Older man & the sea: Veteran lifeguard patrols Fairfield beaches 33 years

Mike Dishey settles into a chair on the small deck off the lifeguard's shed at Jennings Beach. It's the next-to-last weekend of the beach season, and though it's early, the day is already picture-perfect.

An announcement is heard over the loudspeaker, letting beach-goers know that it's now 10 a.m. and if they do not have a beach sticker on their vehicle, they need to head over to the ticket shack and pay for a day pass or they'll be issued a parking ticket.

"And they will," Dishey said, taking a sip of coffee.

Unlike fellow lifeguards, who will be heading back to college or high school when the season officially ends the day after Labor Day, Dishey will do what he does every Monday -- drive to his job as a chemist for the town of Greenwich.

Dishey is older than the other Fairfield lifeguards and he's seen a lot more summer seasons patrolling the beach than they have -- 33 years to be exact. The town hires 47 full-time lifeguards and around 20 part-time guards for the season.

"I started full-time back in 1980," the 52-year-old Fairfield resident said. "I worked for 10 summers at South Pine Creek Beach."

After that, Dishey said, he began to work weekends at Jennings, and he's been there ever since.

He said he enjoys both beaches, but said there are, of course, differences. South Pine Creek, with only limited parking, is more of a neighborhood beach, Dishey said.

The beach at South Pine Creek itself is also small, and there is no concession stand.

Jennings Beach boasts an expansive parking lot, a good-sized concession stand and a sweeping waterfront. It is, Dishey said, the beach favored by families, while Penfield Beach, just down the road, is the "teen beach."

"I like being outside and getting to enjoy the nice weather," Dishey said. "I like working with the high school and college kids. They're a lot of fun to be around."

Waterfront Director Allison Reid said Dishey has been around "long enough he knows the patrons well, he works well with the public and knows the job well."

Looking back on his three-plus decades of working on the waterfront, Dishey reflects on what have been the most memorable moments.

"For me, personally, the crowds that come for the fireworks are amazing," he said. "And I've seen some great thunderstorms come through, and the crowds for the Fairfield Half-Marathon ... I've seen sea lions come up on the beach. I've seen sea turtles come to the shore. Those would be the memorable times."

The elder statesman of local lifeguards, Dishey said he reminds co-workers that "they're constantly being supervised by everyone. ... It's a high-visibility job, but the kids that do it are tremendous. They know what they're doing."

A lifeguard's job is not an easy one, though, Dishey emphasizes, and water safety is not the only issue. There are also rules the town has set for beach activities that the waterfront crew must enforce: Swimming must be in designated areas; swimmers must be appropriately attired, and children under 12 years old must be accompanied by an adult or under the supervision of someone at least 16. People are not allowed to swim to the beach from a boat, or vice versa. Kickboards, "swimmies," rafts, tubes, etc., are not allowed. No SCUBA diving is permitted in the swimming or boating areas. Fishing also is not allowed in designated swimming areas. No athletic "games or contests," such as tossing a football, is allowed on the beaches.

"Those are the town rules," Dishey said, and are designed to ensure everyone's safety. "Most people are understanding," he said. "Very rarely would we have an issue. People are very supportive and they understand the rules."

And the rules, he said, "are also part of what makes this a nice beach."

As for safety in the water, Dishey said, "Our philosophy is to be proactive. If we spot what could be a dangerous situation, we nip it in the bud."

The last drowning at Jennings Beach took place in July 2011 when a 77-year-old Bridgeport woman was swimming laps before lifeguards came on duty.

There is the occasional jellyfish sting, Dishey said, "But for the most part, it's a safe environment."

Being a lifeguard for such a long period of time, he knows what to look for in any type of situation, including emergencies or keeping the busiest beach in Fairfield a safe place to come, according to Reid.

Dishey isn't sure how much longer he'll be manning the lifeguard tower.

"At this point in my life, I'm looking to travel more," he said. "After 33 years, there are other things that need to be done."