I once spent a summer as a lifeguard in a landlocked waterpark that wanted to feel like a beach. Nestled beneath the roller coasters of the larger amusement part to which it belonged, this “beach” featured fake waterfalls, timed geysers, a winding swimming pool “river” with a mechanical current, slides tall enough that I learned how to move a person with a spinal cord injury, and a brand new 650,000 gallon wave pool. This was where I worked most days, pacing the paved “beach” or sitting in my wooden guard chair, scanning the deep end for swimmers in distress or children clinging to the wall, too short to touch the bottom as artificial waves crashed over them, banging their heads against the tile.
It was here that I, teenaged and naive and bored out of my mind, became a Bob Marley fan. The water park had a soundtrack, ubiquitous and repetitive, the same 20 or so songs on a 24-hour loop. They pumped the music in via speakers shaped like handsome, inconspicuous rocks or fuzzy black coconuts tucked between plastic palm fronds.
It was a predictable mix. There were surfer tunes like “Wipe Out” and Caribbean-inspired rock songs like the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” and Blondie’s “The Tide is High.” There was only one song by an actual Caribbean artist: the relaxed, seductive “Stir It Up,” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. With its slow, bouncy bassline and playful sexuality, it was just another part of the illusion. “Stir It Up” was meant to make visitors feel as if they’d stepped off the hot amusement park concrete and onto the glittering sand of some paradisiac Caribbean isle. But for me it was the soothing, syncopated rhythm that calmed my nerves as I performed my lifeguard-ly duties.
I heard it as I watched the waters, I heard it as I noticed something dark floating in the depths, I heard it as I blew my whistle, hit the big red button to stop the waves and used my megaphone to instruct swimmers to exit to the concrete beach. I heard it as I put up barriers to the area, explaining to park visitors that the pool was closed for sanitation, and I heard it as I fielded questions from angry mothers, afraid that their dripping children might have contracted something deathly, something for which they might sue the park and me, unable to read between the lines as I hinted that there was nothing to worry about, that the pool held 650,000 gallons of water and dilution was a thing and we weren’t talking about a chemical spill here, but I wasn’t allowed to just say, “Hey, look, lady, your kid took a shit in the pool. Everything’s fine. Go ride a roller coaster instead of yelling at me, please. It’ll help you dry off.” Lifeguarding at the waterpark wasn’t all Baywatch, although we did wear red one-piece bathing suits. But there was no glamor, nothing sexy. It was just loud and slow and smelly and sweaty.
But there were beautiful, quiet moments, too. I remember listening to “Stir It Up” in the morning, when the park was still closed and the air was still cool. I’d arrive early for the day, making my way past the groundskeepers fishing snakes out of the “river,” to swim in the still expanse of the empty wave pool alone, each ripple my own, water stirring in the early sunlight for only me; the Wailers’ backup singers crooned just for me, too, because I was the only person there to hear them. That was something real.
Half of my high school was employed by this amusement park every summer. Two of my uncles had worked there, too, back in the 1970s, when the park had had a monorail and a safari—a combination that resulted in disaster (lions on trains) and the subsequent removal of both of these attractions. Or so I’d been told. I had grown up visiting the place in spite of these stories, so I never really thought about how unreal it all was. A concrete beach felt perfectly normal to me when I was sixteen.
It also felt perfectly normal to me to alter my consciousness as often as possible, then. I went to parties with bonfires thrown by coworkers or friends of coworkers who introduced me to all kinds of drugs; hippie types, white kids in flowing, tie-dyed clothing, some of them even sporting blonde dreadlocks. These kids loved Bob Marley. They wore his image like a talisman. We smoked and drank together, and I can remember, one night, watching a group of them sway, stoned or tripping, eyes shut or squinting or wide-open, pupils dilated and turned towards the stars, as one of them strummed his guitar and crooned “Redemption Song.”
None of this sounds so normal now, does it? Not the concrete beach or the drugs or the blonde dreadlocks or the image of that white kid singing a song of freedom as if he somehow wasn’t or hadn’t always been free. I’ve changed. The world has changed. That kid has probably also changed.
My favorite Bob Marley song is “Buffalo Soldier.” I love it for its dissonance. Bouncy, slow yet joyful, with lyrics that speak directly of the transatlantic slave trade, chiding listeners, “If you know your history, then you will know where you’re coming from. Then you wouldn’t have to ask me who the heck do I think I am.” The chorus is an infectious round of wordless vocalization, a chant inviting everyone to join in. In his songs, Bob Marley challenges us to hold two opposing truths in our minds at once: “everywhere is war,” and “every little thing is gonna be alright.” Let’s all sing this together, he seems to say, and let’s also remember how we got here together.