by Donna Byrd
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” – Jacques Yves Cousteau
As a child growing up in Tarboro, North Carolina, there was only one place that our family vacationed: Atlantic Beach. Living only two and a half hours from that glorious shore made it possible for us to visit the Crystal coast regularly. If we couldn’t stay for an entire week or even one night, that was alright. We’d just pack a lunch and head out early on a Saturday morning, pointing our car eastward toward heaven and when we’d had all the sun and fun we could take in a day’s time, we’d head back home facing the big, orange setting sun.
I can’t tell you how many times our family of seven went on those wondrous beach excursions only to come home sunburned and exhausted from a day spent body surfing in the warm ocean water, digging in the sand and walking the endless beach searching for shells. I can remember Momma and Daddy getting all of us sleepy headed children out of the car, carrying the youngest ones in their arms and putting us in our beds with our bathing suits still on and sand still in our hair. Oh, those were some golden days!
As we became a little more prosperous, our family still made the “day trips” but stopped staying in the cheaper “mom and pop” motels where we would all pile into one room. Our parents began to rent a beach cottage for a whole week every summer. Glory! I can still recall several summers back in the early 1970’s when my mother’s brothers and their families would come too. The adults all had the bedrooms and all of us kids would sleep on pallets on the floor. In the morning, we’d get up early, eat a huge breakfast and head down to the water, which was four blocks away! However, no one complained. We looked like we were in a parade, all of us headed down to the beach, some of my uncles leading the way, the older children holding onto the younger kids and our mothers bringing up the rear. Each one of us shared the load of drinks, intertubes, towels, beach chairs, books, shovels, pails and suntan lotion. I know we must have been a sight but we didn’t care. We were at the beach!
When we weren’t chillin’ down by the water, we were eating. Food always tasted its best at the beach. We would dine out once that week at Tony’s Sanitary Fish Market in Morehead City. I am still not sure what made it so sanitary. But the rest of the week, my mother and her sisters-in-law would cook our favorite meals for us. They would buy fresh vegetables at little roadside stands that we passed on the way to the beach and with those fresh offerings, cook up the most amazing comfort foods I’ve ever had in my life! To this day, I still think that a vacation at the beach requires fresh corn and tomatoes.
After our happy, noisy meals, we’d go out and sit on the screened in porch, playing games and hearing our uncles tell silly stories about my grandpa’s failed attempts at being an inventor and how they survived poverty during childhood. As a child, I couldn’t imagine being that poor but Mom said it was true. Anyway, they kept us kids laughing and feeling grateful for the opportunity to vacation in heaven. One year, we did nothing but talk to each other in rhymes. “I wish I had a drink. Then this poor old mind could think! Donna, would you bring me some iced tea and while you’re at it swat that bee?” To this day we still remember with fondness the times spent in the boxy, yellow, cement block cottage four blocks from the beach.
As the years went by, our families prospered a bit more and each family began renting their own places at the beach. We wanted to be near our relatives so we rented condos in the same beach resort at Salter Path, a few miles south of Atlantic Beach. I suppose I would consider those years our vacation “glory years.” During that time, my siblings and I married and brought our spouses to the beach with us. Our cousins did the same. We all had the bedrooms then and our young children and their cousins slept on the floors. I’m not sure how many condos we rented, but some years we had five or six three and four bedroom condos. It was a week long, family reunion!
Now, my children and all of their cousins remember those days as their golden, summer days. Some of their best memories from childhood were made at Summerwinds in Salter Path, North Carolina. Atlantic Beach, on the Crystal Coast was our “home beach” stompin’ ground! My husband and I can’t ride down that long beach road without feeling a wave of nostalgia or twinge of homesickness for the beach of our childhood and the memories we made there later with our own children.
Children grow up and move away, as Bill and I did. Over a period of twenty-five years we lived in other states and adopted other “home beaches.”
When we lived in Orlando, Florida, we could jump in the car and be in Cocoa Beach in an hour. During the year we lived in Miami, we could look out from our fourth floor sun room and see dolphins swimming in the aquamarine waters off Miami Beach and huge Carnival Cruise ships sailing away to the Bahama Islands. That was truly a home beach.
For a period of ten years, we lived in Oxford, Alabama. To our surprise and delight, our “home beach” became Destin, Florida, five and a half hours away. There we would take week long, family vacations and sometimes two or three other shorter trips each year. I remember once during that time, sitting at the restaurant, Pompano Joe’s, staring out of the open window propped up with a stick onto a beach that looked like a Corona Beer commercial and saying out loud to no one in particular, “I’m so sorry, Atlantic Beach, but I have found another.”
Over these last four years, I have yet again found another home beach. Bill and I now live in Sneads Ferry, North Carolina, five miles away from the beaches on Topsail Island. It’s only about an hour’s drive south of Atlantic Beach and I can honestly say, “It’s good to be back home again.” Already, my children (all six of them are grown and live in Nashville, Tennessee) are making their eastward treks to their new “home beach” here on Topsail Island. We also have two small grandchildren that will now be making memories on our lovely 26 miles of natural beach paradise.
These days, I drive by many lovely beach homes situated on Topsail Island. Some of them are huge and have ten or so bedrooms and a pool! I then think back fondly of the humble beach vacations of my childhood and wonder about the fun times we could have had in a home that big and luxurious, just a few dozen yards or so from the water. I guess what we didn’t know then didn’t hurt us at all, did it? As I stare wistfully at that beach mansion, I wonder what would it be like to get together in a place like that this summer? I suppose that even with all that room, the kids would still probably want to make pallets and sleep on the floor!
Did you have a “home beach” growing up? Do you have one now? Share a memory or two with us in a comment below!