing Lake Ontario for the first time: “Once I saw the lake, I knew I wasn’t going to go back.”
Connect with Herman Sahrmann via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.