Travels postsSunday September 26, 2010
Travels: Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Going Back from Whence We Came
In the end it’s all about the beach.
My father used to say there was nothing like that first dip in the ocean after the long, hot, sweaty haul to get there, but this never made sense to me. It was just another odd thing grown-ups said. Now I’m that grown-up.
Our long, sweaty haul started on a Friday at 9 p.m. in Seattle and lasted through a red-eye to Chicago, a 6 a.m. flight to D.C., a morning car trip over the Bay Bridge and through eastern Maryland and into Delaware, with a few wrong turns along the way, until we crawled, in the mid-afternoon heat, along Highway 1, with all of the other Saturday arrivals, before making that final, impatient, left-hand turn onto Rehoboth Avenue and into the offices of Jack Lingo Real Estate to collect the keys, and into the Lingo’s grocery store to collect the weekend necessities, and over to Mom’s place to drop off her stuff, and over to our place to drop off our stuff, and then the two-block trip back to Mom’s place to drop off her car—but not before being confronted by a cop who asked why I’d parked a quarter into someone’s driveway (there’d been a neighborly complaint), and I explained that it was temporary, that we were staying in that small cottage at the back of the driveway there, and this was my first time in Rehoboth in 25 years, and, hey, how old are you anyway?, which got him to smile and admit, “Twenty-one” and merely issue me, 26 years his senior, a warning—and after all that it was 5:00 and the sun was lowering in the sky, but I didn’t care and changed into swimsuit and flip-flops and grabbed a towel and walked the half block to the boardwalk and over the hot sand and through the departing crowds and dropped everything by the driest part of the high-tide mark and stepped into the cool, salty water, feeling the spray and hearing sizzle of the waves, and in past my calves and thighs and, oof, groin, until I dove into a wave and rose on the other side, and thought, as the ocean washed away the day of travel, the month of troubles, the year of work, “Dad was right.”
Why does it feel so good? Because it’s the water we emerged from? Because we ourselves are salt and water? It feels heavier than most water, cooler than most water, and the waves provide their own challenge. The ocean doesn’t automatically accept us, like other, more placid bodies of water. It’s trying to expel us even as it tries to pull us in further. It has mixed feelings. I floated on my back, watched my toes emerge, and felt lucky.
My sister, Karen, set up the vacation. Her husband, Eric, is a Muschler, and every year three of the Muschler boys and their families vacation somewhere for a week, which allows parents to get together and all of the various cousins to create havoc together, and this year Rehoboth was chosen because it’s where our family vacationed in the 1970s, and where Karen worked during high school and college summers in the 1980s. The Muschlers rented a big house on Stockley Avenue (pronounced Delawarean: “Stow-klee”), two and a half blocks from the beach; then she asked if Patricia and I wanted to come along. Normally we vacation in fairly exotic spots—Little Corn Island, Nicaragua; Hanoi, Vietnam—but I was in the mood for a less exotic spot. I wanted a place with cotton candy.
We rented our own cottage, also on Stockley Avenue, but a half block from the beach. The online photos were vague, which had me worried, but we found it charming enough: living room, small kitchen, separate bedroom, bath. There was even a back deck where we locked up the bikes that we rented for the week. The back deck was also where the Muschlers stored most of our beach gear—chairs and umbrellas—so they wouldn’t have to keep carting them the extra two blocks every morning. Or afternoon.
The Muschlers tend to be late risers—or, with so many kids, late goers—so we were rarely at the beach early. Sometimes we arrived around 11:00, which didn’t make much sense in the “danger danger danger” UV-ray world of 2010; other times we avoided the morning altogether and showed up around 2:00 and made an afternoon of it.
My nephew, Jordy, 9, took to the waves like a champ. Whenever he was at the beach, he was in the water: diving into the waves, riding the waves, wondering why the waves weren’t bigger. His brother, Ryan, 7, took to the sand like a champ. He wanted to bury and be buried. Who doesn’t want to be at the beach? One day, my mother, 80, put on a swimsuit and dipped her toes, too.
My favorite day was our last full day. On Thursday, Rehoboth was drenched with two big rainstorms: one in the early afternoon that cleared the boardwalk; one in the late evening as we sat, protected, at Ed’s Chicken & Crab joint in Dewey, and watched people run in breathless and soaked from the downpour and the flash-flooding in the streets. As a result, there was a freshness to everything Friday morning as Patricia and I took our coffee and went for an early-morning, barefoot stroll by the ocean. The waves were bigger than usual, but overall it seemed like a normal morning.
