Thursday, July 25, 2013

No worry, no hurry

I never wanted to be famous.
A good thing, too, as the chances of that seem about as likely as me miraculously becoming tall, smart or handsome.
But a whole bunch of us laid-back beachbum-types came close a few weeks ago, when USA Today listed their 10 Best uncrowded beaches on the east coast, and included Topsail Island, the skinny strip of sand and sun where we've spent about half our time the past three years.
"Seashells and sea breezes await at Topsail Beach, one of the more family-friendly and uncrowded stretches of sand along the coast of North Carolina. The 26-mile long barrier island is home to three small towns, all with a laid-back vibe, and all four beaches tend to stay quiet, even in the heart of summer."
As far as Topsail goes, they're just about spot-on with terms like "laid-back," "family-friendly" and "uncrowded."
Like many areas near oceans, lakes, rivers, forests, mountains and other natural wonders, Topsail Island has a kind of symbiotic, love/hate relationship with the tourists who come there. In short, the locals need to see those out-of-towners with the dollars they spend on food, lodging and ugly t-shirts every year. But they also really can't wait for them to go home.  Most of the time, the tourist trade on our end of the island is pretty limited, since there are no hotels, motels, miniature golf courses, go-kart tracks, fast food joints, water parks or other attractions to keep hyperactive families busy and happy. This is not, by the way, because of any particular sense of simplicity, good taste or exclusivity. It's just that there has been an unfortunate tendency for hurricanes to roll in and wipe this end of the island clean from time to time, a happenstance that tends to discourage planners, investors, and the rich and  famous.
We had never ventured to the island on the July Fourth holiday in the time we've been making this place our part-time home.  The lure of Galva, its famous Freedom Fest, the fabulous fireworks, and the friends that we spend the day with have always been more than enough to keep us home. But this year, busy summertime work schedules dictated that the grandma-lady and I head back in time to help with the not-so-tough task of keeping our young grandsons happy and entertained on this balmy beach. We weren't quite sure what to expect, thinking the beach that fronts our house might be towel-to-towel with crowds of people, instead of the bare, beautiful spot it usually is. And while it was a little more packed than usual, it was still a lot less crowded than the beach scenes I remember from Florida vacations and the iconic Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon films of my storied youth.
The big difference was the traffic.
Driving around these parts is already somewhat complicated a bit by the fact that our 26-mile-long island is connected to the mainland by just two bridges, which tends to slow things down a little when you're trying to get from Point A to Point B. That's generally no big deal to me, as I really don't see any good reason to be in a hurry on and around this island paradise anyway. But I'm often in the minority when faced with the on-road antics of my fellow travelers, like the home-grown drivers who are devotees of a tricky little traffic move we call "the Carolina cuf-off," a headlong merging technique which is, apparently, performed with eyes tightly shut, and intended to test the nerves, reflexes and brakes of the other folks attempting to share the road.  Another often-exciting element of our local road trips is the presence of a zillion or so young, macho members of the United States Marine Corps, who travel to and from nearby Camp Lejeune. While a little more predictable than their Carolina cousins, these road warriors still make things interesting due to a marked preference for fast cars and daring, high speed maneuvers that bring to mind the slightly-altered USMC motto that goes something like this:
"The few, the proud, the freaking nuts."
Now, we're used to both the locals and the Leathernecks, so we mostly stay out of trouble. But add a few out-of-towners to the mix, and things start to get interesting, because, believe it or not, these folks from Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey don't intuitively know that the guy at the next intersection is just biding his time before pulling out in front of them, while that hot rod coming up from behind is merely waiting for the next winding hill to pull out and pass. The tourists, of course, are in a big hurry themselves to get to the supermarket and buy a week's worth of groceries and a year's worth of beer before heading for the beach and a date with the first serious sunburn of the season.
Ergo, worlds--and cars--tend to collide sometimes. And even if they don't, Saturday afternoon traffic patterns on holiday weekends almost guarantee that some poor schmo from Indiana will jackknife his Airstream right smack dab in the middle of the one intersection you absolutely have to go through if you want to get anywhere.
In fact, maybe that's why the beaches weren't all that crowded. Everybody was stuck in the Food Lion parking lot. But in any case, the holiday weekend is over, only to be replaced by a long, hot, sunny summer filled with weekends and weekdays that are all holidays of a sort. After all, we're at the beach. What other kind of day could it be?
Meanwhile, out on the road the Carolinians continue to cut in, and the Marines are still going everywhere fast.
Lucky for me, I'm in no hurry.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I wish I may, I wish I might

