MYRTLE BEACH 1950
Summer vacation was always going to the ocean, feeling sticky from the salt water and the heat of my sunburn on the back of my legs where I forgot to put the lotion. The walk to the ocean from my grandmother’s house at Myrtle Beach on the planks that took you over the mound of sand to the breakers was hypnotic. The distant buzz of the ocean became a roaring crash the closer you got to the breakers. A mound of sand on the endless wall of sea grass could be seen up and down the beach, and then there it was the white foam ripples all the way down the beach after each wave. The next wave right behind it building and building to the peak, and then the crash.
Mostly the beach was empty at 9 am, other than down by the Big Hotel where the staff would be setting up umbrellas and chairs for their guests. The tide would have brought in broken shells and occasionally a perfect shell or a starfish. Settling down on my towel, I could watch the dolphins coming in, looping their way across, usually in groups of 4-7.
The tradition was to go in the water if my grandparents were there, and my sister and I would get in up to our knees and wait for waves to ride. The power of the ocean was already known to us from previous summers and a healthy respect for it was where we started our play today. Papa stood with his arms folded, brim of his hat covering the top of his face and would motion to us if we went out too far. I didn’t need reminding about the ocean and its power. It was a few years before that my dad put me up on his shoulders and took me out, saying he would show me how to swim. Papa had been there that time as well and he had motioned for dad to come back in, that he was too far out but dad had waved him off and went in deeper. I remember when he told me to jump in, I hesitated but not for very long and the second time he asked me it was more of a command. At that time, my dad was someone I had not known until the past 3 years. He had been in the Navy up until I was nearly 4, and my dad and mother had never lived together after they married because my mother was pregnant with me.
I jumped off his shoulder and felt the explosion of the water as I went into the wave and its crash which pushed and shoved me in different directions driving me through the water at great speed. I was trying to call for help under the water, could not see that much even with my eyes open and it was a little while before someone pulled me out of the ocean. Later I would find out that my dad had been knocked down by a wave after I jumped from his shoulders and he himself needed help out of the ocean. Were it not for the stranger that pulled me out, I would not have made it.
Unfortunately that break of trust with the ocean and with my father was the result of that experience. I never did learn to swim. So today, out in the ocean I watched to see that Papa was watching us and we followed his hand signals indicating we were too far out. He was now signaling it was time to come in, and head home to the house to get out of the sun. The idea was be at the beach before 11 and after 4 and for the natives who lived at the beach, that was the pattern we would assume when we were there for six weeks.
Ruthie would have lunch when we got back to the house. She, Papa, my sister and I were the only ones there often and this time, it was particularly peaceful at the house. We always picked up a crate of peaches and a crate of tomatoes on the road to Myrtle Beach, and brought saltines and cottage cheese, and that’s what we ate for lunch every day and sometimes for supper with some fresh caught flounder. Ruthie and Papa were serious about their fishing, wearing white shirts and pants that covered them and big fishing hats, as would my sister and I. We would go out to the pier and in rhythm of the ocean and the silence, a sudden whiiiirrr of the fishing rod line indicating a fish had taken the bait. The flounder was always cooked in the black skillets outside at night after a fishing trip, often with a black skillet of corn bread to accompany it.
One summer I read Gone with the Wind. The interesting thing was that was the first book that I ever read. Reading out loud in school was my experience of reading before that. I think there’s something to having kids not read until they get to a certain age and development, when it comes from a desire rather than from the need to perform in the classroom. I found Gone with the Wind and a Confidential magazine in a drawer in one of the 4 bedrooms. Pictures of troubled movie stars in the Confidential magazine with stories I couldn’t even understand still were of interest somehow. But I would never be the same after reading Gone with the Wind. I could see the grand staircase, I could imagine Scarlette so beautiful she could be willful and powerful with the men around her getting however she did the things she wanted. Who knows how much that had to do with how I took on life but the image of her chocking on the carrot and saying she would never be hungry again deeply impacted me. I drew strength from that and it did play out in my life-that kind of stand.
Melanie with her amazing kindness and compassion, as well as her weakness and vulnerability was a puzzle to me. If I had known the word Ironic, it would have described how I saw that Scarlett for her own reasons employed her ruthless courage to save Melanie, and Melanie gave Scarlett dignity and respect unmoved by Scarlett’s scandalous behavior. The power expressed by both women was a beacon of light to me. Scarlett and Brett and Melanie lived for me that summer-I could envision them coming out of the mansions on drives throughout the gardens of South Carolina in my grandparent’s Packard. The men also were interesting contradictions: Brett with his heart of gold, strong, powerful, flawed and yet taken by his love for Scarlett, and Ashley, all that Brett wasn’t. The lazy afternoons with the breeze from the ocean and the sound of waves in the distance were enriched by the experience of this world and a measure for me of what might be possible.
The light changes when summer is coming to a close and at the beach the shift would be evident. Summer was ending, the shadows would come earlier in the late afternoon, it was cooler in the mornings. The calendar and the clock would come back into our lives as we prepared to leave. My grandmother would be sad for days before we left. That sense of sadness of leaving the beach, the summer and the grandparents would have both my sister and I feel dread at our return to Boston.
We would return to the chaos and crisis which was the rhythm of our parents’ house. We would return, but not as the same people who left. Though we never could have said what that was, we have since spoken many times in recent years of those summers and what they gave us. Our best guess is it gave us the sense of who we are before we knew what that might be or what we wanted it to be. The contrast in how life might be lived, the different choices that had it be a particular way between South Carolina and Boston were all things we were observing, taking in and from which we drew a reservoir of strength we would need throughout our lives.