Life's Movable Feast Headed for the Coast
Reprinted from the August edition of PineStraw Magazine.
Sometime in the middle of August, for the first time in three years, we’re taking a house at the beach for a week.
I know how unexciting that sounds. Everyone goes to the beach in August, sometimes for two or three weeks.
But for us this is a big deal. True family vacations are becoming challenging.
Suddenly our kids are grown up and scattering like wild birds in the air. Two have moved to New York City, where daughter has found a job in the advertising world and son beats the pavement looking for his first job as a college grad.
Sibling No. 3 — a rising college sophomore — is working for a summer camp in New York this summer, while his younger brother, who is suddenly, remarkably, almost 6 feet tall, is the lone child with us this summer. Once the family mascot, but now our budding artist, not-so-little Liam spends his days surfing the Net, Facebooking pals, working out at the FirstHealth Temple of Fitness in Pinehurst, texting his Long Island girlfriend, shooting things with his fancy camera while waiting to get his driver’s license.
The last time we tried a family beach gathering in August, it worked reasonably well though ended rather horribly. Two of the four managed to work a full week at Ocean Isle into their busy schedules, and a third came down for a couple of days from his college. We rode bikes and ate seafood and watched dumb movies and even dumber TV shows in a rental house that looked as if it had been decorated by Barbie and Ken.
We actually didn’t do all that much — that’s the point, right? — then came home on Sunday to find our beloved golden retriever Riley acting strangely owing to a mysterious swelling on his belly.
We drove him to the emergency vet clinic on U.S. 1 and discovered that his spleen was full of cancer and in the process of erupting. The vet, a lovely young woman, gave us the option of trying to race Riley to a hospital in Raleigh but mentioned the chances of saving him were woefully slim.
Miserable as it was to do, we chose the more humane path. We drove him home, fed him his favorite meal, took a final walk around Weymouth, then all went back with him to the clinic, where we huddled ’round to say our goodbyes to a fabulous and beloved dog, stroking his head as the painkillers did their job and his sweet eyes eased shut. I still can’t pass that clinic on U.S. 1 without tearing up.
So, maybe this half explains why we — well, I — haven’t been in a rush to mount another week at the beach. Crazy as it sounds, part of me, I think, fears going away and returning to face another loss.
The other half I write off to modern times and our rapidly thinning nest. The challenge of trying to satisfy three blended families at the holidays and vacation time is no small task and growing tougher by the year.
August the French Way
I’ve long thought the French have the right idea about a lot of things, especially summer vacations. They simply shutter up and go away for the entire month of August. They peel off their clothes, drink wine, argue about this and that, send the children out to play, and don’t shave.
And that’s just the women. The men lie idly in the shade drinking pastis or flat beer and dozing over half-read newspapers, murmuring about the decline of civilization.
If you happen to be one of those people who like to make fun of the French, you can rest assured that they don’t give a fig what you think. I happen to love the French — their food, their movies, their God-given cultural superiority, even their unshaven women.
I only hate their trains in August. Once, long ago, I spent the better part of August knocking around France, wandering the Left Bank and doing all the tourist shrines until I could no longer stand the American tourists complaining how rude the French were and headed for the Mediterranean Sea.
I got off a train crowded with pale Parisians at dawn in Cap D’agde, found a modest hotel by the sea and headed straight for the whitest, widest beach I’d ever seen for a morning swim. I swam for an hour in the beautiful bottle green water, then fell asleep on the beach and woke up to find myself completely surrounded by naked people.
Somehow I had found the area’s leading plage nue — clothing optional beach — and was suddenly in a French comic film about an uptight American wearing fluorescent orange jams on a beach with 2,000 people in their birthday suits. I might as well have been wearing a sandwich board that read: “Forgive my Appalling Modesty. I’m American.”