As it was with my own sons, I am not always exactly a font of truly useful information and instruction for my young grandsons. Oh, I'm probably the go-to guy when it comes to mid-day naps, which chocolates to choose out of a box full of them, and the best ways to eat a lot of fried chicken. But the truly wise, memorable stuff--like the advice Grandpa Walton used to give John-Boy--is far above my pay grade most of the time.
But I felt like I taught them something they can really use the other evening while we were walking the beach in search of the first wave of twilight ghost crabs.
Something that I've relied upon for years.
Something that--for me, at least--has sort of defined the sense of hope that I try to live by.
I'm sure you've heard it before. It goes like this:

Star light, star bright
First star I see tonight
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight

Now, I know, that left to their own devices, my five- and-seven-year-old grandsons' first wish would most likely be for the old coot to can it, quit with the endless star-gazing, and drive them to the nearest video arcade. They wouldn't be little boys or the sons of my son if they didn't feel that way now and then.
So I'm going to make a few wishes for them, and hope a lot of them come true.
•May you live simply and always  remember the little things that are of big importance.
•Here's hoping you will eventually decide to pick up your own clothes and eat some vegetables once in awhile.
•May you pay close attention to your family and friends.
•Ignore the Chicago Cubs.
•Dream crazy dreams.
•Take nothing for granted, and never fail to see the beautiful, the delightful, the admirable, and the awesome.
•May you be tolerant, understanding, accepting and filled with genuine love.
•Enjoy the journey...and the passing of time.
•I pray you'll always believe in someone bigger than yourself.
•I hope you'll know about hand-me-down clothing, home-made ice cream and leftover meatloaf.
•Learn to be honest when no one's looking.
•Fight for something you truly believe in.
•Look. Listen. Learn.
•I hope you'll always know that someone loves you.
•Please learn to say "please," "thank you," I'm sorry," and "I don't know."
•I wish you undeniable moments of total joy. And I also hope you'll experience meaningful bits of hard luck and disappointment, too.
•Work hard, play hard, and understand the reasons for both.
•I hope you'll find your heart's desire someday.
•I want you to get some of what you want and all of what you truly need.
•Dance like no one's watching; sing like you're alone in the shower.
•Trust the people who love you.
•Trust me.
•I hope you never stop hoping, never quit dreaming, and never stop wishing upon that first star.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Still time for turtles

There's a lot we've missed about the Carolina barrier island where we spend a good part of our lives nowadays. While we truly enjoyed our time at home in Illinois, we also found ourselves pining for sunny beach days, offshore dolphin pods, warm water, fast-rolling waves, and miles and miles of shells and other pretty, interesting shoreline flotsam. We have, of course, also missed the young grandsons that are our real reason for being here, along with the days and nights we spend together sharing precious bits of their little lives.
Oh yeah, and we've missed one other thing, too.
The turtles.
The narrow, sandy beaches that extend from the Outer Banks and Cape Lookout to Emerald Isle and Topsail, and down through Wilmington and the Sea Islands of South Carolina are prime nesting areas for the sea turtles that scientists estimate have been around for at least 200 million years.  Most common in our corner of the world are the huge Loggerheads, who often measure over 36 inches and 300 pounds, with certain super-sized individuals recording weights up to half a ton. Other sea turtles that are sometimes seen in these waters include Green and Kemp's Ridley species. Topsail Island is even home to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, one of only two in the U.S. The all-volunteer Center cares for and rehabilitates injured and sick sea turtles, and releases them back into the sea or finds other homes for those unable to survive in the wild.
My turtle-loving spouse has been an avid volunteer in the three seasons we've spent here. As a member of the Topsail Island Turtle Patrol, she has risen early in the morning to walk the beach in search of newly laid turtle nests, and stayed up late "sitting" turtle nests that are due to hatch, in order to assist the babies in their first, perilous steps into a big, danger-filled world.  She has even convinced me to join her and get up early or stay up late once in awhile, which is a true testament to both her dedication to the cause and her advanced powers of persuasion.  She was afraid she had missed most of the nesting activity during our May-through-June stay in Illinois, as that's when many of the giant reptiles make their way to the beaches where they were hatched decades ago to dig deep nests in the sand and deposit a hundred or more eggs. But like the midwest, the southeast coast experienced a cool, wet spring this year that sort of slowed things down. In Illinois, that meant corn and bean crops that are weeks behind their usual growth patterns.
Out here, it meant there was still plenty of time for turtles.
At first, our days on the island were taken up by the Independence Day holiday and the kind of happy reunion that always occurs when we've been away from family members for a period of months. It seemed that both grandsons had grown at least a foot or more since early May. There were stories to be told and memories to make. The weather was sunny and warm, so we rarely left the beach or the boys at all for those first few days.
But finally, the boys went home for a night or two and she made her plan.
"I'm walking in the morning," she said.
Our "here today, gone tomorrow" lifestyle makes it hard for her to take on a permanent post as a beach walker with a regular daily route to cover. So, instead, she subs for other volunteers, or just goes out and along the beach in the early morning to see what there is to see.
By the time I got up and staggered downstairs for my first cup of coffee, she was long gone. I knew where she had gone, and after awhile, I headed down to the shore with a book and a beach chair and waited for her to return.
And waited.
And waited.
Years of togetherness have taught me that she and I have different ways of looking at the passing of time, so I wasn't much worried when she didn't return for an hour. Or two. In fact, it was over three hours later before I spied her walking along the shoreline toward me, looking as happy, tired and dirty as a little girl who had just spent a day playing in a sandbox.
And, in fact, that was just what she had been doing.
When turtle eggs are laid in a nest that is apt to be unsafe or disturbed by human or natural elements, volunteers dig it up and move the eggs to a safer spot. To do so, someone has to reach down, down into a deep, narrow hole and retrieve those eggs. And count them, too.
Guess who?
"I got to be the egg-counter," she cried.
Pure joy.
"There were 144!"
Gestation of Loggerhead turtle eggs is about 60 days or so, depending on the temperature of the sand they're buried in. So that means sometime around the first part of September, watchers will begin to gather around that nest at twilight, hoping to do their part in protecting the hatchlings from predators and man-made obstacles alike.
I'm pretty sure I know one turtle watcher who will be there. One dedicated animal lover who will be sure to bring her grandkids--and even her husband--to witness the marvelous miracle of life.
You see, she knows those babies. And, for sure, she wants to see them again as they make their way to the sea that will be their home for the rest of their lives.
All 144 of them.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Tenting tonight

