The Beach

Mom was so angry she was shaking, but she wasn’t saying anything.  Her rage was channeled into how she was making sandwiches for our picnic at the beach.   She scowled as she fiercely sliced salami, dabbed mustard, wrapped sandwiches in waxed paper, and threw sandwiches into the picnic basket.  Finally, she couldn’t remain silent any longer and snarled at Dad, “We’ll get sunburned.  The crowds will be terrible, and it will be filthy.” 

            Dad always was anxious when Mom was angry with him.  So even though he was determined that we would go to the beach, he replied to her with anxiety more than determination in his voice.   “Honey, that’s true, but it’s like a furnace here. The beach will be cooler.”

Mom’s response to that was a look of disgust and a shrug, which meant she didn’t agree and would go to the beach under protest. 

            We trudged to the nearby bus stop through heat so steamy that it was hard to breathe. Soon we were standing on a bus packed with people going to the beach.  It was so hot on the bus I felt dizzy, and the air reeked of sweat, tanning lotion, and salami. 

            At the bus terminal near the beach, the mob from our bus joined mobs from other buses.  It seemed like everyone in Chicago was going to that beach.  Luckily, when we reached the beach we spotted an unoccupied place in the sand that was partially shaded by a scrawny, thinly leafed tree.  And there we camped.

            Mom said if I wanted to swim, I needed to do it before we ate, because after eating I’d have to wait an hour to swim.  She thought that anyone who swam during the hour after eating would drown because of stomach cramps.  I didn’t know how to swim, and I didn’t think there was room to swim with so many people in the water.  Plus the lifeguards insisted that everyone stay in water so shallow that swimming was almost impossible.  So I wasn’t going to swim under any circumstances.  I’d just wade.  But with Mom saying that I couldn’t go in the water after eating, I headed for the water, and soon I was in up to my waist.

            Other bathers were constantly rubbing against me, and I was wondering whether I had room to float on my back.  But suddenly all the lifeguards were blowing their whistles and yelling for everyone to leave the water.  So I joined the thousands of wet people splashing to the shore.  Most of us stopped as soon as we were out of the water and watched the lifeguards who were in the water busily looking under the water’s surface.  A man near me said, “Maybe someone drowned,” to which a woman replied, “Or maybe a child is missing.”  Then three people behind me laughed.  I shuddered.  Mom always said that when you shudder someone is walking on your grave, but I think I shuddered because people seemed to be laughing at a possible death.

            Then there was loud screaming and yelling from about 100 yards down the beach, and all the lifeguards headed in that direction.

            I was thinking I should get back to my parents.  I felt sad, and I wanted to be with them.  I turned and pushed through and around the people, blankets, and towels filling the sand, heading toward the tree where my parents were. But when I got to the tree they were gone.  I was shocked and instantly worried and frightened.  What happened to them?  Where did they go?  Why weren’t they there?  If they went home, why didn’t they come and get me?  Did something bad happen to them?  Was all the yelling and screaming and the lifeguards searching about my parents?

            I turned slowly, looking in all directions.  I couldn’t see my parents.  I remembered reading that when searching for something that was not at the spot you thought it was, it is smart to spiral out from that spot in gradually increasing circles.  So I started spiraling out from that spot under the scrawny tree in an anxious search.  When I reached a place about 30 yards from the tree I stopped.  I could not find my parents, and I started crying.  I didn’t want to cry.  That wasn’t the tough, manly image I wanted, as a ten year old, to have of myself.  I had never seen my father cry.  But I was frightened and confused and had no idea how I could find my parents.  I was alone, and my parents were gone.  Also, I was almost naked, wearing only my bathing suit.  My parents had my clothing and shoes.  Being almost naked made me feel especially vulnerable.  I wanted the safety of clothes and shoes that would make it okay for me to walk anywhere.  I wanted covering to protect my body and legs from sunburn.  And I was so alone.

            I didn’t know what to do.  I thought of finding a policeman, but I didn’t see one, and anyhow I was afraid of policemen.  I thought of walking home barefooted, hoping that my parents were there.  But nobody walks barefooted on Chicago sidewalks and streets, particularly on broiling hot days.  Finally I decided to wait under the tree and hope that they would come there looking for me.  So I went back to the tree.  By then the place under the tree had been occupied by a family of blond, sunburned people.  I sat down a few feet from them, waiting and hoping.  I was still crying, but I wasn’t sobbing, just sitting there with runny eyes and nose, feeling scared and alone.

            After what seemed like hours but maybe was only minutes I saw my father striding toward me, followed by my mother.  I ran to my father and hugged him.  As Mom walked up to us she angrily said to me, “Where were you? We looked everywhere?  We thought something had happened to you.  When we heard the lifeguard whistles and saw all the people coming out of the water we didn’t see you.  We were afraid you’d drowned.”

            I was sobbing, and I wanted to yell at them for leaving me.  I wanted to ask them why one of them couldn’t stay behind while the other looked for me.  I wanted to tell them how scared I was.  But I couldn’t really talk and the time of great fear and horror at being alone was over.  Now it was more important to try to restore my sturdy masculine image, beginning with ending my crying and wiping the tears and snot off my face.  And that’s what I did.

            While I was wiping my eyes and face, Mom said to Dad with biting irritation in her voice, “I told you going to the beach was a mistake. We should go home.”  And Dad agreed.

We never again went to a beach as a family.  I think that day at the beach was quite a challenge to my parents’ relationship, and maybe neither of them wanted to risk something that stressful happening again.  Besides, we all became seriously sunburned that day, especially me.  I was sick for a week with what Mom called “sunstroke.”  And while she lovingly cared for me in my pain, fever, and nausea, I think she took secret satisfaction in my illness and my being so upset at the beach when I couldn’t find them, because those things proved she was right about the risks of going to the beach and Dad was wrong.