Our plan of attack that first summer at Myrtle was ingeniously simple.
The first time I saw the Atlantic Ocean was at Myrtle Beach, when our '65 Ford pulled up to a stoplight and my best friend and I leaned forward from the back seat, brushing our hair, suddenly full of energy after a hot and dusty eight-hour drive from the mountains of Virginia.
It was late afternoon, and we could see the ocean–a strip of gray green on the horizon–stretched out between two pink-stucco apartment buildings across the street from where we sat waiting for the light to change and our vacation to begin.
"GO!" we said, the split-second that it did change, and her father replied, "All right, already," in a tired of defending itself after 400 miles of stoplights and two 14-year-old girls.
It was one of our chief duties as teenagers to tell our parents when to GO at intersections; when it came to stopping, they were, as we all know, on their own.
Carla and I had graciously allowed her parents to accompany us on our trip to the beach–to make the reservations, pay all our expenses, read the road map, drive their car, and so forth–but they had nothing to do with the real reason for our being at the beach, and we hoped that they would make themselves scarce once we had unpacked our suitcases at the StarDust Motel.
They were nice people, you understand, fair-minded and entirely Methodist. It's just that they had no role to play in the beach-wide mission that would consume us like flame for the next several days: the of FINDING CUTE BOYS (by getting the darkest tan possible).
It was not entirely clear to us by what means adequate tanning had led to romantic encounters throughout the ages, but we had the vague sense that a layer of semibronzed pigment could conceal a multitude of flaws on a girl not yet Cosmopolitan-perfect. As for the subject of CUTE BOYS, we knew little except that we liked them.
By the end of the week, we could have added the following:
1. Cute boys at the beach have better tans and better sports accomplishments than the boys back home, and they are telling the truth; they swear it.
2. They always travel in pairs.
3. Cute boys at the beach do not have parents.
Our plan of attack that first summer at Myrtle was ingeniously simple. By day, we would soak up the sun or float together on a rented raft until one of us, usually me, began to get seasick or the hour was up. In the evenings, after mighty preparations, we would walk to the amusement park or the Pavilion under a dark lavender sky, in search of a wonderful unknown someone–one for each of us, we prayed.
Carla's parents must have done some praying of their own as we set out on our twilight adventures. To us, they said only, "Stick together and no riding in cars." The rest was understood. Now that I think of it, they displayed admirable calm, and lots of faith–in us, and in the safer world of that place and time. We were even more at ease, fully confident that the only beach "killer" we might encounter would be a dark, fishy monster–the one that spun around glumly in a metal tank along the boulevard could be viewed for only a quarter.
Occasionally, we would walk along the ocean, where a breeze might brush our faces and make shiver the knowledge that after hours of baking in the sun, ironing each others' hair (yes!), and picking out our most flattering outfits, we could be summarily rejected that very night in full view of the Tilt-a-Whirl.
If Cute Boys snubbed us now, it would be a sad commentary indeed, for this was as bronzed as we could get. So if our mission got off to a slow start because two boys in swim trunks and flip-flops had told us they were "waiting for someone," and then started laughing, we just rode the Ferris wheel into the night sky, where it didn't matter much and we could sing some Aretha Franklin songs and swing our legs and feel a little better.
The first trip to the Atlantic Ocean, at the commencement of my teenage years, marked the beginning of what I now think of as the Age of Infatuation, beaches not to be excepted. And, as with all infatuations, my love for Myrtle Beach was as shallow as it was intense.
For three beach teenage summers, we returned to the beach, and always it was the same: a restlessness, an unnamed yearning, and an endless search for something that would transform the life of an ordinary teenager from the mountains of Virginia into a surfside scene from an Elvis Presley movie.
We did have some beach dates from time to time, but I knew there had to be something more. It was as if there were a question I had been meaning to ask myself–and the shimmering solitude of the ocean at night brought me closer to an answer than the garish lights of the amusement park, where among the crowd I continued to look in vain for the "unknown someone."
