Twenty-two years ago this weekend, I left Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, with two grand in my pocket, a hot bike lashed to my VW Rabbit, and a tiny bit of blow in my nose.
Back then, we mocked the families we served at Funland, checking out the young, hot, sunburned moms as we strapped their panicky toddlers into kiddie rides, and tearing down the straight-laced, khakied dads as we fleeced them for plush.
This week, I was that guy, navigating the boardwalk with a stroller and an armload of supplies. This week, I was in the backseat, nursing Maggie’s jittery, over-stimulated tears with a warm bottle as Maggie pointed us north.
It’s the circle of life.
I spent the summer of 1989 in Rehoboth. I was seventeen-years-old. It was my first time away from home. With my brother as my guide, the cuffs were off. I skimmed off the top at work, bought my first Grateful Dead sticker, and dabbled in drugs. I raced through backyards in the wee hours of morning, thieving from clotheslines and back porches. I passed out on the beach, and woke to the sound of gawking families.
It wasn’t all strum and dirge, though. The dorm above Funland was teaming with good guys from all over the place. We worked long, hard days that only wrapped when we’d swept every square foot of park. We had hoagies on Tuesdays, pizza on Fridays, and unlimited peanut, butter and jelly in between. And we spent off days in the waves, and nights strumming guitars, singing songs, and building pyramids from Natural Light cans.
And so, with last week’s full week off with the in-laws in nearby Greenville, Delaware, twenty-two years later, Abbi and I agreed to spend a few days in Rehoboth — Maggie’s first time at the beach.
Maggie cried nearly the whole way, nodding off just miles from town — which looked nearly the same as I recalled: Thrasher’s, Dolly’s and Funland were preserved as if in amber. We unloaded onto scorching pavement, slathered her squirmy-appendages in SPF70, and marched towards the beach.
The air was thick and hot as stew, punctuated only by gentle, convection-oven breezes. The sand was atom bomb hot, just a few degrees shy of turning to glass. The narrow beach was crowded eight rows deep with umbrellas, chairs and assorted ephemera as far as the eye could see. We staked our claim, spread our umbrella, splayed our blankets, and set Maggie free. She struggled to right herself on the shifting sand, squinted into the sunny distance, then sat tranquilly scooping and dumping. Her cheeks were quickly crimson, her hair matted, her attention rapt by the bucket before her. And in the rare instances she strayed from the shadows and stepped into the sand, she quickly turned her sandalled-feet around.
I was dispatched in short order to fetch food and water. I trudged through the scorching sand, then strode the sweltering boards back-and-forth twice to meet my dear family’s culinary needs, eventually settling back onto my towel for a sandy hoagie punctuated by Maggie’s impatient, “Feed Me!” scream.
The highlight, of course, was our foray into the surf. The beach was steep, the tide was high, and the waves crowded with body surfers, and Nerf tossers, but we stood a while at the edge holding Maggie’s hands as she shrieked with delight at the approaching surf, them stamped in its shallow foam. Our courage buoyed, we waded into the waves. I held her close, my arms wrapped around her like tentacles. Her eyes grew wide like saucers with each approaching wave and she splashed and laughed and squealed with joy.
With the exception of forty-five Heavenly minutes at the Dogfish Head Brewery, a thirty-four minute 5k in excruciating heat, and those five, blissful, beautiful, memorable moments in the surf with my adorable, giggling, splashing, thrashing, thrilled daughter and loving, beaming wife, it was all logistics and lifting, stress and strain.
But that’s the thing my seventeen-year-old self would never, ever have believed. Despite the absence of sex, drugs or rock ‘n roll, and despite the sand and the sun, the schlepping and the sweating, the curbside-squabbles and boardwalk bench diaper changes, those few, precious moments were luminous. Those moments outshine all the tough stuff. Those moments are all the fun a man can wish for. Put together, they make a life worth living.