... a day for family, food and fun
"We are going to the beach." Those six words put joy into my heart, no matter how old I was.
In my early years, The Beach was Long Beach in Gloucester between Good Harbor and Pebble Beach on the ocean side. A day trip to the beach with my parents was filled with ritual so I always knew what to expect, and I loved it.
To prepare for the journey from Melrose to Gloucester we first needed food. The entire dining room table was covered with ingredients, the bread, tuna salad, peanut butter, jelly, mayonnaise, waxed paper and little tags for Pa to label the sandwiches. He sat at his usual place at the head of the table making everyone two sandwiches, one for lunch and one for the ride home. A bottle of orange soda and a bottle of port wine, a package of cookies and a bag of potato chips completed the meal no matter how many were being served. Mom wrapped each sandwich like a little present in waxed paper, not knowing that the piece of ragged metal attached to the box for tearing off each length was invented in Holliston, my distantly future home. All was packed into an ancient light green cooler with paper cups, paper napkins and a bag of ice cubes.
While the lunch marathon was going on, the rest of the family took care of beach equipment. We counted out the number of needed towels from the linen closet, no special beach towels for us. And no tasteful beach umbrella either. We had a bivouac to be assembled on the sand. The materials consisted of two broom handles, one mop handle with metal clasps attached and three hockey sticks with the blades sawed off. These were collected and tied into a large tarpaulin printed with two-inch green and white stripes. A few black blankets, assorted balls and age-appropriate sand toys were also loaded into the trunk leaving space for the cooler.
Our signal to put our bathing suits on under our clothes was Pa washing the windshield of the car. This was no quick trip we were embarking on. Route 128 had not been built so we were in for the scenic ride. Picturesque towns like Hamilton, Magnolia and Manchester-by-the-Sea welcomed our crowded automobile. And we could point out every landmark on the way. The Gloucester sights were most exciting because they told us we were nearly there. The Fishermans' Memorial Statue, Our Lady of Good Voyage on the hill, the Gorton-Pew factory, giggle, giggle, fish, pew, get it? The well-rehearsed dialog must have driven our parents crazy.
Finally, on the way out of town, the familiar dirt road appeared. We parked and all piled out of the car, stripped down to our bathing suits and folded our clothes neatly to be donned for the ride home.
The ritual continued. Everyone carried something, the goal being to get to the sand in one trip. The strongest person carried the cooler; the littlest, a toy or a towel. We made a straggly line across the parking lot, past the antique sign telling the men that tops were required on their bathing suits too, and onto the cement walkway that divided the sand from the cottages. We stoically walked past the crowded part of the beach to the Chickatawbut Inn where we always made camp.
After finding the perfect spot where high tide would never soak us, we put the bivouac together, a small rectangle of shade in which to place the cooler and a blanket so the older folks could drink their wine. And now our reward, the dash into the wonderful coolness of the Atlantic Ocean. Long Beach always had waves and our first instruction of the season had been body surfing. We chose the tallest breaker which was barely making a curl at the top. We would dive toward shore letting the force of the water carry us as far in as possible. Then we were right out for another turn. Pa was an expert at riding the waves and also at floating on his back farther out before the waves formed. He could put his hands behind his head like a pillow, point his toes to the sky and just relax away from the world on the surface of the sea. We could always find our blankets if we needed to, we just looked for green and white stripes.
At lunchtime we were coralled to quickly down a tuna sandwich and a glass of orange soda, nothing fancy. But we had to count out one hour until we entered the ocean again. Something terrible would happen if 60 minutes did not elapse. We never dared to find out what.
In order to get home, many of the rituals were just reversed. The bivouac came down, the small band marched back to the parking lot which by now was too hot for our bare feet so we broke rank and ran on tiptoe. A few at a time, we entered the metal box on wheels that had stood in the boiling sun all day. As fast and modestly as possible we peeled off our sandy bathing suits and put on our clothes. Imagine a whole family riding home with no underwear.
The return journey had its own ceremonies. The first was a stop at a fisherman's house for a wooden box of salt codfish for the Saturday night fishcakes which I hated. The second was the miraculous appearance of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The cooler had not kept them cold, so the ingredients had soaked into the bread making the most delicious soggy treat. And the third was singing our way home. We began with campfire songs like "Down by the Old Mill Stream" and "I've been Working on the Railroad" running through our entire repertoire of old Baptist hymns. It must have been awful to be in the car following ours, hearing this caterwauling mile after mile through the open windows of the pre-air conditioned automobile.
Ask anyone in my family what "going to the beach" meant to them, and you are likely to hear the same story.
August 5, 2005