We’d decided on a bike ride that morning. Several days earlier, on a misty Monday morning, we’d scoped out the area north of Rehoboth—Henlopen Acres, where the rich folks lived, and Gordon Pond Wildlife Area, where the frogs lived—so Friday morning we headed south, past Silver Lake, but quickly got caught between small neighborhoods and Highway 1, as Delaware, a narrow state already, narrowed to a thin peninsula, and didn’t allow us much space. Eventually we doubled back. The bike rental place, Bike to Go, had given us a brochure that included, along with the oddest of quotes (“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” — President John F. Kennedy), the seven best rides in the area. We’d kind of done #s 1 and 2 already, and #4 was what we’d just avoided, but #5, the Junction & Breakwater Trail, had been recommended not only at the rental place but by our neighbor, a friendly, newbie lawyer from New England. He said the trail paralleled Hwy 1 but went through quiet woods and marshlands and neighborhoods and wound up in Lewes, the town north of Rehoboth.
Patricia before the crash.
Patricia and I have different paces, though—I bike all the time, she seldom—and four miles along on the wide trail, in the middle of sparse woods, I realized I was too far ahead and stopped and waited. And waited. Finally I doubled back to find Patricia standing sheepishly by her bike. She gestured impotently. I assumed a flat but it wasn’t a flat. She’d been biking along, close to a fence, then experienced that odd sensation of being pulled into the very thing she was trying to avoid. Crash. She scraped her arm, bent her back tire, and now the back tire wouldn’t turn. The best I could do was release the back brakes so the tire would at least turn and she and I could hobble back to Rehoboth. Initially I was bummed—all that way without Lewes—but it turned out for the best.
After refueling at a co-op on Delaware Alt 1, and returning our bikes to the bike rental shop (had I spent the $5 on insurance last Sunday...? I had! Ka-ching!), we walked over to Dolles on the boardwalk to buy salt water taffy for the folks back home.
And that’s when I noticed the waves.
They were huge. How huge? In our absence the waves had come up almost to the boardwalk, and there were warm, stagnant pools of water on the beach proper, where adults pulled small kids around on boogie boards. It felt like an event. I immediately called Karen.
Half an hour later, Eric Muschler, Jordy, and I, were all trying to find a way to navigate into the water. Foam slopped everywhere. Few people were in the water but the pull to be in the water was as strong as any undertow. This was where it was happening and I wanted to be in it as it was happening. But how? I’d get out knee deep and a wave that had broken 10 feet in front of me still rumbled with enough force that, even bending beneath it, it would still push me a few feet closer to shore. Then I’d trudge back out again. In this way we danced. One time the wave broke late, right in front of me, and, even diving beneath it didn’t help. I was yanked off my feet and pushed and somersaulted to shore, where an awestruck, soaked Jordy stood watching.
“Poseidon is angry today,” he said.
I needed 10 more feet of courage. Eric had it, and went out beyond the breaking waves and sometimes rode them in, like bucking broncos. But the ocean out there seemed so deep and roiling and chaotic that I didn’t have that extra 10 feet of courage.
Instead, for an hour, I stood in the midway point, in the worst place you could possibly stand, and engaged in a shoving match with the ocean that the ocean always won. It was glorious.
Eric Muschler, Jordy and I and the “No Swimming” warning flag on our last day at the beach.
Travels: Mourning in Rehoboth
But the biggest change may not have been in Rehoboth; it may have been in me.
A few years ago, MSNBC-Movies asked me to write a piece about the 10 Sexiest Women, by which they meant actresses, and in the intro I explained what I did and didn’t mean by “sexy.” Mostly I didn’t mean young girls. I said women tend to get sexier as they age. I wrote:
Sexy is balance. Cool and hot at the same time. Interest and disinterest. It’s not passive but it’s not in a hurry either. It seems to arrive at that moment in a woman’s life when she’s still hot but can no longer rely on it completely. Or maybe it arrives when a woman decides to take charge. Or maybe I just like women taking charge.
All of which is still mostly true. Yet walking on the boardwalk, walking on the beach, passing by girls in their early 20s, or late teens, or, God help me, younger, wearing barely anything at all, well, I’ve never felt like such a dirty old man.
Another old man, a wiser old man, the one in Richard Linklater’s film “Slacker,” says, “When young, we mourn for one woman... as we grow old, for women in general,” and that was me when young, and that was me along the boardwalk last month. Maybe when young we mourn for one woman because she’s the one we can’t have, and as we age we can’t have any of them so we mourn for them all. Maybe 30 years ago the boardwalk at night was the place where I yearned for romance and didn’t find any, so I still carry that adolescent emotion within me as I near 50. Maybe the boardwalk at night is simply a place of yearning.
It’s also a place for sublimation. Here is all you can’t have, walking by in the other direction, so why not take out your frustrations on this video game? Why not let this Funland ride spin your frustrated body ’round and ’round? Why not stuff your face? That week I must have had five or six Kohr’s soft-serve ice cream cones and thought nothing of it, but, from a distance, the writer in me balks at the obvious symbolism. “Really, Erik. Ice cream? Could you be more obvious?”
