JIM DODSON: The Tackiest Place on the Planet
Last Saturday morning, we took an impromptu getaway to Myrtle Beach. I had decided we needed to shake things up a bit.
I suppose I was feeling a tad guilty because we hadn't taken a real family vacation since we rented a house on Bald Head Island three years ago.
On Bald Head, there wasn't a blessed thing to do but swim, sleep, watch the beach grass grow, ride a bike, read a book, eat shrimp, or go stretch out on a perfect white sand beach. Pedaling to the one store on the island became the biggest activity of the day. There wasn't even a TV in the cottage we rented.
It was my kind of beach trip -- recalling the lazy two weeks my family always spent staying at the Hanover Seaside Club at Wrightsville Beach through the 1960s.
The club was a rambling wooden ark of a place near Lumina pier with simple bedrooms, no air conditioning, a large communal dining room, and broad porches with rocking chairs where the adults all sat after supper in the evening having drinks and talking.
For us kids, there was little or nothing to do at the Seaside Club -- only a game room with a Ping-Pong table and a snack bar with a friendly cook named Henry. We dug sandy tunnels under the Seaside Club and hung around the Lumina pier in case somebody caught a sand shark.
Wrightsville Beach itself was a pretty sleepy place in those days, with only one hotel and a few shops on the island. I learned to swim in a little lagoon just off the main causeway. My dog and I used to go to the movies together. In the evenings we used to take our boat down the coast to flounder-gig in the shallows of Bald Head Island, which was undeveloped and had only an abandoned tabby stone lighthouse.
Oddly, those "slow" weeks always seemed to pass like greased lightning.
Our return to a developed Bald Head three years ago retained some of these qualities -- a getaway from the daily grind to a slower place where there was no agenda to follow or schedule to keep. For me, it was a nice break from the theme parks and upscale golf resorts of recent years.
But I think our four kids were bored out of their skulls.
At one point, our youngest, a dedicated weather watcher, asked if there was any possibility a Category 5 hurricane might hit the island while we were there. He seemed to be having Weather Channel withdrawal pains.
"Not really, buddy," I assured him. "Just blue skies and an empty beach."
He looked downright crestfallen.
This summer, we are facing an entirely different dynamic -- half an empty vacation nest.
After years of road trips to Sea Island and Disney World and Williamsburg, our family vacation times appear to be going the way of the old Seaside Club and flounder gigging off Bald Head.
My college-girl daughter is spending her first summer away from home working as a waitress in Vermont, and my college-bound son is at his mom's house in Maine working as a landscaper and wooing a very pretty dark-haired girl.
For the time being, we have my wife's teen and pre-teen sons Connor and Liam for the summer, but it won't be too long before they jump the nest, too.
Last week, though, Liam, 12, asked me out of the blue if I'd ever been to Myrtle Beach. He'd seen an ad.
"Oh, many times," I answered. "It's probably the tackiest place on the planet." I was directly quoting my late Aunt Polly.
"Aunt" Polly was my mom's best chum. She lived in a big beach house at sleepy Cherry Grove Beach and owned several shops along the Grand Strand but thought Myrtle Beach was "the tackiest place on the planet." By the time I was going to stay with her in the 1970s, I thought sleepy Wrightsville Beach was pass and tacky Myrtle Beach was neon heaven.
"It's not called the Vegas of the East for nothing," I explained to Liam. "There's everything you can possibly think to do there -- overpriced theme parks, cheesy theatrical shows, every kind of idiotic theme restaurant you can name and tourist shopping galore. It's the pancake house and mini-golf capital of Western Civilization. The traffic is awful, and the neon can blind you. There's nothing the least bit relaxing about Myrtle Beach. "
"Could we go sometime?" Liam, our family's leading hurricane and mini-golf enthusiast, innocently wondered.
"Absolutely," I said -- and suggested the following weekend.
"Are you sure you really want to do this?" asked their mom, looking at me as if I might have possibly suffered a recent head injury.
This was probably because she's under the impression I basically loathe everything about Myrtle Beach for all the reasons that made it so appealing when I was 15. These days I yearn for old Wrightsville Beach and the long-gone Seaside Club.
"Absolutely, " I said, reminding her that I had taken my son Jack there two years ago to play in the National Father-Son Golf Classic. We had a swell time playing golf, consuming junk food, and attending violent guy-type movies in the evening.
The cultural highlight of our Myrtle Beach bonding was probably our first visit ever to a Hooters restaurant, where a super-friendly waitress offered Jack unlimited sweet tea refills and free admission tickets to the gentleman's club where she worked at night.
Jack was 15, far too young for that sort of thing. So I took the tickets instead.
