For some folks, the most hot and sultry part of the year signals a time to hunker down in air conditioned splendor and absolutely avoid any unnecessary contact with the great outdoors. Others only dare to brave the heat via cautious visits to shady porches, cool pools and deep-woodsy grottos.
But for me, there's only one place to be when the temperature tops 90 and the humidity's not far behind, especially when the kids in our lives are about to be cast into the white-hot torment of school in August.
My dedicated, long-term beach-bum outlook might seem a little surprising, given my landlocked upbringing amidst the cornfields of west central Illinois. Yes, there were places around that featured both water and sand of a sort. But the net effect of brown, tepid lake water and the rocky sand that had been trucked in from some distant quarry was a lot like paddling around in one of the big puddles that formed in my parents' gravel driveway after a summer shower, just on a slightly larger scale. But I was happy enough with my experiences with farm ponds and man-made mudholes, and the occasional trip to the slippery banks of the Mississippi River until the first time my family stumbled on one of the deep, cold glacial lakes that dot parts of Wisconsin. Our periodic forays to the Cheesehead State were in search of a quiet lake where my dad could fish, us kids could swim, and my mom could work like a galley slave in an attempt to cobble together three meals a day in the antiquated kitchen of a housekeeping cottage. Often, the bodies of water we discovered were as flawed as their Illinois brethren, and were either silty, mossy, grassy or muck-filled, like the murky puddle we sarcastically named "Oatmeal Lake." Eventually, though, my dad's persistent quest for the right kind of spot for both fish and family paid off, as they discovered more-pristine spots like Lake Geneva and Door County.
I still remember wading into those icy waters for the first time. I shivered under the gentle Wisconsin sun, then glanced down at the water. Beneath me, I saw two pale, mysterious shapes resting on the lake bottom.
For a moment, I wondered what it was that I was seeing. Then, slowly, it dawned on me.
It was my feet.
Yes, at long last I had experienced a body of water other than a swimming pool that was actually clear enough to see in. Thus started a love affair with sparkling water and broad, sandy beaches that continues, unabated, to this day. My affection for those places was strengthened a few years later when my parents took us to visit my mom's brothers in Washington, DC. On that journey, we saw the fantastic array of national monuments and acclaimed architecture our nation's capitol has to offer. We visited Arlington National Cemetery for the changing of the guard, the Smithsonian for a look at the Wright Brothers' first plane, and the halls of congress to witness the debate on the eventual statehood of Alaska and Hawaii. But for me, the best, most halcyon day on that visit was a trip to Ocean City, Maryland, and my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. My mother, who was a patient soul, had allowed me to crowd the car all the way from Illinois with Farfel, an inflated dog-shaped swimming ring who I had--with unceasing imagination--named after the puppet spokesdog for Nestlé's Quik. Like me, his water experience had been limited to small lakes and pools. We were both excited. The endless vista and the miles and miles of soft white sand and open water were simply amazing to me. In between wading in the waves, I dug holes, built sand castles and baked in the summertime sun. Meanwhile, Farfel waited patiently at water's edge.
Then, disaster struck.
I had decided it was time for another round of splashing in the surf. But where was Farfel? Frantically, I searched up and down the beach.
"Where's Farfel?" I moaned.
Soon, my whole family, plus aunts, uncles, cousins and various unrelated onlookers were scouring the beach, looking for my beloved faux-dog.
"Look," cried my brother. "Out there!"
Out there, indeed.
Far beyond the surf, sandbar and breakers was a tiny dot. A closer look revealed the valiant Farfel, bobbing and weaving his way towards parts unknown, though I know he always said he wanted to see Paris.
The years passed, and my love for the beach continued, despite the cataclysmic loss that had marked and marred my tiny soul. My sister, who more than shared my desire for all things wet and sandy, moved to a cabin on the shores of mighty Lake Superior when she was married. She lives there still, over 45 years later, and never misses a sunny beach day or a golden sunset. My wife and I have visited beaches, lakes, rivers and seas across this great country, never missing a chance to dabble our toes in some new pool of cool, clear water. A few years ago, our youngest son began a career and a family not too far from the Eastern Carolina beaches and barrier islands. Once my wife retired from her career as an elementary school teacher, we resolved to spend time on those sunny shores, enjoying our grandsons and sharing our love for the water and waves.
So we did.
For the past three years, we have spent significant parts of time in a shabby-chic beach place on a little barrier island called Topsail. Every morning, we look out our window at towering sand dunes and glistening water and wonder just how we got so lucky. We walk and play and swim and splash with our young grandsons and marvel in the fact that every day is a beach day, and even a bad day at the beach is probably better than a good day anywhere else. Almost every night, we walk again, and greet the moon and stars and the nighttime roar of the ocean.
Sometimes, though, I just sit.
I sit and gaze out at a watery, sun-kissed world of incredible beauty.
I think. I wonder. I remember.
And often, my eyes are drawn beyond the surf, the sandbars and the breakers, far out onto the open sea.
I'm looking, of course. And watching and waiting.
Waiting for Farfel to finally come home.