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When beach tar was a good thing

July 22, 2010

I remember bobbing gently in a warm, gentle sea, nestled against my mother’s body, feeling her heartbeat and hearing her murmur in my ear, with no idea my world might ever be different. Pre-birth memory? Nope, I was a toddler. A few yards out from a Florida Panhandle beach, my mother knelt in the water and held me close, her cheek against mine, making sure that I wouldn’t fear the water as she had in childhood.

By my fourth summer, a new baby had appeared and I happily joined two big sisters riding the waves on inflatable plastic floats. I can’t remember not knowing how to swim, and could never understand—still can’t—why so many of my friends preferred motel pools, even if they had no diving boards. For me, swimming pools were invented to ensure survival between beach trips.

From the age of nine or ten, we were allowed to go on the beach without grown-ups, heading out at sunup and staying until suppertime if we wanted to. One law prevailed: my mother insisted her fair-haired daughters stay indoors between 10 AM and 2 PM. Sunscreen didn’t exist in those days and we fought bitterly against wearing shirts and hats in the water. We couldn’t get tan to save our lives—except the one of us four who could, disgustingly. I tried to be content with making my blond hair blonder, thanks to an old Tame bottle filled with hand-squeezed lemon juice that I combed through my hair all day long. No beach chairs or umbrellas, just a towel apiece and—if we were lucky—a float that didn’t leak. We agitated (in complete futility) for a trip to the Miracle Strip at Panama City Beach; but we also knew, in our bratty-adolescent hearts, that we had a kind of paradise right where we were.

The Gulf is a wilderness, magnificent in ways even a child understands. It changes colors every hour. The waves are gentle, exciting or scary, sometimes all three in a day. Pests and nuisances abound—sneaky jellyfish, toe-pinching crabs, the odd remora, confused but relentless. Seaweed appears so you’ll  know things aren’t perfect. It plays tricks on your eyes, making you think you see a shark every two minutes—or making you ignore one that’s really there. The sharks are always there, by the way, whether we see them or not, along with their pals, the rays and barracuda. And if the varmints don’t get you, the currents might. By the time I could ride a bicycle without training wheels, I could detect the undertow and respect it absolutely.

Our beach vacations weren’t frequent or usually very long, because Daddy didn’t like to get sand between his toes. Seriously, he wore shoes on the beach! He’d rather stay home and go fishing or watch baseball games. (There was no TV at the beach, only a transistor radio we turned on once a day for the weather report.) But we loved every second of every trip, and hoarded every shell and sand dollar we brought home.

Home again, even a peeling nose and salt-stung eyes hurt good, reminding me of where I’d been. I remember feeling a little sad when the last of the beach tar would disappear from the bottoms of my feet, knowing another chunk of the summer was behind me. Fall loomed—without, somehow, the next summer seeming any closer.

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