My wife, Wendy, an organizational dynamo, went online and quickly found a "luxury Grand Strand resort hotel" at a surprisingly reasonable price for the height of the summer tourist season.
"It features beautifully appointed luxury suites, an indoor and outdoor Olympic-sized pool and soothing Lazy River," she read off the Internet printout as we rolled into the Vegas of the East, "all conveniently located directly on the South's most pristine beach."
At this point, we were only a few blocks from our luxury hotel. Because of the usual heavy traffic, though, it took us another hour actually to get there.
The hotel wasn't exactly what we'd hoped for. Basically it was a glorified Motel Six with a pool about the size of a mini-golf putting green and a Lazy River that was filled with 300 unsupervised kids. The water had an eerie yellow glow.
"You're not getting anywhere near that Lazy River," my wife told her boys. "Get your stuff. We're going to the beach."
While they did that, I checked into the hotel and discovered that the luxury suite directly next door to us had 20 or so guests staying there, none of whom spoke English.
"Hello," I said to the family matriarch, a sad-faced woman who was busy hanging out a dozen or so bathing suits and other clothing items along the porch rail of their luxury suite.
It seemed like a great moment to try out a line of Spanish Connor had thoughtfully taught me on the drive down to Myrtle Beach. He's a Spanish-speaking whiz kid and told me he had a favorite line that never failed to make folks smile.
"Ay mis Dios! Hay un grande burrito en el calle!" I offered our neighbor by way of friendly greeting.
The elderly woman gave me a horrified look and hurried indoors. Connor later explained that I'd advised her, "Oh, my God! There's a giant burrito in the middle of the road!"
There were so many people on the pristine white beach, my wife and the boys came back not long after they went out.
"We'll go to the beach early tomorrow," she explained. "We'll have to get there early and stake out a spot. There was quite a traffic jam on the beach."
So we went to find supper at a place called Broadway at the Beach.
Broadway at the Beach turned out to be an upscale shopping mall spread around a manufactured lake full of unnaturally oversized fish that would thrash in the water if you tossed a few pellets of food to them. I hated to think what might happen if a small child fell in.
There was an hour's wait at most of the restaurants. So while my wife and the boys wandered through shops to find tacky gifts for their friends back home, I sat and chatted with a family from Atlanta. They were all planning to get henna matching tattoos.
After supper, while our lads waited in line to climb inside a large inflated plastic bubble and flail around on the lake, I realized that not a single voice in the line around me was speaking English. Thanks to the pummeled dollar, the tacky glories of greater Myrtle Beach have gone international.
"We come from Belgium," explained a dark-haired woman whose toddler was bouncing around on the lake, only inches from being fish food. "America is so cheap, and we hear Myrtle Beach is so fun! We don't have this in Belgium."
By the time our lads had finished being human beach balls, it was too late to play mini golf. We decided to do that after we hit the beach for a swim the next morning, before heading home to the sleepy Sandhills.
The next morning, however, it was pouring rain in the Vegas of the East. While the boys slept in, their mom and I went and had breakfast at Mammy's Kitchen, one of the few remaining landmarks from my Aunt Polly's days. The amusement park and cheesy arcade that used to be such a tacky delight were gone -- leaving a sandy patch of grass awaiting another big resort hotel, one surmised.
Unfortunately, we never got to actually take a swim in the ocean or play mini-golf in the mini golf capital of Western Civilization. But on the way home, we did stop off at South of The Border to take the "$10 Shopping Challenge."
The idea was to see who could find the tackiest memento of our brief Myrtle Beach sojourn for under 10 bucks. Liam found a plastic lizard that when soaked in water would grow "an amazing 600 percent!" Connor chose a nifty switchblade hair comb and a "genuine imitation leather" bull whip.
I had a difficult time deciding between the official "Pedro Sombrero Hat Ashtray" and the Secret Listening Device "That Let's You Instantly Become a Real Spy!"
Wendy won the competition with the multi-colored umbrella hat that made the wearer look a little like a Chinese umbrella drink.
"Next time," Liam said to me as we waited in line to pay for our summer treasures, "could we maybe go back to Bald Head Island? I really liked it there. Not so busy."
"You've got it, kid," I promised, thinking how quickly our youngest lad is growing up -- and how soon he'll be up and gone, too. I could see myself back on an empty beach with nothing much to do but watch the clouds pass and wait for a hurricane.
"Been to Myrtle Beach to see the sights?" asked the sales clerk, an older woman.
"Yes, ma'am," I replied, "but this place is far more interesting than Myrtle Beach."
She looked surprised. I pointed to the street.
"Ay mis Dios!" I said. "Hay un grande burrito en el calle!"
And, sure enough, she smiled.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, The Pilot's writer-in-residence can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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