I don't ask for much.
At least, I don't think I do. After all, I don't need a lot of money, a giant yacht or a brand-new house with a pool out back. I don't care much about (no kidding) fancy clothes, tiny electronic gadgets or giant flat-screen TVs. I don't need a facelift, a tummy tuck or caps on my teeth, nor do I require pedicures, manicures or a hundred-dollar haircut. Heck, I don't even mind being the odd man out in what has been a one-car family ever since the untimely death of my trusty, rusty 1994 Isuzu Trooper.
But there is one thing I really need.
Or at least I think I do.
An instant tent.
And believe me, I deserve it.
My first experience with tenting was with a musty little canvas number that my dad apparently bought as army surplus from the American Civil War.  It was heavy, bulky, smelly, difficult to erect, and boasted a quirky little feature consistent with all canvas tents, that if you dared to touch the inside during a rain storm, it immediately began to drip-drip-drip from the point of contact. I dragged that recalcitrant sucker to backyard campouts, no-sleep sleepovers, fishing trips and scout camp, until a long, wet, windy experience with a two a.m. tornado convinced me that my warm, dry bedroom was a much better place to be when it was time to hit the hay.
I pretty much stayed safe and dry until I got married, and we thought camping would be a great way to travel on our limited budget. Thus began the era of the little blue tent which, as I recall, actually attracted heavy rainfall whenever it was set up. My recollection of those days is filled with memories of determined struggles to erect the thing by the light of a rapidly dimming flashlight in a steady rain, all the while responding--politely, of course-- to the advice, questions and assistance of the person holding said light.
She: Do you need another tent stake?
Me: Yes, why don’t you just drive it through my heart?
Once up, our old tent provided a convenient, free-flowing waterway for any nearby rainy runoff, while the air mattresses we hopefully blew up each night deflated almost instantly, offering us easy access to the flood plain that was the floor of our tent. After many, many midnight soakings, we bought a Volkswagen microbus that I roughly converted into a dry shelter with the help of some homemade curtains and a sheet of plywood that allowed room for a full-sized mattress on top and ample storage underneath. We took our beloved VW to some of the prettiest, most remarkable spots in the United States, while cooking on a little Coleman stove and swimming and hiking our days away.  Later on, a friend of mine began manufacturing lavish RVs using Mercedes Benz engines and chassis, and he occasionally let me borrow his trade-ins, which caused quite a stir among my camping buddies. Eventually, though, life got in the way of our travels, as little league and other local summertime pastimes kept us closer to home.  Vacations became more hurried as we desperately worked them around school and sports schedules.
It’s just been in the last few years that we’ve started dialing the urgency factor back a bit, taking the time to enjoy the journey as well as the destination.
But there’s still that money thing to consider, and the microbus is long gone.
So we bought another tent.
I wasn’t sure I was ecstatic about the idea of wrestling with another hellborn nylon-and-aluminum contrivance again, but I gave it a shot, with a new dome-style tent that has proven to be pretty darned waterproof, plus a cushy, full-sized mattress that, believe it or not, actually holds air.
But here's the thing. As with its predecessors, the process of putting the thing up is an absolute Indian rain dance when it comes to creating cloudbursts. While fairly effective at repelling water in most--but not all--conditions, its unique dome-like shape requires a certain amount of memory, patience, gentle leverage and engineering savvy, attributes that absolutely escape me, especially when the weather is bad and nighttime fast approaching.
So I was pretty excited the first time I spied an ad for an instant tent.
Now, mind you, I've never seen one in action. But my ever-hopeful mind's eye figures that an instant tent is a small, pocket-sized package with a large red button on in. When the intrepid camper (that's me) reaches the campsite, it takes just a matter of seconds to pull the tiny tent-pack out, push the button and stand back as it gracefully unfolds and unfurls into a full-sized tent big enough for two, along with the various essential trip-traps we drag along with us every time we venture into the woods.
Sounds good, eh?
Miraculous even. And that's why I want one. Because when it comes to me and the great outdoors, I think I really do deserve a miracle.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A few thoughts along the way

