The last time I saw the ocean was my first beach vacation to Pancake Shores in 1958.
I was twelve.
I’ve seen a lot in the last sixty-one years; mountains, deserts, prairies, wars, men land on the moon. But I’ve never been back to the beach. I’ve never felt the sand between these aged toes. I’ve never heard the waves crash against the shore. I should have told this story years ago, but that vacation spooked the seafarer spirit right out of me.
I should probably start by saying everything in this book is true, with the exception of the name of the beach. I've always called it Pancake Shores because of…well, I’ll get to that. Let me start from the beginning.
The vacation started great. The train ride across the heart of the country was incredible. I figured this would be the most fun I would ever have on a vacation. My family never went on vacations. Not to the beach anyway. We always went to the vacuum cleaner museum or Branson.
But that summer the Thompson twins invited me to go with them to their grandparent’s beach house in New Nauset, New York. I don’t remember how long the train ride was to get there. I only remember feeling afraid when we got to the house and no adults were there.
“Where are your grandparents?” I asked the twins.
“They’re on vacation,” Robert replied.
“Yeah, they don’t stay here very often,” Rose added.
“So we’re…alone?” I asked.
“Well, our cousin Eugene lives here. But he’s kind of a dead head. I don’t think he’s here very often,” Robert said. “We’ll be fine. What do you think Rose?”
“I think we’ll get along quite well on our own. We’ve got the diner just across the street. Mom and dad sent us money. Don’t worry, Wilson, we’ll cover you. We invited you after all.”
“Okay,” I hesitated. I set my luggage down on the wood plank floor just inside the front door. I never considered being here without parents. I guess that means Robert is in charge. He’s the oldest. The only way I know that is because we’re on the same basketball team in school. Mom made me join. I’ve never been in the game at the same time as Robert, but we’re on the same team. Standing in this house, alone, I realize that I don’t know much about Robert outside of the team.
Rose at least talks to me during lunch most days. The other days I sit by myself. It’s different here. It’s just the three of us in this sea salt coated beach house where the entire back wall is glass. The massive sea crashing nearby. My loneliness mixed with anxiety to create a new emotion. Robert spent most of the train ride telling stories of sharks attacking swimmers and giant squids swallowing ships. Regret flooded over me. I should be at home in my bed.
“There’s no phone here?” I said searching the beach house.
“Don’t you worry about not being with your mommy and daddy. We’re grown-ups,” Robert said.
“You know, Robert and I are almost fourteen,” Rose added. “We’ll take care of you.”
“I don’t need anyone to take care of me,” I lied.
“That a way, friend,” Robert said as he slapped me on the shoulder. “Once we get to the beach you’re going to forget about all this anyway. You’re not going to want to leave. And that’s not even considering the new ferris wheel.”
“It’s going to be a blast,” Rose chimed in.
“Aren’t there sharks, though? Close to the beach?” I asked.
“Ah, don’t be a so dry. There’s nothing to worry about. This is a safe beach,” Rose said. “Nothing happens here.”
“Okay,” I mumbled.
“Let’s put our bags away and head down to the pier,” Robert said. “I’ve been waiting all year to ride the ferris. They say you can see Canada front the tippy top if it’s a clear day.”
They showed me to the back of the house. My room faced the shore. A massive window filled most of the back wall. I set my bags down on a deep blue rug and collapsed on the bed. The sky was a bit darker now. A toddler ran on the shore in front of an adult. I could hear the baby laughs from my room. If a baby can have fun on the beach, maybe I can too, I thought.
I changed into my swimming trunks and met the twins in the living room. When we stepped outside a clap of thunder sounded in the near distance. “No, no, no,” Robert said. We looked up at the sky. He walked ahead of us. Elevated wood planks the color of fresh sand created the boardwalk. It seemed never-ending though it pointed straight toward the ferris wheel. I took each step with caution to try and avoid splintering my bare feet. We were only a few minutes down the path when I spoke to Rose.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“The thunder. They’ll probably close the beach if there’s lightning. And that means no ferris wheel.”
“Oh,” I replied, trying not to sound too relieved. “What’ll we do then?”
“Who knows. We’ll find something, friend. This is vacation after all,” she said, stretching out her arms to soak up the sun; except the sky was dark grey and ominous as the sea.
“We could go back to the house,” I suggested.
“Yeah right. We didn’t come all this way to sit inside and play checkers all day.”
“That wouldn’t be too bad,” I said to myself.
“Let’s go see what’s going on at the pier and we’ll figure it out,” Rose said to me before yelling up to her brother. “Hey Robert, wait for us.”
“Well, come on then, slow bones,” he shouted back.
When we reached the end of the boardwalk we found a group of sad children, each with sun kissed faces and sand-soaked hair. Their heads hung low as they walked back toward the beach. Robert was among the exodus.
“They’re closed for the day. Someone said they saw lightning. Police came and shut it down. It’s ridiculous. There’s no lightning at all,” Robert pointed to the sky. “Sure, there are a few clouds. But it’s not even raining. It’s not fair.”
“Let’s just come back tomorrow, Robert. It will be okay.”
“I know it will be okay, sister. That’s not the point. The point is I’ve waited all damn year to ride this wheel and now I can’t because some cellar dweller thinks he saw some lightning.”
“Easy, Robert,” I said without thinking.
“What did you say, Wilson?”
“He didn’t mean nothing by it, Robert,” Rose stepped between us. Robert looked me in the eye a bit longer before exhaling deep and laughing hysterically.
“I’m just messing with you, friend. Didn’t mean to get so worked up. Let’s head down to the beach and see if we can still make a day of it, yeah?”
“Okay, then,” I replied. We stepped off the pier and my foot sank into the warm sand for the first time. I couldn’t help but smile. The last time I felt that way was when my grandma made me a root beer float for the first time. I took my towel by two corners and lifted it above my head and took off running.
“What’s got you floating, Wilson?” I heard Robert yell from behind me. I was in a different place though. The sand. The warmth. The sound of the waves on repeat. The birds overhead. The energy from people having fun all around. It was so much. I collapsed into the sand and closed my eyes. I wanted to phone my parents right then and tell them I was never going back to Illinois. “Have some dignity, friend,” Robert said as he spread out his towel on the sand next to me.
“This is his first time, Robert. Lay off,” Rose said in my defense. She placed her towel on the other side of me.
“I’m just yanking his leg, sister. Don’t tell me what to do.”
I opened my eyes and could see Rose laying on my right with her sunglasses on. To my left, Robert was sitting back with his elbows crooked, surveying the beach. I let my head fall back into the sand.
“Are we just going to lay here?” Robert asked after thirty seconds.
“We could go try and find some sand dollars. I told my mom I’d bring her back one,” I suggested.
“Sand dollars?” Robert said, collapsing onto his back.
“I’ll go look for some sand dollars with you, Wilson,” Rose said. “Just give me ten more minutes in the sun.”
“We can buy sand dollars. We don’t need to waste time looking for them. Some other people have already done that for us.”
“Robert, it’s about the hunt,” Rose contended.
“It was just a suggestion,” I said.
“Look over there,” Robert said, pointing to a group of kids running on the sand behind us. “Those kids are playing soccer. I bet we can hop in, what do you say, Wilson?”