Returning from five near-perfect days at the beach, I'm always surprised by how different each visit feels. The visits are stored in my own mental iCloud like reels of celluloid film, quickly becoming more fragile each time I hold a private viewing.
The first trip I can remember was around age 8 — the annual family vacation that I know my parents had saved for all year. Slick-bottomed boogie boards had yet to be invented, so kids either had the inflatable canvas rafts or the cheap vinyl version. People usually rented the canvas rafts, but the vinyl blow-ups sold for a dollar or two and lasted for about that many days before developing a hole.
My parents spent a lot of time waving their arms for my brother and me to stay in the area directly in front of the family blanket, as the surf constantly moved us down the coastline with each ride. We would catch waves and ride them in repeatedly until getting caught at the wrong break of a large wave which pounded us down to the sandy bottom. It was like being churned in a mixer, and unsure which way was up. Gasping for breath as we finally made our way back to the surface, we would sit out for a few minutes until our courage returned. There were no skin cancer warnings, and everyone smelled of Coppertone or cheap No-Ad suntan lotion. There was no such thing as sunblock. All the kids in our extended family had New Delhi street beggar skin by the time August rolled around.
Dad took us to dinner at a restaurant twice during vacations. One night would be at Capt. Bunting's so we could all see the big fish (usually marlin) hanging on the docks while we waited to be seated, and the other night would be Phillips Seafood restaurant. Every year, without fail, my father would lose it when the waiter took our order at Phillips. Everyone had steamed crabs except me. I liked crabs well enough, but for some reason I always ordered fried chicken. He always groused at having to pay five dollars at a time when fryers sold for nineteen cents a pound.
Vacations changed when I hit fourteen. My parents bought a lot at Susquehanna Trails and discovered the economies of camping. I HATED everything about camping: the musty tent, sleeping bags, smelly outhouses and all. It wasn't confined to only the summer months, but spring and fall as well. I'd started dating and missed untold parties and events while imprisoned in the woods of Pennsylvania. Sulking inside the tent, I tried to sleep the weekend away to make the time pass more quickly and avoid the pretense of boring campfires and marshmallows. Desperate to escape, I landed a full-time summer job and began working part-time the rest of the year. The extra funds helped to avoid a wardrobe from Epsteins and the dreaded bargain basement clothing of the downtown Big Four retailers.
Eventually the summer between junior and senior year of high school, I managed to convince my mother to let me spend Memorial weekend at Ocean City, Maryland with girlfriends. Four of us banded together to save on the room rental. We discovered the heady power of strutting on the boardwalk in bikini-clad, tanned bodies. Parties and beer flowed, resulting in days spent on beach blankets, tanning while recovering from the previous night's excesses. After a few hangover sunburns, we resorted to wind-up kitchen timers to "ding" loudly enough to remind us to turn over. A slice of 9th Street pizza and a cup of Thrasher's fries were our sole sustenance. These weekends were what we saved and lived for in high school.
Finally, the beach visits of college arrived with no restrictions. The numbers sharing hotel rooms increased to allow more money for beer and included both sexes. One memorable weekend included balcony jumping at a popular motel. Unfortunately, my last jump was an epic fail from the third floor. As my hands searched frantically for something to grab onto during the swift fall, I hit the ground and regained consciousness to find myself surrounded by people calling for an ambulance. Luckily, I jumped to my feet and quickly walked to the elevator back to my room. If my parents had received a call from the local Emergency Room, I knew that would be the last beach trip as long I lived under their roof. The next day on the beach was brutal, as I'd scraped the skin off of my fingertips, and had lovely bruises blossoming from the fall. To make matters worse, I was so hard asleep on the blanket that a friend had to wake me to advise that part of my anatomy was hanging out of my bikini top.
After I married and had kids but no money, the death march camping vacations returned. I never considered packing, unpacking, cooking, cleaning up and swatting mosquitoes while chasing a two-year-old very relaxing. This past week's trip was less work than those, as I stayed in a hotel with my daughter and grandkids, but the seven year old wraps herself around me like a vine whenever we sleep in a shared bed. On the drive home, I mused that since I soon will have more free time on the weekends, I might enjoy a date or two. Despite her selective hearing loss, the seven year old responded, "EWWW...at YOUR age?"
Maybe someday I'll again share a room with someone closer to my own age, toss back a few drinks and stay up past bedtime . But no more balcony jumping.