By the Beautiful Sea

When we lived in central New Jersey, nearly every summer my parents rented a small house on Long Beach Island for two weeks, either at Beach Haven or Ship Bottom.  As our Pontiac station wagon crossed Manahawkin Bay bridge, I’d close my eyes to inhale, to savor, that distinctive briny ocean smell of seaweed, iodine, salt.

For us children, the beach meant hours of play. Sand everywhere, raspy on sunburned skin. Floating, jumping and riding the waves. My younger sisters and I wore identical bathing suits.  This style was notable for the quantity of sand that would accumulate in those bloomer bottoms.

Gretchen, Anita, and me, holding hands so the waves don’t knock us over.

When I was sixteen, we moved to Florida, to a house right on Tampa Bay. Steps from the back door: a seawall, a dock with a ski boat and the tidal bay full of wildlife.  Gulls, pelicans, crabs, fish, dolphins. We water-skied when the water was calm, and bounced that boat across the chop when it was not.

Anita (middle) and her friends Suzanne and Lynn


My college was twenty miles from Daytona Beach where cars drove on the beach, back and forth, cruising, all day long.  After Saturday classes, my friends and I would pool our quarters for gas and head for Daytona. Find a good spot to park, lay our towels on the sand, coat our bikini-ed bodies with Sea & Ski, and work on our tans.

Working on your tan requires little actual work.  You lie in the hot Florida sun.  You have to baste your arms, legs, back, and turn over frequently so you burn evenly.  Like a rotisserie chicken. When you can’t stand the heat any longer, you run into the ocean to cool off. Monday morning you stagger into your 8:00 am calculus class, beautifully tan, fried to a crisp.

That’s how you keep dermatologists in business.

Being perpetually broke and usually hungry, we knew where find maximum fill factor for next to nothing. My favorite was Steak ‘n Shake’s chili mac: a bowl of thick spaghetti noodles, topped with chili, cheese, and onions.  What’s not to like?  Spaghetti !! Chili !!

Fast forward mumble mumble years. Now I live in North Carolina, a state with beautiful beaches. With five writer friends, I recently spent a week on Oak Island, a sliver of sand just south of Wilmington.  We walked on the beach, fell asleep to the rhythm of the waves, woke to the piping of sand birds. Oak Island runs east-west, and from my tiny balcony I could see the sun rise on the left and set on the right, lighting the sky aflame in vibrant gold, orange, scarlet.

Photo courtesy of Greta James

What’s different? No more bikini, no working on my tan.  I wear #30 sunblock, and a broad-brimmed hat, always a hat.

But the beach never changes: sand under my toes, cool salty water, briny smells, thunder of breaking waves, endless glinting horizon.


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