“If the wave looks too big to float over, just dive straight into it before it breaks,” my father shouted to me as we bounced chest deep in the Atlantic Ocean. “It’ll break over your head, but you’ll be safe swimming underneath.”
I questioned this logic, having just discovered at 11 years old that adults are not always right. But I did as he suggested at the next towering wave. Dad was right. Under the water it was instantly peaceful, the roar of breaking waves above my head just a hush, water rushing past as I kicked against the surge.
When I popped up on the other side, Dad called over. “HOW’D THAT WORK?” I grinned and gave him a thumbs up, then returned to face the incoming waves. One lesson you learn early when you spend time in the ocean: Never put your back to the waves for too long.
“Watch out for the Under Toad,” My mother warned me years earlier as we spread out our blankets in the sand. I imagined a huge slimy toad sitting under the water waiting to grab children.
“Where does the Under Toad live?” I asked Mommy, now a bit nervous about getting near the water. She burst into laughter.
“Under TOW, not Under TOAD!” she explained. I was embarrassed. Not only did I think there was a scary toad in the ocean, which is totally silly, but I didn’t know what a TOW was either. I pretended I did, since I was then 6 years old. I should know that, I thought. Luckily my older sister was down by the water’s edge. If she had heard what I’d said, she’d tease me for days. “Watch out for the UNDER TOAD! Here he comes, gonna grab your leg, pull you under and eat you up!”
Our family spent many hours on the Ocean City sand in New Jersey. We called it “Going to the Shore. ‘Beach’ is a California and Florida word. ‘Shore’ is the East Coast term for the long stretch of sea from somewhere north of New York to somewhere in Virginia. At the New Jersey shore, jellyfish floated and multiplied, leafy seaweed wrapped around your legs, and on August weekends the sand was covered with so many blankets and towels that it was hard to get to the water without stepping on one.
For two summer weeks, we rented the top half of a spacious old house a few blocks from the ocean. Its shingles were a dark green and visible from a block away. Our numbers increased as the family grew: first there were four of us, then five, then six. My father joined us on the weekends. He was a Pennsylvania farm boy who was never afforded vacations, and first experienced the ocean while in the Army. He loved swimming in the salt water and body-surfing the waves. He’d stay out for hours, taking each of us one at a time into the deeper area.
“Clifton,” my mother worried when he returned to the beach chairs and sun umbrella. “Is it safe to be out there with a child?”
“Sure!” he replied, rubbing a towel over his thick, unruly black hair. “I’m right there with them.” She knew it was a losing battle to change his mind. Since he hadn’t ever seen the ocean as a kid, he wanted his children to get right into it, play, learn to swim, respect its power and know the rules of being in the ocean. Like NEVER GO OUT SWIMMING ALONE. First Rule. WATCH OUT FOR THE UNDER TOW. Second Rule. FACE THE WAVES. Third Rule. And there are others….
For my mother, going to the shore was a much-needed escape from the repetition of keeping house and children in order. She spent her time sitting under our blue and white striped sun umbrella, keeping one eye on the youngest who was digging in the sand. She’d bring along a few historical fiction novels from the Quakertown library back home and read as much as she could all week. She would dole out cold drinks from the thermos and pretzels from the beach bag. Yes, BEACH bag, not SHORE bag. Just to keep you confused.
At the shore, family rules were relaxed and food was casual. Every day at ocean’s edge from 10am-1pm, a break for lunch and cool rest at the big old house until 3:00.. We’d return, walking those long 3 blocks on sidewalks so hot that the heat came up through your flip flops. Minimal sunblock, no hats. We didn’t know yet about the cancer danger from too much sun. When we left for home after two weeks, we had baked-bean-brown skin with a red tinge. We tried to stay up late at night, but being in sun and water all day exhausted us, so we fell into bed early despite all efforts to stay awake.
Now as an adult I can watch the waves hour after hour, their continual rhythm luring me into a hypnotic state. The music of the waves echoes the beat of music, the pounding of a heart, the pleading call of a bird for its mate, the propensity we have for habit and routine. It is a two-toned sound: CRSH – HISS – CRSH – HISS, repeated every seven seconds. The sound conjures up plastic buckets and shovels, oily sweet-smelling tanning lotion, paperback books and transistor radios. Naps under the shade of the umbrella, Dad’s skinny white legs sticking out from a brightly colored baggy bathing suit, and a cooler filled with lemonade and pretzels. It is the smell of the shore, however, that spawns the strongest memories and emotions: a combination of rotting seaweed, salty water, coconut suntan oil and steamy sand.
If II could return to those shore-bound childhood days, I’d ignore cancer risks and get skin-crispy burned, eat a popsicle, letting it run sticky down my arm. I’d jump the waves, or dive under them if they were strong that day. I’d be watchful for the Under Toad. I’d go back for lunch at 1:00, track sand into the house and take a nap in air conditioning. Then back again after a lazy dream of salty water, soft colorful towels, and a good paperback novel.