On the boardwalk, the Spicer boys shucked their shirts, the oldest revealing a shark-tooth necklace, the youngest, smooth skin and his dad’s muscles. I’d overheard enough of my mother’s soap operas while folding laundry to know boys were a thing. Witnessing first hand two tan teens on a beach, I could only stare, this summer of ’74.
The youngest plowed through the sand dune sheltered by sea oats.
“That’s against the rules.” The hall monitor in me couldn’t help but show up. “We’re supposed to stay on the walk.” Mrs. Richardson, who owned the pine cabin we were visiting, would have sharpened her southern-pecan voice if she caught us hurting her sand.
“Just this one time.” Daniel flipped his bangs out of his eyes.
His older brother followed. Tiger Beat magazine had schooled me about California surfer types. This guy checked all the boxes: long board shorts, straight hair with the slight edge at the ends. The beaded bracelet.
I couldn’t figure out if standing or sitting would best hide my gangly legs. I ironed frizzy hair with my palms. Nothing could be done about my necessary eyeglasses. The dune jump onto Carolina shore would cherry-top my summer.
After a high-five, Daniel huffed through the grass and sand, then hurtled into air, arms wide, suspension holding for a precious second. Hooting, he landed solid, sinking mid-calf in the plush sand.
His eyes sought mine, his only audience. Then, realization hit. Daniel looked at me. Plain me. Kinky hair me. Flat-chested me. These were the years of cringe. Decades would pass before I could remember myself with any hint of gentleness.
The oldest, the quiet one, trailed in effortless fashion, his necklace hanging longer in the air than he. After landing, Mark offered his small smile. Even then, something otherworldly moved him, as if he envisioned another realm of life mine didn’t.
“Catch you on the flip side.” Daniel headed back to the cabin, his brother in his shadow. The sea foam kissed the shore. Earthy teen lingered in the air. The hippest boys I’d ever known acknowledged me, and as quickly, left.
At sunset, I waded the chilled shore to step into their footprints, a Tiger Beat moment coming true. The same sand that covered their legs covered mine. I dreamed up a life with the younger, one of happy times, but obeyed boundaries. Thereafter, Daniel faded behind a line of teen crushes, never to be seen again. A much-older Mark became a beloved and loyal man, so much so, that my father said his funeral was well-attended.
For the remainder of vacation, our family swam, fished and ate blue crab and fried blue gill. Such sweetness: I can picture Dad standing on the Richardson’s boardwalk, hand over his eyes, pelvis pitched forward, eye to the sky. Middle age encroached with his thickening stomach and graying temples.
One last surprise ventured into our beach trip.
The Cessna buzzed the coast. My dad knew a thing or two about planes and would have flown one if not for blood pressure and insurances problems. “Too low.” Dad shook his head. “If a person can read the tail number, you might need to ascend.”
I was a summer away from not believing Dad’s words were gospel and three decades from realizing they were. “It’s going to crash?”
“Stupid men.” Dad lumbered inside to cook breakfast. I covered my eyes, the plane turning toward Kill Devil Hills. The crash booming, Dad flipped bacon without twitching a muscle.
“The plane.” I slammed the screen door. Mrs. Richardson’s and my mom wouldn’t like that. But this was an emergency. Smoke rose from a mile of dunes down the beach.
I pleaded with my father. “Take me. Please?” A no-see-um aggravated my dad’s vacation less.
He lifted the bacon out of the cast iron and stretched it across a paper towel. “You don’t want to see that.” The burner clicked off.
But I did. I did. What happened when a Cessna hit ground? What happened to the people? “I won’t ask for more.” Even then, we both knew I was lying.
His face going poker, Dad turned his Paul-Newman handsome on me. “Get some shoes on.”
Long after the emergency vehicles came and went, we trudged until sweat salted our eyes. A crowd of people flocked the plane, a beached whale, half of its body ripped off. We waited in line to pass by. Blood rivered on an armrest, then fell to the sand. I paused the parade to take a Polaroid.
Dad studied the tail wing. “Let’s go.”
And like that, it was over. Quiet ruled the rest of the day. A mosquito droned in my ear all night. I thought God had sent it to punish me for taking a picture of the blood.
This was my last sweet summer, the one I flew too closed to shore. By next year, I would have read too much and heard too much. Cosmo replaced Tiger Beat. Nags Head went from long, crush-shelled driveways and beach cottages to parking lots and condos. I became “old enough” too soon.
My heart would give up God because of guilt, heartache and anger. I would hate me for not being the popular girl, for being one of those embarrassed to dress-out in high school. I’d become a dune jumper, flying so low and far breaking rules became an addiction. Yet as much as I caved to elements of destruction, I craved the beauty of innocence. I knew something more waited around the corner, something true and good.
Even now, years sober and redeemed, I seek the golden hour of sunset in a world masked and assaulted by a virus, violent weather patterns, and riots. I long for brokenness to break.
I long to find the late summer tomato that hasn’t burst from rain. To sense the air’s vibration created by a hummingbird. I long for a drive to the beach with Earth, Wind and Fire blasting from my windows.
To tuck my feet in cool sand and watch God’s faithful waves come to shore. To jump wooden stairs like a dune, and slip the grip of gravity until weightlessness wins. To warn a buzzing plane to safety. Dear God, one more late summer adventure, please.
What late summer adventure do you dream of having?