When life was a day at the beach

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 17, 2022. That’s me, far left, second row, with my cousins at Scarborough Beach in 1963.

My family never went on summer vacations when I was a kid, at least not in the conventional sense.

Like many Rhode Islanders, we just went to the beach.

My grandfather owned a tidy red cottage with three bedrooms and one bath on Elizabeth Road in Narragansett to which his four daughters flocked with their children, all 13 of us. I was the second-youngest cousin.

On one hot July morning, my brothers, cousins, and I trekked three blocks to Scarborough Beach while our mothers made peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and Kool-Aid to bring for lunch. The painted white lines in Scarborough’s asphalt parking lot were cool tightropes beneath my bare feet, and the parched boardwalk was splinter-treacherous, although navigating it delivered a magnificent reward: the Atlantic Ocean.

There was one problem: no one was allowed in the water until our moms arrived. Mine had cautioned my brothers and me, more than once, that the dreaded undertow would pull us to our doom.

My older cousin Michael knew a good way to pass the time: skimboarding. At the shoreline, he hucked his waxed wooden disc in front of him as the water from a wave receded, chased after the skittering board and jumped on it with two feet, then glided effortlessly over the glistening shore, arms outstretched.

I did my utmost to mimic Michael’s carefree ride several times, but the board always skated out from under my feet, landing me backside-first on the shoreline mud and drawing whoops of laughter from my throng of brothers and cousins.

Less embarrassing was scouring the fine sand at Scarborough for money. My brother Rob, cousin Paulie, and I slowly walked up and down the beach, eyes searching for glints of silver. A nickel could get you a Hershey bar; a dime would buy you a Coke; and a quarter would be good for three games of pinball. We watched with envy as an old man in long pants waved his metal-detecting device over the sand and then bent down with a pail to sift for his payoff. “I want one of those gizmos for Christmas,” my brother said.

On this morning, the beach was stingy with its coins, but generous with cigarette butts and popsicle sticks. We immediately converted the sandy flotsam and jetsam into mini-catapults, pressing tan Marlboro or Winston filters against the top end of the half-dyed sticks while pushing our thumbs against the bottom to flick butts into the seaside breeze. We crouched in the sand below the boardwalk and took aim at unsuspecting passersby carrying beach chairs and umbrellas. (Our projectiles never hit their targets, which was surely a blessing – for us.)

At last, my mother and aunts arrived. Time to go in!

We dashed and splashed into the cool blue ocean, diving though the arc of a wave just before it crashed. Standing waist-high in the swirling sea, we saw a rising set of waves approach.

“Next one, next one!” a cousin shouted.

We rode the waves until our fingertips wrinkled, then ran up and laid our stomachs down on the hot sand. Shivers eventually quelled, we went back in, again and again.

At noontime, we sat at seafoam-green picnic tables on the boardwalk eating our peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, warm and gooey. Our mothers forbade us from going in the water right after lunch, saying we would get a cramp and drown. Unless, of course, the undertow got us first.

Rob, Paulie, and I went looking for our fortune in the sand again, waiting for a life-saving half-hour to pass.

20 Comments

So relatable!! The cautionary adages of the 50s and 60s….the sensory beach images….the sticky peanut butter & jelly and the eternal Kool-aid sugar high!

Good to have that shared history in our childhood DNA!

I swear our parents forbade us to swim for an hour after eating so they could have an hour where they didn’t have to focus on us riding those waves at Scarborough!

Nostalgic John… such fond memories of our youth!
John I also have 4 daughters and 13 grandchildren (a baker’s dozen) !
Once again we share common ground!

~Ernie

Great one John!
Is “waiting to go (back) in the water” a metaphor for these days?
Seems like it might be.

Anthony Cannistra July 17, 2022 at 10:51 am

John, again you have eloquently captured a moment of a time gone by. I look forward to your monthly posts. Thanks!

John, every generation of our family has this story…did our parents have a plan in mind, or are we so a part of the ocean, our ocean? I am so much older than you and yet I had the same experience, the same boardwalk, the hot sand and those same sandwiches at noon, and the hour’s wait, that endless hour! Frank and I walked that beach as teenagers, raised our children there and this week David and I will introduce his grandchildren, my great grands to the very same spot!! …and the beat goes on…
thanks for the memory…carol

Great piece, John. Such a joy to read. You captured that era so perfectly. Reminded me of summer beach trips when I was that age. Thanks for the memories and the laughs!

I was visiting my mom in Providence last week, and I actually told her that the day was so sunny, bright blue and hot that it reminded me of the days she would pile all 5 of us into the station wagon with a cooler packed with sandwiches and fruit, and drive the hour down to Scarborough to hang out with our cousins. We were part of the “cousin” clan, but we only got to go to Scarborough a few times a summer and join those of you lucky enough to have a house down there. (That’s me, first row, far right.) My memory of those days are so vivid 60 years later, and reading this brings them to life once again. Thank you!

Still shaking the sandy memories of Scarborough from my shoes all these years later. PB&J with Kool Aid was always served along with the dreaded “you’ll drown” from mom or the neighbor mom who brought along her kids. Great memories, John. Thanks for stirring up days of olde!

Hey John:
A little late in my response but your piece brought back memories of my family’s excursions to Goosewing Beach in Tiverton every Sunday. I smiled at your description of your cousin, “Next one, Next one,” at the approach of a wave. I think that was common language across the beaches. When I was 11 years old, we got a pool so we stopped going to the beach which was always a bittersweet development.

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