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Every year in late May and early June 40 million Americans emerge from their winter burrows and commence a slow march to the sea. When they arrive, some of them break out deck chairs and beach umbrellas and spend the day curled happily in the sun. Others, like the tiny clam diggers on the Cape Cod salt flat below, and the fishermen and campers shown on the subsequent pages, use the beach as a place for discovery and adventure. In his story on the pages following these pictures Coles Phinizy describes these and other pleasures, and tells how to get the most fun and relaxation from a visit to the water's edge.
LURE OF THE SEA
It was 5 o'clock, a beautiful hour on the beach. The sand and the froth of the breakers were gathering gold from the waning sun. The southerly wind that had chopped up the water at midday had slacked off until it could barely be felt on the cheek. By this hour most of the crowd had wrestled their beach chairs into a portable state and had departed, the mothers instructing the fathers, the fathers barking at the children and the children fretting because they had been forbidden to take home dead crabs and other intriguing, decomposing treasures of the sea.
For 50 yards along the beach in front of me herring gulls and ringbills walked stiffly in the shallows. On the shining esplanade of sand a skirmish line of sandpipers and ringed plovers raced along the shifting edge of the water. With the retreat of a wave, a sand bug flushed up by a gull escaped and tumbled seaward, finally getting a grip on the hard sand and digging in. Beyond the break, terns were diving on bait fish, like bright paper scraps caught in a dust devil. An osprey swung in over the land, winging westward in a hurry with a weakfish in his talons.
Five o'clock is late for an osprey to be out. Though tardy, this one was no fool. I saw him find what he was looking for, a lingering trace of thermal over the sun-baked land. Riding the thermal a quarter mile up on set wings, he then started the long glide that would carry him, with barely a wing beat, six miles to his home in the pines across the bay. As I watched the osprey, in the corner of my eye I picked up little movements in the sand hummocks above the tide line. Now that the vibration of the bathers' feet had diminished, the sand crabs were coming back to the air, digging out from under the beach that had been trampled all day. (I once saw one of these crabs making his way back into this world from directly below the mouth of an overturned pop bottle. Twice he got a freshet of grape soda in the face.)
I had no wristwatch, but I knew it was not yet the dinner hour. The herring gulls are dependable timekeepers. The moment the sun went below land, with no sound the gulls would leave, cross the rooftops and settle in the back marshes. And passing them, bound from marsh to beach, on the very edge of night, would come the black skimmers to try their luck with their long bills in the ocean wash.
I may never see that small Jersey beach again, nor, for that matter, know so agreeable an hour anywhere. At this moment, as I try to put the recollections of that hour with fair exactness through a typewriter, I am stranded well above the high-water mark, in the middle of a spring afternoon, in the middle of a small room, eight feet by nine, surrounded by the usual unsettled debts of an ordinary man. On the desk beside me there is a lamp I must repair. The wastebasket needs emptying. There are letters I should answer, bills I should pay, five books I should read and a three-foot stack of magazines I should throw out (the magazines fell over on the cat yesterday). By the door hangs a barometer that has always stubbornly forecast "storm" despite the frequent pummelings I give it. Atop my dictionary there is a pair of swim fins that I have dragged over coral and barnacled rock so often they look as if a piranha had been teething on them. On the desk before me stands a mosaic of a fish that has the face of a Beau Gregory but looks like a sergeant major the closer you get to the tail. Except for these oddments—the strangely dimorphic fish, the swim fins and the gloomy barometer—there is nothing around me to suggest water. At this moment I am in a suitable bone-dry setting to try to examine objectively why it is I truly love the sea.
At dinner two years ago a psychiatrist—and he had had only one drink at the time—claimed my love of water was a fixation. Very probably, he said, it was a substitute for the love I had for my rocking horse when I was 3.1 never had a rocking horse, nor do I recall ever being deeply involved with anybody else's. At any rate, I claim the affection I have for the sea and its shore is something I have never felt for any horse.
The small Jersey beach that I have known on and off for 30 years gets heavy use in the summer. It's my guess there are more than 20 million people living in hot, miasmatic cities within half a day's drive of it. On an August day the small beach is crowded and not an attractive place—a riot of children and a tangle of adults encamped in chairs under a gaudy canopy of umbrellas. But by 4:30 the encampment starts to break up, and the original titleholders take over. The gulls and sanderlings get to use the shore freely for an hour or two until the dark messengers of the night, the skimmers, come winging in. A beach like that one can stand very heavy use (and some abuse) without losing its natural good looks. One night's rest, a change of tides, and the beach is bright and shiny, ready for the next assault.
It is because the sea shows very little wear even along its heavily used edges that I prefer it to any part of land. The land simply does not have enough resilience: the traffic at a popular beach is more than any equal area of woodland could stand. If it were used like a beach for a month, the woods would be a shambles and would need a full change of seasons to pull itself together.