Skee-Ball, rafts and sandy feet
By Bill Fields
During a Southern childhood, “the beach” can be one syllable, just as “milk” can be two, the former taking its pronunciation from attitude, not accent.
In my case, I hurried to say it because I couldn’t wait to get there. Once the races — in Charlotte and Indianapolis — were over on Memorial Day weekend, the countdown would begin to whatever summer week or extended weekend had been designated for vacation.
Years before Bruce Springsteen sang of his Highway 9, we traveled South Carolina’s version through the rural coastal plain, the little towns we passed en route — Lake View, Nichols, Green Sea, Loris and Longs — populating the two-lane road like charms on a dime-store bracelet.
A few hours after setting out from Moore County, following hot dog and bathroom pit stops, we would near the coastline. We made a sport of who could see the water first, usually after cresting a gentle hill into Ocean Drive, the sighting a prelude of fun to come.
Ocean Drive was our go-to destination many summers. Some of the best weeks were spent at a cottage a couple of blocks inland, a gentle walk to the strand even with an inflatable raft on my back. The house, which we rented from another Southern Pines family, had a screened-in porch between the kitchen/den on one side and bedrooms on the other. It got bonus points for also being a short stroll from Hoskins Restaurant, whose fried seafood and hushpuppies defined the category.
If not the Daniels’s rental house, we stayed in one of Ocean Drive’s beachfront family-owned motels, falling asleep to the sound of surf or the whir of a window air conditioner, the manufactured cool a blessing on days we stayed in the sun too long and needed something to augment a generous application of Noxzema.
Looking for a bargain, Dad twice failed badly with our lodging arrangements, locating us in a tired and musty trailer in Windy Hill once and another time in a forlorn Carolina Beach cottage whose beds were sized for elves. He made up nicely for those mistakes, though, arranging the last several trips of my teenage years for us to stay at the Christina, a tidy motel across the street from the Cherry Grove Pier.
Wherever we stayed — the motels sadly all long since razed for condo construction — other vacation ingredients were as constant as a bottle of Coppertone and its scent of leisure. We played Putt-Putt, Bingo and Skee-Ball, ate Painter’s ice cream and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and rode a Ferris wheel whose safety bar never seemed that safe.
We used beach chairs that marked our thighs with the imprint of the nylon webbing if we sat too long. Cherry snow cones purchased from a strand vendor were refreshment in the heat. Dad invariably floated too far out in the surf for Mom’s comfort, distracting her from a Family Circle as she intently watched him bob beyond the breakers. But he loved the ocean as much as I did, the salt water soothing to a skin condition on his left foot contracted during the war that flared up every so often.
I didn’t have to twist Dad’s arm to get him to fish at the beach — each of us equipped with lightweight Zebcos better suited for a farm pond — but he didn’t yield easily to buying bloodworms over shrimp for bait, despite their effectiveness in attracting spot, croaker or whiting. Regardless of what we were casting off a pier, Dad and I were minor players compared with the serious fishermen at the far end going for king mackerel or shark with rigs out of The American Sportsman.
I loved it when I got old enough to be allowed to go out on a pier at night, alone, whether or not I had my fishing gear. Sitting on a bench away from the glare of a pole-mounted light wondering about the folks who carved their initials in the worn wood, there was a mystery that made it seem I wasn’t just in another state but another world.
Way too soon, in a sandy, sad car, with some trinkets purchased at the Gay Dolphin and won at the arcade, we would head home, vacation over until next time. Dad didn’t usually dawdle on the road, but on those return trips it seemed he worked in an extra stop, intent on making the beach last a little longer. PS
Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.