Full of roadside-sold soft pretzels, we'd zoom past pine trees, hand-painted antiques sale signs and Jersey tomato stands. From the backseat - the way-way-back - we sucked hard on plastic juice-box straws and fogged windows to play tic-tac-toe. Then, about 30 minutes past when pop music turned to static, we'd sense it. Crawling over lumpy suitcases, boogie boards, and grocery bags, we'd strain for the window crank, roll it down, and let the salt air pour into our lungs.
When I reflect on the Shore of my youth, I'm lying in my underwear on a twin bed. It's 5 o'clock and the sun is just starting to dip outside the window next to me, a light breeze lifts the lace curtains, chills my sunburned skin. There is laughter from downstairs, clinking glasses, playful screams. I close my eyes and breathe deep the smell of pot roast and suntan lotion.
In 1977, my grandparents bought a vacation house on 16th Street and Central Avenue in Ocean City for $35,000. It had eight bedrooms and two bathrooms. But it came furnished, complete with orange shag carpet. Out back was a barn fence gate that we'd swing open to park cars on the lawn. There also was a ramshackle shower house, which, as a child in the 1980s, I remember being dark, full of half-empty shampoo bottles and spiders.
Like many houses down the Shore, life took place on porches. The wraparound green-turf front porch was an endless cocktail party of obscure third cousins. The back porch was more utilitarian, used for husking corn and sorting seashells. And you had to be quick to score a place on the second-floor screened-in porch, the old white wicker lounge chair a popular nap spot for tipsy uncles and a German shepherd named Heidi.
Days began early, with predawn bike-ride doughnut runs, followed by a mad dash to get a good spot on the beach. As kids, we were mules, laden with sacks of games, paperback romance novels, and red plastic sand-castle makers, toting folding chairs rusted from a thousand summers. We'd shuffle down hot, pebble-ridden asphalt until we'd reach hot, shell-ridden sand. But then there it was - the ocean!
We'd drop everything, pull our shirts off, and run, zigzagging through the maze of beach blankets, umbrellas, and fat, brown, leathery bellies until our scorched feet reached the cool froth of the Atlantic. We bounded forward until the water was almost waist-deep, and then leaped, twisting and splashing on our backs, sinking, letting our feet hit bottom and then shooting up through the surface with a triumphant shout before we were caught by a bigger wave and sent tumbling back to the shoreline.
We'd stay as late as we could, until the lifeguards pulled down their flags and dragged away their stands. We were starving, peanut butter and sand sandwiches our only sustenance, washed down with Hawaiian Punch.
When we got back to the house, as the adults showered and used up all the hot water, we sat in the alley, listening. We were pros; we knew the exact route pedaled by ice cream vendors, knew the exact time they'd pass by. We heard their distant bicycle bell and frothed like Pavlov's dogs.
Chipwiches, Fla-Vor-Ice, Fudgsicles, ice cream sandwiches with thin waxy paper. Rocket Pops, Push Ups, Creamsicles, ice cream cups with flat wooden spoons. Choco Tacos, Drumsticks, or just a standard "wooder ice" - we wanted it all, and we usually had about 68 cents.
Later, after a dinner of soggy seafood or charred cheeseburgers, we'd be sent to bed, left to eavesdrop or use the back stairs to sneak cookies. And some nights, there would be storms, our faces pressed into mesh screens, the wind picking up, a flash on the horizon, counting quietly to see how far off it . . . BOOM! Screams and laughter, the power goes off, more screams, everyone scrambling with flashlights to close windows.
We'd stay a week - sometimes two if we were lucky. I can't remember any of the trips home.
And, one day, without even knowing it, we grew up. Raucous bedrooms fell silent, days seemed shorter, more full. Time, measured before in sunsets, turned real, tangible. We discovered obligation, our once-weightless childhood given gravity.
In the end, after my grandmother passed away, the Shore house was sold and knocked down by condo developers. We were told that the land was more valuable, that they were building something better.
Sean Carney is a writer living in South Philadelphia.