Living where the ocean meets the shore is a marvelous way to experience childhood! I grew up in US Coast Guard base housing in Cape May NJ, which was fantastic because there was always kids around, but bad because we had 20 sets of parents checking on us. Still life was grand, living by the beach, complaining about tourists, having that laid back attitude most of our military parents couldn’t comprehend.
Cape May is a Victorian town. The houses are proud gingerbreads, you often had to slow down behind the horse and carriage taking tourists around the island. A few miles away is the Wildwood Boardwalk where we would spend our nights eating ice cream and showing off for the summer boys, wearing the label of being a local like the honor it was. There’s no fast food, no chain restaurants or stores in Cape May Proper. I complained about this as a kid but now think it’s the most beautiful way to grow up. Even in winter it was beautiful. The grand houses were decorated for the holidays, a dusting of snow covered the sand. The sea mist would coat things with a thin layer of sparkling ice and the sea breeze made great drifts for us to jump in. There was something to do all year round. Though I admit the fall, when the crowds left town and things slowed down, was the best time of year.
We didn’t have video games or cell phones. We lived outside, coming back to our street only when we heard Taps played in the evening. The water was our playground. We ran along the edge of the bay playing with horseshoe crabs and scaring seagulls. We sat on docks and waved to fishermen. We went down to the beach, avoided the “shoobies” and spent our allowance in the arcade hogging all the skeeball games. Everything we owned was plastered with surf stickers. We bought our clothes at local surf shops, supporting Billabong and Quicksilver long before Pac Sun brought them to inland malls. Dressing up was rare. Dinner, church, parties… everything was casual, come as you are. School shopping meant a new denim skirt and some unfaded tees. We giggled at the suits and high heels that walked into a restaurant because you knew they weren’t local and probably sat in a cabana on the beach. I lived barefoot and sun kissed, and have the freckles to show for it. My hair and skin had a constant layer of salt and you could find sand in pretty much everything I owned.
I wish I knew what I had when I had it. I lived in Ft. Lauderdale for 4 years after that. Beach town yes, but light years away from the Jersey Cape. Even though I’m land locked now I still make it to Cape May two or three times a year. I get it now. That blessing of a beach life. The philosophy you don’t realize you absorb from the ocean. I know what it’s like to be stuck in a riptide or undertow. You learn how to get out of them through experience, the same way you do with the currents of life. Sometimes you have to swim parallel to shore instead of trying to force your way in and risking everything getting worse. You learn to walk on hot sand like you learn to tolerate difficult people. Growing up playing in the home of sea creatures gives you a healthy respect for the planet and it’s inhabitants. Not everything in the ocean is cute and friendly. The ocean can sustain you and keep you humble. Like life, it’s consistent, yet never the same. Nature always wins, seasons change, the tide keeps turning. The ocean can stir itself up or calm itself down, just like we do to ourselves.
I miss the beach life and can’t wait to move back to Exit Zero for good. Get my toes in the sand and salt in my hair. I swear I won’t take it for granted this time.
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