This is the beach house where we stayed as kids, except that it was more of a beige color back in the ’70s and ’80s. With rust-colored shingles.
There was a stand of scrubby beach pines out front and tiger lilies around the house. Back then, there was a true front yard and not a parking pad. And there was an empty lot next door where one summer kids appeared from everywhere to play soccer, a pack that included me and my younger sister.
Seven of us crammed into this cottage – my two sisters and I, our parents, plus one set of grandparents. There were two bedrooms on the first floor and an unfinished, un-insulated attic with three double beds and a lone toilet hanging out behind some garment bags. The intention of a bathroom, but not much else.
Also, there were fans. We had a quite a few fans whirling at all times.
My family spent two whole weeks at the beach every July. At that time, people didn’t surf this part of the Atlantic like they do now. Boogie boards didn’t make the scene until I was in middle school. We had a navy blue raft with a stripe of yellow on each end, which my father inflated before he settled himself under the green fringed umbrella to read for the day.
We spent all day riding the waves on that floppy raft, and if we got too much sun, we wore T-shirts over our bathing suits the next day and coated our noses with zinc oxide.
After a morning of swimming, lunch was a mid-day feast back at the house with cold cut sandwiches, plums or sliced peaches, pickles and Pringles – always Pringles for vacation. There was fudge that my grandmother made back home in Baltimore and packed in one of those old-fashioned tins for cookies or other goodies. Likewise there was a pound cake her friend Margaret made for her every summer just so she could take it to the beach.
My sisters and I sat on towels so we wouldn’t get the dining room chairs wet, and the TV in the corner was on so my grandmother could watch her soaps. That was the only time in my childhood a TV was ever on during a meal.
Traveling with grandparents was fun for us. Our grandmother used to tell us stories about visiting nearby Ocean City during the war, and she would describe the nighttime curfews and the blackout curtains that were on every window to keep the German u-boats from making a coastal raid. We heard about the hurricane in the ’60s that changed Fenwick Island, and how before that storm, beach-goers had to cross a bridge to get to the island instead of just driving east on Route 54.
My sisters and I loved these stories and any bit of information we could get about Fenwick Island. We memorized the alphabetical names of the island streets – Atlantic, Bayard, Canon, and so on, and pretended which beach houses we would own when we grew up.
At night, we took walks or read our library books. We shopped for souvenirs at Ruth’s Shell Shop, or we went to the boardwalk in Ocean City for caramel popcorn and French fries drenched in vinegar. Back then you could only buy boardwalk fries at the stretch of walkway that made them famous.
Every summer the three of us kids bought T-shirts with iron-on decals. None of them ever said “Fenwick Island” – that was the problem of going to the smaller, quieter beach. But we would never, ever buy an Ocean City shirt, so we picked rainbows or dogs from the wall of choices. Later we bought postcards of the beach patrol and sent them to our friends, pointing out which lifeguards regularly guarded Farmington Street.
But mostly we spent time on the beach.
I remember the summer I was finally old enough and tall enough to swim out to the waves and to dive into them right at the moment they began to break, when they rose to their crest and threatened to either wipe out or to carry the swimmers in their path.
There was always a second of uncertainty. Then I would hold my nose and dive down, the surge above me, the sand beneath me — and out in front, an endless ocean with more waves lapping one by one into the shore.