When I was growing up in the 70’s, I thought everyone’s mother used a razor blade to cut open the fully squeezed out toothpaste tube scraping brushes with the last remnants. I assumed when making hamburgers all moms sliced the patties through the center to make thin circles of meatishness. I figured the heart of a good burger meal was the bun since there was always more bread than anything else. I thought it normal to add powdered milk to the near empty jugs dropped off twice monthly by the State Farm milkman so as to avoid the hassles of weekly delivery. It didn’t dawn on me that money was tight. Surely everyone made snow boots by putting Wonder Bread bags in their sneakers?
But despite our lack of funds, my parents ensured we went on vacations every summer, granted we often camped in the back of my dad’s Ford pick-up truck, my parents and I squeezed on top of my brother Billy’s twin mattress, while Billy attempted to sleep stretched out across the front seat, the sound of dad’s snoring echoing through the Salter Path campground like a black bear on the prowl, while acorns dropped on the metal shell throughout the night spurring dreams of Civil War battles long since fought and lost.
Afterall, the Civil War was the backdrop for numerous family road trips. My parents felt it was their duty to expose us to American history and for some reason zeroed in on the War Between the States. Because my father was in the Navy, I was born in a military hospital in Charleston, South Carolina. Two years later, when he was stationed in Groton, Connecticut, my brother was born. It was an unfortunate turn of events for me, having a Northerner for a brother, because Billy became somewhat of a battle aficionado during those trips to Civil War battlefields and as a Northerner, HE identified with the troops of Ulysses S. Grant. This left me, the Southerner by birth, on the side of Robert E. Lee and team Jefferson Davis. While “my people” had a few key victories and I reveled in trips to Fort Sumter and Manassas, it became clear early on that I was doomed. When it initially seemed I’d seized Fort Macon in 1861, we soon discovered a sign by a canon revealing my team lost it to Union forces the following year. Yet another victory for my evil brother and his team.
Billy had a set of toy soldiers and canons that he’d line up on picnic tables at our campsites or on the brown and orange floral print bedspreads of our Howard Johnson’s motel rooms. Confederate soldiers tumbled to their doom in Vicksburg, Gettysburg and Port Royal. The fate of slavery did not play a part in our childhood discussions, and I was dismayed to discover that I was born on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line. My brother regularly made it clear; I was born a loser.
My childhood travels away from the battlefields hold a gentler space in my memory, especially when we found ourselves on Emerald Isle, NC. We’d make the three and a half hour drive in the Carolina blue Ford LTD down Highway 58, through quaint towns shaded by trees covered in Spanish moss. As we approached Cape Carteret, the sides of the road would become increasingly sandy and the scent of the ocean would fill our lungs. We’d sit on beach towels in the back of the car to keep from sticking to the leather seats in muggy July heat, the car windows open because the air-conditioner rarely worked.
The Cameron Langston Bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway arched like a roller coaster over the marshy land, with boats zigzagging through the passes, and the island’s water tower in the distance resembling a giant golf ball on a tall tee. The first street on the right led straight to the Islander Motel, two stories tall, painted blue and surrounded by unspoiled sand dunes with a sun-bleached wooden walk-way leading straight to the beach. This was our paradise.
Daddy would pull up to the registration desk while we bounced in the back seat, anxious to get out of the car, our tushes tired from the long drive during which it had to be an absolute emergency for our father to stop for a bathroom break. If you could hold it, you did because pain was far better than dad’s annoyance at pulling off the road at a gas station, or more likely he’d immediately screech to a halt and offer up a patch of shrubbery or a ditch.
After he got the teal plastic keytag, Daddy would back the car into the parking space right in front of our room. We always opted for the convenience of unloading on the first floor over the view of the ocean from the second story. And if the room was close to the swimming pool, all the better for us kids. The bronzed moms in lounge chairs by the pool made the coconut scent of Hawaiian Tropic mixed with cigarettes far more prevalent than the smell of chlorine, likely because there wasn’t much. The hotel was blue but the pool was green, the bottom covered in a squishy layer of sand. Clearly we weren’t the only ones dumping the sand out of our bathing suit bottoms after a day at the beach.
My brother and I would rush into the room with its brown shag carpet scratchy with sandy grit from past visitors. We’d jump from bed to bed as our parents unloaded the trunk. We didn’t have much actual luggage. Most of our belongings were in brown paper Piggly Wiggly grocery bags. As soon as the car was unloaded, daddy took off to find the local ABC store so he could get the Jim Beam he needed to mix into his Mountain Dew, which enabled him to tolerate a long weekend with his family. Mom would gather our faded, thread-bare towels and her green and white nylon woven metal-framed beach chair and we’d head out the wood-plank walk-way through the sea-grass covered dunes and down the steps to the beckoning Atlantic Ocean.
While mom dug her feet into the sand and flipped through her Good Housekeeping magazine, Billy and I would take off on our own for hours, exploring the dunes as if we were astronauts taking our first steps on the moon or Arabian knights seeking an oasis. It was on one of those adventures when we were crossing the windswept dessert with knots of sea grass standing in as cacti, never planting our feet for more than two seconds at a time on the burning hot sand, that we came upon the broken pieces of a Styrofoam surfboard. You’d think we found gold in them hills as I stood on the rounded tip, about a foot long, resting my burning feet, and my brother staked his claim to the eighteen-inch middle section. With my smaller discovery, my brother reminded me that I was the loser, but I felt victorious holding my curved chunk of marshmallow-colored heaven. We attempted to surf the sand like Aladdin on magic carpets before taking our new kick-boards out to the foaming blue ocean. The joy we got from those rejected pieces of polystyrene lasted for YEARS. We carted those kickboards on vacations throughout my childhood and handed them down to my sisters.
I was ten when one sister was born, and we squeezed her bassinette in the back of dad’s pickup truck between Billy’s mattress and the wheel well. I was fourteen when my youngest sister came along and we’d all pile into the mini-van and head to the borrowed basement apartment of one of dad’s work friends a few blocks from the beach, where the cool cement floor and muggy scent of the swamp cooler welcomed us for several summers.
The new additions to our family meant that now whenever we stayed at a motel, my parents made my brother and I hide in the back of the van. They would check in as a family of four, then have us sneak in under cover of darkness and we’d all squeeze into the two double beds, my brother often on my dad’s old military cot with my youngest sister curled up between the two hotel chairs pushed together, their legs made stationary with daddy’s belt.
Along with sunburns and the scent of Solarcaine, mosquito bites and pale pink calamine dots on my legs, I itched for this time with my family every summer. Daddy sitting on his folding chair with his red NC State stadium cup sweating in a pocket of sand by his beach chair where he’d sit for hours, puffing on his pipe and casting fishing lines toward the tide, occasionally getting a bite and we’d all squeal with glee as he’d reel in our dinner. My brother and I re-housing sand crabs to the castles we’d emboss with limpet, clam and scallop shells, and splashing in the waves with our reclaimed kickboards. The sand-dune score of the century. A blessing of a childhood with freedom for discovery.