Years later, when I had found a Real Boy–not at the beach, but right in my own backyard–and when the two of us had "found" three children, whom we also took for better or worse–I heard the voice of Aretha Franklin demanding a little "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," on a Golden Oldies program.
I believe that I was folding laundry at that very moment, and brooding over grass stains on our older boy's tee-ball uniform. The middle child, a lovely golden-haired 3-year-old, was lobbying for yet another Pop-Tart. She had already eaten two, but she was crying and that might wake the baby.
Then something clicked inside my head. I called my husband at the office with a fantastic idea: Wouldn't it be great to have a beach vacation...sand castles for the kids, seafood for us...so peaceful and romantic?
By the time Aretha's backup singers had gotten to the "Sock it to me" part, our daughter was screaming into the phone. I handed her a Pop-Tart. My husband, a wise man, agreed to the plan.
We turned onto Ocean Boulevard on the first day of August, after an eight-hour drive. I was still riding in the backseat, but this time, I was doling out graham crackers and presiding over a deteriorating game of I Spy.
By now, we had spied everything in the car, as well as some things that were not in the car. Two out of the three children were crying, and the other, our oldest child, was chanting "I see a Putt-Putt."
What he had seen was the spotted yellow head of a too-big giraffe sticking up through a thatch of palm trees. It was a Putt-Putt, all right. My husband swerved into the next lane, made a turn, and pulled into the parking lot.
"Let's get this over with," he said. During the next few days, we learned that you do not get Putt-Putt over with when you are at the beach with a 7-year-old boy.
As we settled into our motel room, I began thinking how the beach had changed in just a few years. There was more sand and gritty stuff than I recalled in the red shag carpet, more wind to whip your hair, and it was WAY TOO HOT. It was instantly clear to me that I would live for baby's naptime, when I could return to the air-conditioned room and watch reruns of My Three Sons.
There were, to be sure, some pleasant moments with the children: building sand castles, splashing in the motel pool, and so forth. But two out of three were afraid of the ocean, which seemed to have become quite hazardous in recent years. Our daughter said it would bite her feet and wanted to collect only the shell fragments up by the drainage pipe. I had never even noticed a drainage pipe.
I persuaded her to sit with me on a blanket while I fed the baby his apricots. We would be a little closer to the waves, yes, but later I would buy her a shirt that said "Myrtle Beach" and a yellow pocketbook with a blue plastic comb in it.
Meanwhile, my husband had taken our eldest to a miniature golf course with a prehistoric theme. (On the way back from McDonald's that morning, my son had seen the snout of a dinosaur piercing the treetops). They would wait in line for 55 minutes so that Chad could hit a golf ball up a metal ramp and into the mouth of a Stegosaurus straddling a sand trap.
This was not exactly what I'd had in mind when I suggested a beach vacation. When my husband returned to the room, he wanted to know if we were having fun yet, and then left to cash some more traveler's checks.
I thought of my teenage glory days at this very beach and, for the life of me, could not remember anything about sand in the bed or traveler's checks. While I lay watching Fred McMurray with the volume turned low, I struggled in vain to say what it was that had attracted me to beach life in the first place.
This I pondered for the rest of the week, until the last evening of our vacation, when five of us walked to the amusement park under a lavender sky. My husband and I watched as the children rode little boats, raced little race cars, and pretended to pilot little planes that never left the ground.
Everyone seemed content–or perhaps just tired–and so we took off our shoes and started back to the motel in the cool, damp sand. I held our daughter's hand as she stepped carefully into the fringe of foam at the water's edge. Our son ran ahead, throwing shells into the surf, and the baby rode on my husband's shoulders, with his eyes half-closed and his sweet face wistful in the ocean breeze.
It was beginning to come back to me–this beach that I remembered. If I looked back, I could still see the Ferris wheel spinning its rainbow of color against the night sky.
We walked in silence together, listening to the voice of the sparkle-dark waters, each of us dreaming a summer dream.