On the road again.
It seems like just yesterday that we made the two-day trip from our part-time beach digs on the coast of North Carolina in order to enjoy a pair of joyful midwest weddings, visit some old college friends, hang out with our Galva peeps, and participate in a sometimes grueling round of that personal reality show we call "This Old House."
But duty calls.
Well, or at least the lure of the beach, the Atlantic Ocean and the two little boys who rule the grandma-lady's heart. So, off we go into the southeast yonder. But as we empty the refrigerator, pack the car, pick up my bachelor brother-in-law, and invest in a couple of cases of cat food for you-know-who, there are a few odd notions rattling in my head that I most certainly need to leave behind.
•Welcome to the history of dumb things.
After a few weeks wrestling with all the things that stick, squeak, slip and slam in this big old house of ours, I've come to a conclusion.
I live in a museum.
Unfortunately, it's not the kind that's filled with precious artifacts from ancient days gone by. Nor is it the kind of place anyone in their right mind would pay to enter. Rather, it's filled to overflowing--from dark basement corners to cluttered upstairs closets--with the kind of "collectibles" most sensible folks try to avoid. For instance, while we've replaced many of the approximately eight zillion windows that line this place, those that remain from the good old days do a nice job of representing man's every vain attempt to develop a storm/screen combination window that actually works without slamming down on the operator's unsuspecting head or fingers. Suffice it to say, the net result is a series of complicated, worthless, guillotine-like contraptions that make me feel kind of like Jean Valjean every time I try to get a little air. The exhibit down in the cellar features a comprehensive history of fuels, with a still-working coal chute and a hulking oil tank in attendance to remind us of how our house was heated before natural gas came along to power our boiler. And speaking of temperature, one of my finest collections includes a vast selection of window air conditioners of all shapes, sizes, eras and power ratings. I've never had the wherewithal to afford the pricy retrofitted compressor-and-ductwork combo that would provide a something akin to central air conditioning to our steam-heated house, so if a room needed to be cool, it had to have a bulky ac unit rattling merrily away in one of the windows. Over time, I've managed to acquire one for just about every one of the 947 rooms in our rambling old place. Some are cleverly tucked into nearby closets in the off-season, but others can be found stacked in the basement, right next to the box full of thank-you notes.
You know, the ones from the doctor who does my hernia operations.
•The most famous cat in Galva.
Here's the thing. I've never expected my columns and the online blogging I do to make me rich and famous. In fact, I'm kind of startled every time people acknowledge that they read what I write, or recognize me from the oh-so-flattering picture that appears along with my name in the Star Courier and Western Illinois Family Magazine. But anytime I'm tempted to be a little smug about the little bits of attention that come my way, I get brought back down to earth in a hurry. Because I'm not the famous one in this family.
Heck no.
The real celebrity is the cat. This point is brought home every time we hit town. Because, instead of complimenting me on my purple prose, most folks are anxious to discover the status of a certain furry, calf-nipping critter.
How's Max?
Was Max waiting when you came home this time?
Is Max going to miss you when you're gone?
I got really ticked off the other day when I hustled to grab the phone, only to find out the call was for the cat.
It was his agent.
•Far away on the Fourth.
For the first time in many, many years, we won't be in our hometown for the Fourth of July. It seems kind of strange, and it should, because when it comes to Independence Day, Galva is one the very best places to be in the whole wide world. So, we'll miss watching the Freedom Fest 5K run and parade from our front porch. We'll regret not sharing the holiday with the friends and family members who often join us on that porch for a day filled with fun, food and an old-fashioned celebration of our shared freedom. And, of course, we'll really miss the fact that Galva's absolutely epic fireworks display will go on without us.
Instead, we'll probably schlepp the grandkids to some kind of event in our North Carolina neighborhood. There will, no doubt, be good food and lots of fun. And music and games and probably even a parade of some sort.
I know we'll have a great time.
Then night will fall, and we'll all settle back and look at the sky, waiting for the bombs to burst and the rockets' red glare. After a few booms and bangs, she'll look at me and I'll look at her.
"It's not like home," one of will be sure to say.
But hey, nothing ever is.
Have a fabulous Fourth, y'all.