Over the next fortnight, I explored ancient Roman ruins in Nimes and found Van Gogh’s yellow house in Arles; I lingered over espresso at Les Deux Garcons, the most famous brasserie in Aix-en-Provence, where Cezanne, Zola and Hemingway used to idle away the heat of the day; and wandered on to Cannes and Nice, winding up a sunburned rube in the casino made famous by James Bond in Monaco, whereupon I turned for Scotland and booked a second-class seat on the train straight back to Paris only to find my seat occupied by a grumpy old man who took one look at me and shrugged indifferently when I showed him my ticket, and went back to his newspaper. The conductor merely shrugged too when I pointed out this.
Did I mention that I made this August tour-de-France whilst toting my beloved Hogan golf clubs — the first leg of a planned pilgrimage to golf’s holy land, Scotland — which I managed to stow in an overhead bin next to the filthy loo in an adjacent car? I stood up halfway to Paris before I finally achieved a seat, cursing a French rail system that appeared to be run by anti-American anarchists. At the Gare du Sud, I went to collect my beloved Hogans and found they were gone. Someone had pinched them somewhere between Cannes and Paris.
In Edinburgh, I was drinking my approximate body weight in John Courage ale at the bar of a crowded pub just off the Royal Mile when a large, shaggy woman of maybe 60 or 70 years, reading a tattered volume of “Lord of the Rings,” turned to me and said in her rolling brogue, “Well, dearie. You must be wee bit sad today.”
“How’s that?” I asked, since she was basically the first person who’d spoken to me since late July.
“Your great loss,” she added somberly. “It’s all over the news.”
“You know about my golf clubs?” I was flatly astonished. Had word of my pinched Hogans somehow made the International Herald-Tribune or at least the Edinburgh Evening Standard?
“No, lad. I mean Elvis Presley. Your great wiggly singing star. He apparently died while sittin’ on the loo yesterday. America is agog with grief, apparently.”
“He did, huh?” I admitted I was no big Elvis fan, which flatly astonished her.
Then I explained I was en route to St. Andrews for my first glimpse of the famous Old Course, having planned to play it and wind up my summer of European wandering in grand style. As I was very nearly dead broke, it was to be my last stop before returning home to Greensboro, hoping my editor was still holding my cub reporter’s job open despite the newspaper’s official policy on such matters.
The next day I took a train to the Home of Golf and saw the course in a cold downpour of rain. Unable to find clubs to borrow or rent, I merely walked around the entire course watching others play it, had a swell Chinese supper on High Street, then headed to the airport in Glasgow to catch my flight home.
Gone But Not Forgotten
When I told this tale of my solitary summer ramble through the capitals of Europe to our children some years ago — back when we were all piled into our huge Ford Excursion called Big Mama and headed for Gettsyburg or Bald Head Island or the roller coasters at Williamsburg — they all thought this was pretty funny and maybe a little bit pathetic.
“Dad,” sympathized the oldest, dear Maggie, then about age 10, “why would you take your golf clubs to France?”
“Because it had never been done before, honey. I wanted to be the first.”
“Don’t they play golf in France?”
“They do now — thanks to me and the thieving Frenchman who stole my Hogan clubs. It’s Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’ all over again.”
For a while, they actually bought this embroidered yarn of the August Vacation Road — which, suddenly, now themselves seem years ago and I find I dearly miss.
Gone is beloved Big Mama, and now the kids are grown and doing their own summer things. But despite my complex misgivings and sentimental feelings about August vacations, my wife and I have booked a nice big beach house, and come the third week of this month I’ll be there with my Hogan clubs and a couple of big novels about medieval cathedrals and the life of the Borgias.
This year I really do need the time away.
Since we have the spare room, we’re hoping someone nice will come to visit. Feel free to drop in and stay a few. My wife will be cooking up a storm and drinking very good wine.
I’ll be the unshaven old guy in the shade murmuring about the decline of Western civilization, wishing he was on a plage nue in France.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at jim@the pilot.com.
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