The perils and pitfalls of a day at the beach.
Rick Bragg at the Beach
Credit: John Cuneo

I came across a photograph not long ago, in an album that all but fell apart in my hands. The faded color picture was taken more than 50 years ago with a Kodak Instamatic, and while the focus may have been less than pristine, the memory it jarred loose was sharp and clear. It showed an old woman and three little boys—my grandma, my brothers, and me—barefoot in the white sand somewhere near Panama City, Florida, on the dunes beside the blue-green Gulf of Mexico. I thought of a lot of things, good and fine and sadly sweet things. But mostly, I thought of stinging jellyfish and searing sunburn and stabbing stingrays and biting sand fleas and dime-store rubber flip-flops that always wore blisters on my toes. And I thought about how I would like to meet that person who coined the cliché "It's a day at the beach" and punch him in the snoot.

The trip always began with great anticipation and joy. We could barely even catch our breath as we counted down the days, but that might have just been because we'd been blowing up floats and beach balls until we were blue in the face. It would have saved a lot of space if we'd just waited to do that at our destination, but it's hard to think straight when you're dancing on sunshine.

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At the kitchen table, for weeks ahead of time, routes to the Gulf of Mexico were traced and retraced on maps—we still used maps then, made of real paper—and weather forecasts were scrutinized and perhaps even prayed over. Before we left home, the provisions were carefully prepared. Chickens were fried; coolers were filled with ice, cans of RC Cola, and half-gallon pickle jars of sweet tea; and brown-paper grocery sacks were stuffed with loaves of light bread, Bama mayonnaise, fresh tomatoes, and at least two bags of Golden Flake Cheese Curls (the first bag wouldn't make it past Montgomery, Alabama). The 300-mile exodus took, it seemed like, an eternity. But finally—when our fingers and faces were all covered in orange dust—the tires of the old Chevrolet sank into the sand and we ran, whooping, straight into our misery.

We did not encounter bull sharks or barracudas or even undertows, for our grandma Ava stood sentinel at the water's edge and shrieked if she saw a shadow in the waves or if we wandered out more than thigh-deep. But if there was a jellyfish, we brushed against it, and if there was a stingray, we accidentally stomped it, all the while soaking up the ultraviolence of the Florida sunshine until we darn near glowed.

We flung ourselves onto the beach to recuperate, only to be consumed by pestilence, and then we fled back into the surf to try to drown them in the salt. Finally, at the end of the day, we staggered—blistered and almost paralyzed by the venoms of a half dozen alien sea creatures—to the place where my mother and Aunt Juanita motioned to us from the white sand.

"Just 10 more minutes?" my brothers and I pleaded.

I guess I've had 10 more minutes now, a million times, a million jellyfish, a hundred stingrays, countless days of cruel sun. It seems like I would know better…by now.