Dead Man in the Surf

Down by the ocean it was so dismal
Women all standing with shock on their faces
Sad description, oh I was just looking for you
Desk clerk told me, girl was washed up
Was small, an angel with apple blonde hair, now
I went looking for you, are you gone, gone?
— Punk/Poet Patti Smith, “Redondo Beach” (1975) 

 A crowded beach, a hot summer day. A body in the surf: limp, rolling, floating—in and out with the breakers, covered with sand, burned by the sun. Hundreds of people around. No one is shocked.

“What the hell is that kid doing anyway?”

“No idea; he’s been lying in the waves for forty minutes. Every now and then he looks up to see if anyone is watching.”

This is the beach game I invented: Dead man in the surf. To win the game, someone needs to freak out. Get the lifeguard off of his chair, give an old lady a heart attack. I never won. In my preteen years, I spent hours pretending to be dead. No one gave me the time of day.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Each family has their go-to-vacation-thing. Beaches, mountains, or cities. Skiing, hiking, or sight-seeing. Growing up, our thing was the beach. The Maryland and Delaware beaches. We went every summer of my life until I was out of high school. My father’s hobby was surf fishing. My mother’s hobby was reading. The beach was the place they could both relax with their favorite pastimes. And I could pursue mine as well—lying in the surf, pretending to be dead.

As an adult, my go-to family vacation alternates annually, one year we’re at the beach, the next year is a fly-away vacation to the American southwest—usually to Moab, Utah. Although this summer, we’re heading to the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon. But nothing says ‘summer’ like a trip to the beach, so even on our fly away years, we usually spend a couple of nights at the beach.

June 4th, and we’ve already been to the beach and back. In our area, the school year ends absurdly early: this year, on May 31st. The rest of the kids on the east coast are still in school for several more weeks. We immediately scooted off to the beach to take advantage of mid-week, pre-season hotel rates. This year our rate was so low, if we hadn’t stayed in this hotel before, we would have completely passed over the deal. With rates that low, you don’t expect quality; you expect gross—people peeing in the stairwells gross.

Once on a trip to Alaska, Susan and I stayed in that motel. Right off the plane, 2:00 AM Anchorage time—that’s 6:00 AM our time, up all night. As we drove into our motel lot in our tomato-red, economy rental car filled with all the necessary crap to accommodate our coming two-week adventure, we saw the sign advertising low monthly rates. And then we saw the drunks. The balconies were infested with drunks. And not fun drunks, but drunk drunks—sitting outside on cheap, indoor furniture. Too late to find another hotel, we checked in, navigated the stairwell/open-air urinal and found our room. Our personal room featuring pubic hairs between the bed sheets and even one right on the toilet seat—as though it was intentionally left there just to gross us out. We piled all of the movable furniture in front of the door and slept in our travel clothes on top of the comforter.

Our beach hotel, while equally cheap, was clean and adequate. And exceptionally quiet (something about foam-filled walls). Once you’re in your room, you hear nothing. Not even the barking dogs that are welcome in this hotel. There’s also a comfortable lobby and an above average breakfast bar. So, not gross, they’re just trying to fill their rooms. We thought about adding a day as we checked in. But that would have been a Friday night. The rate jumped by 250% for the weekend. Our cheap, early, mid-week get-away is the best feature of our school year.

dollesRehoboth Beach, Delaware: I’ve been visiting this beach for fifty years. In some ways it has completely transformed. The highway leading through town now boasts hundreds of outlet shops, and the main drag approaching the beach is littered with high-end restaurants and clothing boutiques. None of this is remotely interesting to me. But the boardwalk remains exactly like it was when I was a kid. Same variety shops, same food vendors, same arcades, same vibe. A snapshot of 1964. This is why I like to come to the beach.

The thing about going to the Delaware beach during the first week of June is that I can’t really go swimming. No body surfing, no wave hopping, no dead man in the surf. The water temperature is in the high-fifties. Extended time in the ocean will turn your lips and fingers blue. This isn’t to say that people aren’t in the water. For some reason, other people—my kids included—seem to get beyond the frigid conditions and have fun splashing about. But not me.

This is fine. A good excuse to stay on the beach. The ocean has started to creep me out. There are sharks out there. For the past three or four summers, shark attacks on US beaches have sky rocketed. In 2015, the United States recorded fifty-nine attacks. At this point, the chances of not being bitten by a shark are slim. And the worst part is you never know how close you are to being bitten. You can’t see the bastards until they take off your leg.

In the late eighties, I went to North Carolina’s outer banks with a group of friends on vacation. We rented a house right on the beach, and we spent an entire week playing volleyball and drinking beer. The house next door was rented by a similar group with identical interests. It was a big party. On our last evening of vacation, the guys next door baited some large surf fishing rods with big hunks of meat and rowed a small boat a couple hundred yards out into the ocean. They dropped the baited hooks and rowed back to the beach for a relaxing evening of beer.

sharkAfter dinner, shortly after dusk, I went out to the beach to check on their fishing progress. Three large sharks—six to eight feet long—lined the beach in various stages of death. These are the fish swimming beneath my feet as I hang out on my boogie board waiting for my next ride. These are the fish lurking in the steel-gray water deciding if my thigh is more enticing than a fish. These are the fish with the power to alter the rest of my life in search of an interesting snack.

The allure of the beach, for many (most?), is undeniable. The band Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers summed it up nicely with their lyric: The beach be one of the best things we got, where it’s not what you have on but what you have not.  Embraced in warmth: sitting in the sun almost naked; feet buried in the warm sand; a constant rushing sound of water as waves lap or crash in the distance. Reminiscent of the womb. Comforting. The last time we felt truly safe.

gusThe static-ness of the Rehoboth boardwalk isn’t surprising. We don’t crave new. We want to relive our childhoods over and over each summer. We want to come back and visit the places we’ve gone since we were kids. Revive memories, create new memories with our own children. Gus & Gus’ burgers and fries (since 1956), Dolles’ salt water taffy (since 1926), Ryan’s Mini-golf (1961), Funland’s games and rides (1962). Louie’s Grinders, Grotto’s Pizza, the Ice Cream Shop. The list goes on. Too much to do on a three-day trip to Rehoboth.

Our early vacation this year barely scratched the surface of our beach-jones. The weather was a mixed bag of cool-foggy-overcast and sunny-humid-oppressive. Much like the weather we’ve had in Pennsylvania since early March. As we were checking out of our hotel last week, Sophie and Eli were already planning our end of summer return—maybe a September weekend. Could this be a new tradition? Close up the summer with a second beach-trip? At least the water will be warm. A chance to ride some waves, venture deeper into the water than my knees. Eat some more Grotto’s slices. Teach Eli the joy of mimicking a corpse in the surf. If I can just get past those sharks!

6 thoughts on “Dead Man in the Surf

  1. Enjoyed your beach – vacation odyssey with the sharkless gold old days. But your Utah trip sounds interesting, look forward to reading about that. Miss you at the Wednesday meetings.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beach “replenishment” has contributed to the steep rise in shark encounters, due in part to the steep dropoff of the ocean floor just a few feet out in the water. So, in essence, we are all now wading and swimming in areas that used to be several hundred yards out in the ocean. We have invaded the sharks’ turf, in other words.


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  5. I love the ocean! It’s only a half hour drive away. My favorite beach has been gentrified to some extent. Sucks! The old hippies and stoners are still around but so are the hipsters. 🙁
    I’m impressed with your ‘game’. That would be difficult to maintain in the waves. The ocean waves have put me through the spin cycle many times. It’s not fun.


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