This is the first really hot weather we’ve had so far this summer. A few miles inland, folks are baking near 90 degrees. Here, it’s only about 85, which to my brother who will arrive next week for a respite from Vegas’ triple digits, seems blissfully cool. It’s right at the upper limit of my personal heat index, though, so I’m parked out in the screened porch with iced coffee. The humidity is high, and the muggy salt smell takes me back to beach days when I was a kid in Rhode Island.
So say it’s 1958, maybe ’59. It can’t be earlier than that because we’re in the cocoa-and-cream colored Edsel. Mom and Dad are up front, and Uncle Bill is in the back seat with my brothers and me. The adults are laughing and talking over our heads, the boys are wiggling in excitement, and I have my nose in a Nancy Drew book. Maybe there is a Red Sox game playing on the radio. The car is probably hot, but I don’t remember that, and I’m sure the windows are cranked all the way down. (Not even my brothers, who are three and four years old, stick their arms out the windows. It’s been drummed into us that if you stick your hand out, it may go home in another car.)
I’ve heard the words “Scarborough” and “Point Judith,” but it means little to me other than lots of sand, rolling surf chasing you up the beach and then retreating, and water that’s really cold when you first jump in, but then it warms up. Maybe we’ll build a sand castle, too. I know the tin pails and shovels are in the trunk, because I supervised their packing, along with the faded cotton beach blanket and the towels. The picnic hamper is loaded with Dad’s signature Spam salad sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, Polish dill pickles, State Line potato chips, iced oatmeal-raisin cookies, and soda for us kids (orange or root beer only–my mother has heard that auto mechanics use Coke to eat through the corrosion on rusted bolts) and a thermos of iced coffee for the adults. The hamper rides up front under my mother’s bare feet so the mayonnaise in the sandwiches doesn’t turn in the heat of the trunk.
The ride to the southernmost part of the state seems to take forever, but finally Dad looks up at us in the rearview mirror and grins. “Smell the salt, kids?” And I do! That briny waft of sea air tantalizes. We’re close now. Nancy Drew gets stowed away. The houses get closer and closer together and some have pretty roses all over the front of them or rowboats in their front yards. The air is hazy, and Dad slows the car to a walking pace as the beach traffic all funnels toward the parking lot.
There are lots of people already on the beach, a scant few feet between each family’s blanket, but I’m only aware of that when I turn around at the water’s edge and there is a moment of panic when I’m looking at a vast sea of people, one blur. (Literally. It won’t be until next school year when I’m nine that my near-sightedness is discovered and I get the glasses I’ll wear for the rest of my life.) Once I finally recognize Mom’s red bathing suit, I’m oriented, and, besides, at least one of the three adults is with us down at the water at all times, and grown-ups never get lost.
As the day goes on, I know my skin is getting tight-feeling, but it isn’t until my mom is retying the straps of my suit behind my neck and I see the startling white streak across my red skin that I realize I’m getting sunburned. That’s part of going to the beach, too. Poor Dad has to wear an old terrycloth sweatshirt, and sit with a towel draped over his head and others covering his bare legs and feet because his fair Irish skin never tans, only blisters and peels. Even so, he and Uncle Bill will race each other down to the water, belly flop into the surf, and go out to deeper water to swim a few times, but he’ll pay for it with a painful burn that Mom will have to put cold witch hazel compresses on tonight.
Finally, late in the afternoon, we head from the beach over to Aunt Carrie’s for clamcakes. This isn’t my Aunt Carrie’s, this is a restaurant, and everybody knows they have the best clamcakes. I don’t like fish very much, but even I like clamcakes and french fries and cole slaw. After supper we head for home, stopping for ice cream on the way. Dad gets pistachio, Mom gets maple walnut, I think Uncle Bill is a fan of coffee, and I’m pretty sure I get chocolate. I don’t know what my brothers get, except that when you’re the older sister, you get a lick of whatever it is. Two licks if I like it.
After the ice cream, the rest of the ride is long. By now the drying salt is gritty on our sunburned skin, our bony little bottoms are getting rubbed raw by the sand in our suits, and everybody smells like seaweed. It’s a relief to get home, have a bath, and put some nice soft jammies on. As I’m drifting off to sleep, I remember I meant to tell Dad about that horseshoe crab I wrapped up in my beach towel and stowed in the trunk. Oh, well, I’ll tell him after he gets home from work tomorrow…