This is part of the inherent contradiction of Rehoboth. Every empire carries within it the seeds of its own destruction, and while the empire of Rehoboth offers the hard bodies of young men and women parading along the boardwalk, it also offers, to these hard bodies, hot dogs and submarines and hamburgers and french fries and fried chicken and pizza and gyros and cheesesteaks and crabcakes and fudge and salt-water taffy and popcorn and ice cream. Something’s gotta give. In his essay, “The Art of Donald McGill,” George Orwell writes about the bad jokes in the twopenny postcards in the cheap stationers’ windows in 1940s London, and dissects a necessary component of these jokes:
Sex-appeal vanishes at about the age of twenty-five. Well-preserved and good-looking people beyond their first youth are never represented. The amorous honey-mooning couple reappear as the grim-visaged wife and shapeless, moustachioed, red-nosed husband, no intermediate stage being allowed for.
I kept thinking of these lines all week. Intermediate stages happen, of course—you see healthy people in their 40s and 50s and 60s—but Rehoboth is all about celebrating youth even as it offers every fat, greasy, sugary thing to destroy youth. In the end it’s a short step from being a young girl on the boardwalk parading by in her bikini, the world at her feet, to being the overweight mom on the bench, rocking the stroller, the world passing her by.
Maybe this is why, as we age, we mourn for women: less for our lost youth than for theirs.
Travels: Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Tea Shirts
What else is gone? The movie theater along Rehoboth Avenue where I saw “Grease” six times during the summer of ’78, falling more in love with Olivia Newton John each time. I was 15.
And where’s the clown face that used to grace the front of Funland? For some reason it’s been relegated to the back. The new facade announces “Funland” mutely. It makes no promises.
But Skee Ball lives. As does “The T-Shirt Factory” on Rehoboth Avenue. As do most of the T-shirt shops along the boardwalk. These first became big for me in the summer of 1977, when “Star Wars” first became big for me, and when I bought, or finagled, T-shirts with iron-on transfers like “May the Force Be With You” or “Darth Vader Lives!” or just that original magic poster of Luke and Leia lit up in the foreground and Darth Vader and the Death Star dominating the background. I remember the pleasantly acrid smell of the melted print as it was steamed onto the cotton. I remember the sometimes sticky feel of the iron-on afterwards. Options went beyond “Star Wars” to include other pop icons: rock stars (the Rolling Stones), Tiger Beat stars (Shaun Cassidy), TV stars (Starsky & Hutch), superheroes (Captain America). The last one I bought was probably a Bruce Springsteen long-sleeved tee in the summer of 1983, and since then I’ve favored blank T-shirts—I advertise for no man, man—but I was still pleasantly surprised that so many Rehoboth T-shirt shops thrived.
Then I looked closer. I’m sure we had tacky and classless transfers back then...but this tacky and classless?
- A silhouette of a curvy woman by a stripper pole: I Support Single Moms: One dollar at a time
- A raised middle finger with a smiley face: Have a nice day
- Six red words: I Put Ketchup on My Ketchup
Who thinks that’s witty? Probably the same people who think the following are smart political statements:
- A caricature of Barack Obama in a baby bjorn: Worse than a HANGOVER
- The faces of Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden superimposed over Larry, Curly and Moe: The REAL Stooges
- A pic of a smiling, waving George W. Bush: MISS ME YET? How's that hopey changey thing working out for ya?
- Angry: Why the Hell Should I have to Press #1 for ENGLISH?
- Insane: If you can’t read this you’re probably illegal or the President!
I saw these in shops all over Rehoboth, and though I got weary at the smallness of it all, and angry at the idiocy of people who didn’t remember how bad things were in September 2008, I also realized I didn’t see anyone actually wearing such a T-shirt along the boardwalk. Everyone was too busy with their Phillies or Orioles tees, or their Seussian “Drunk Thing 1” or “Sexy Thing 2” T-shirts. It's still depressing, though. I’m no longer for slapping advertisements on my chest, but at least back in the day we put the things we loved on our chests.
Tomorrow: Mourning in Rehoboth
Stay classy, America.
Travels: Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Old Pro Golf
Part One of Rehoboth trip here.
Here’s a change. Back in the 1970s we put something called “sun tan lotion” on our bodies and then lay baking on a towel on the sand for hours. We compared tans like it was a competition. We had tan lines. Now, before we even step outside, we goop up with something called “sun screen” (30-75 SPF), and after dips in the ocean we reapply it beneath the umbrella. We read beneath the umbrella. We wear hats and SPF shirts and try to avoid the high-noon hours of 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. when there’s no place to hide.
