Honor guard carries flag

Members of the Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa Fire Honor Guard carry the flag to the stage to close the Ben Carlson Celebration of Life ceremony on the beach at Orange Street in Newport Beach on Sunday evening. (Susan Hoffman / Daily Pilot / July 14, 2014)

The paddle-out Sunday morning created a circle wider than Newport Beach had ever seen. By evening, supporters had drawn tighter on shore, with many thousands coming together for a celebration of the life of Ben Carlson.

Around dusk in West Newport, the good-time music piped through loudspeakers yielded to live bagpipes and drums. The entire Newport Beach Marine Operations Division, several more uniformed agencies and Carlson's family, friends and admirers formally paid last respects to the 32-year-old lifeguard who died in the line of duty precisely one week earlier.

In the true spirit of the man they came to honor, close friends and lifeguarding colleagues Rob Williams, George "Skeeter" Leeper and Chris Conway spoke to the fun-loving, adventurous and earnest qualities that earned Carlson the respect and admiration of co-workers and acquaintances.

"Ben is the most interesting man in the world," proclaimed Williams, an assistant chief. "Sharks have a Ben Carlson Week, Superman wears pajamas with Ben's picture on them, and he's a national treasure in countries he's never visited." The crowd laughed with delight.

"Most of my epic stories involve Ben," Conway told the crowd. "He died a hero. The true definition of a hero. I've never been more proud to call myself a Newport Beach lifeguard."

Cheers erupted.

Leeper grinned through his eulogy, admitting that many of his best stories about Carlson couldn't be told in public but noting his pal's love of the Dodgers, Kings and Green Bay Packers.

"Leave it to Ben to go out a hero," Leeper told the gathering. "He left us as a symbol of sacrifice, hope, courage and friendship."

Chris Carlson admired his son for his "strong values — and that he lived those values. He lived for adventure. He loved the ocean. And friendship mattered to him."

During the ceremony, Carlson was posthumously awarded the Newport Beach Medal of Valor, which was presented to his parents, Chris and Terry Carlson. Ben's sister, Stephanie, and her family were also seated in the front row.

Folding chairs were set up for 2,500 on the sand facing the ocean in front of a large portable stage. The standing-room-only crowd stretched an additional 100 feet back and half a block in both directions.

The beachfront home of Greg and Sandy Fisher on Orange Street and West Oceanfront flew a large banner across the upstairs balcony that read, "We (Heart) Our Newport Beach Lifeguards." It was positioned amid a framework of large American flags.

"We just did it," Sandy Fisher said when asked if the decor was set up on any official request. "That's the only thing I could think of that I could do to show our respect and appreciation for what they do — every day."

"It's the appropriate recognition, where recognition is clearly due for somebody that was beyond just being a guard," said Ken South, a former lifeguard better known around the beach as "Budda."

"He was really a waterman, and that's why they chose his favorite surfer spot for this."

Through seven days of shock and sadness, the Newport Beach lifeguards have remained steady and stoic in performing their essential community service. The death has prompted a wave of media attention and tributes to Carlson, including a swim-out Friday.

Newport Beach Fire Chief Scott Poster didn't care to call this sunset ceremony a final farewell.

"This is his celebration of life," the chief said. "For all of us to start the healing process and pay our respects to the Carlson family, and they will be able to see the love and the commitment the community has for Ben."