Amazingly, with all of these precautions, I still got a tan. OK, a “tan.” OK, I got TFS: Tan for Seattle. More amazingly, there are regulars who still go for the deep, brown, unhealthy-looking George Hamilton tans. They’re so brown they probably would’ve stood out in 1977 but they’re especially noticeable in the SPF world of 2010. One wonders what compels them. I regret many moments in my life but few more than baking in the sun doing nothing but aging faster.
And what happened to my mini-golf courses? There used to be two along the boardwalk: the original, between Baltimore and Rehoboth Avenues, near the public restroom; and the “new one,” Old Pro Golf, on the roof of a T-shirt and gee-gaw shop next to Delaware Avenue, overlooking Funland. The original was clever enough, with a different level, five feet up and in the shade, as one made one’s way through the course.
Old Pro Golf was even more dazzling. It used a circus motif, with many moving parts, including, memorably, on the 19th hole, a ramp that narrowed to the width of a golf ball and that lead to the opening and closing mouth of a pneumatic hippo in a cage. To get a hole in one, and a free game, you had to hit it straight enough so it would stay on the ramp, hard enough so it would fly—like Evel Knievel—across the gap between ramp and hippo-mouth, and time it properly so the hippo’s mouth was open when the ball arrived. If you did all this, buzzers and lights would go off and you’d win a free game. As a kid this kind of coordination seemed impossible. One time my older brother, Chris, did everything right but the ball still bounced off the hippo’s tooth. Ohhhhhhhh. We talked about it for weeks afterward like it was Willie McCovey lining out to Bobby Richardson to end the 1962 World Series. Then one summer it suddenly became easy, and between the three of us, older brother and younger sister, we must’ve won five free games.
1970s Old Pro Golf: Showing off that first, sweet free-game pass outside the now-conquered hippo cage, and post-game with my sister Karen and our friend Dan, who's wearing a "Darth Vader Lives" T-shirt.
That course is still there, but called "Ryan's." It's without the hippo in a cage, the circus motif, moving parts, fun. Every hole involves small hills and dales and...that’s pretty much it. The free game on the 19th isn’t monumental, like a pneumatic hippo, but small. Hit the ball up a short, steep ramp, and into a small hole protected by a wire-mesh cage. Is the hole a clown’s nose? I forget. The whole contraption is tiny. It feels like you could pick it up and walk away with it. It feels like carry-on luggage.
The original course, meanwhile, is long gone, replaced by a Grotto’s Pizza.
Tomorrow: Tea shirts.
My nephews Ryan and Jordy eye the only mini-golf course left on the boardwalk. It's hardly a circus. On the plus side Jordy beat me by a stroke.
Travels: Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Intro
They say the days blend together but each is distinct.
Check-in times are generally at 2:00, so more than half the Saturday is gone by the time you emerge stiff and sweaty from your car, and anyway there’s work to be done—rentals to check into, groceries to buy—so you’re lucky if you get in a late-afternoon dip in the ocean and a walk on the boardwalk at night. But Sunday you take it all in. You go to the beach in the morning and afternoon, and, though half the ocean has gone up your nose, you stay past 5:00, past the lifeguards, until the sun, once blasting the top of your head, begins to lose its power; then it's dinner and Funland and the parade of people walking and preening along the boardwalk, and you've done so much this day that the next day, Monday, you step back and rest a bit. It is your vacation after all. It is only Monday after all. Even when you get back into it on Tuesday, you think, “Really? It's still only Tuesday?” It feels like you have all the time in the world. But Wednesday disappears, poof, and suddenly it’s Thursday and you know you're on the downside of things, and Friday, oh man, Friday you rush around and do all the things you should have done earlier but never got to, while Saturday morning is filled with melancholy. One last video game. One last walk on the boardwalk. One last look at the ocean. Bye.
I’ve been to many beaches since I was last at Rehoboth Beach, Del.—in Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Florida, Oregon and Washington—but Rehoboth, the beach I grew up with, the beach I went back to for the first time in 25 years last month, is still the one by which all the others are measured.
I expected it to be dirtier but it’s surprisingly clean. I expected it to be more crowded, and it must be—it swells on summer weekends from about 1,500 locals to include 100,000 tourists—but because the boardwalk has been extended further south, past Funland, it doesn’t feel more crowded. I expected the waves to feel puny, the water warm, the jellyfish rampant, but the waves were great, the water bracing, no jellyfish were sighted.
Planes still flew advertisements along the beach. One lone swimmer, in swim cap, still invariably plowed the waters 30 feet from shore. The Dolles sign still dominates the center of the boardwalk.
That doesn’t mean things haven’t changed.
Tomorrow: What's changed.