Updated: Aug 4
Escaping the heat is becoming harder and harder this summer, with hot days just carrying on into hot nights. Heading to the shore and cooler ocean breezes feels a little like opening the oven only to find a boiling pot inside. I've been visiting the southern shores of North Carolina recently, but I find these Gulf Stream touched waters, while wonderful to get in around Easter, to feel not unlike swimming in soup now in summertime. My beach, the one at which I grew up, had much cooler waters, along with somewhat cooler air, during summer. We rarely saw truly warm water until well into July. Not that I cared. I got in when it was 68°. I'll get in when it's 72°. Actually, that sounds kind of good right now.
I remember how we tried to beat the heat of summer when I was a kid. Looking back, I don't really know if I can say we won. But we fought hard. Our beach house, a beautiful home of old salty beds and floor to ceiling wood, seen in the picture above, did what it could to keep us cool. It had those great push out shutters that shaded the windows, while allowing a sea breeze in the house to flow from back to front. The screens would end up coated with salt, and the place smelled of the ocean. The sharp salt smell was wonderful, it cut like a knife. We had two baths in the house, but we rarely used them. The outdoor shower was the choice spot, with cold, cold water pumped from a well, all crisp and full of iron, again, sharp and clean, as if ice had just melted and poured cold over you, easing the burns and scratches. When the storms came, the sand swirled underneath the thin door and walls, sending shivers of sand to twist around your legs and ankles. Long, cold showers were the given choice, and soon enough, the old well pump would come on, pocketapocketa singing a drumbeat to bring up more water from those cold, deep reserves. We didn't even bother to touch the hot water handle. Yes, the house stayed relatively cool, with the windows open, screen doors stretching and screeching on rusted springs, slamming shut in hopes of keeping the bugs out of the shade, My brothers and I wore our swim suits, the classic Birdwells, no shirts, why bother? almost all day every day, unless we needed to dress up to go eat. Hot days for me and my friends would send us to escape under the house, with its own cool shade and strange smells of old driftwood, a musty rancid bacon smell, home to hundreds of ant lions and miniature towns of Hot Wheel car driving denizens. And of course, with the beach house only a sprint distance down a sand hill to the ocean, a swim in the Atlantic, the waters green and full of life, particulates, seaweed, salt and foamy, muddy waves, that was always an easy option. Another rinse in the outdoor shower and we were set for the day. The night was a time of calm. It got hot and still at night. We sat on the porch, generations of us together often. The house was originally owned by a great uncle, and my grandmother or cousins and aunts and uncles always seemed to be crawling around the house at some time. It was a small curse for me, the youngest, as I had to sleep on the couch when all the beds were taken by others. I still, at my current age, find a couch to be a little more comfy when I'm at the beach. But that was okay, sleep came late. We spent the evenings on the porch. One of my brothers had his own favorite rocking chair, again, a benefit of being older. He rocked there so much that the paint on the porch wore through the different layers and colors all the way down to the wood. Nights were spent on top of the beds. The windows would stay open, and finally, it was cool, with a land breeze blowing through. But there was no need for a blanket, hardly one for even a sheet. We slept the sleep of the dead, because we were tired. We worked hard at not working in the summer, so we earned our rest. It was only when the storms came at night that things got tough. The winds would come from the west, lightning would crackle far off over Roanoke Island, the breeze would freshen, and start to whistle, a high pitched warning, ghosts on the wind, ready to haunt us if we let them. When I was able to, I would watch the storms churn over the far off sand dunes back when they still stood, and houses didn't blot the horizon. But sometimes we wouldn't awaken until either the lightning or the thunder came. The first sign of rain would often be one of my brothers yelling out, in what I as a little kid found incredibly sonorous, the call, "It's rainin'!" And then the footsteps, pounding on the floor, loud enough to scare the ghosts that I was sure floated just outside, as everyone rose up to do their duty. The old wooden windows, sticky and painted over, would rattle down in an indescribable shake and thud. Again and again, until all the windows were shut and the rain was blotted out from the insides, keeping us dry and tight. And that's what it felt like. The air got still, not a whisp of wind. And it got hot, sooooo hot. We all panted in the heat. You almost wanted to open a window and let the rain blow through, just cool you off. But then the beds would be soaked, the house would get humid. It was easier to suffer. So we all sat on our beds, on top of the sheets. It was so hot.
But that was life on the beach.
I loved it. Now it's not quite the same. Hot days then and hot days now are just not the same. It's brutal now. And of course it's a little easier to escape the heat, if you have access to air conditioning and a nice new home, maybe a pool. Still, there was a lot of fun to all that work back in the day. Nowadays, my daughter doesn't quite get to experience the same level of excitement that I had back then. It certainly is nice that things are easier for her, and for me and my wife. But I still like the idea of her having to experience a lifestyle where you work for your fun. She's been pretty good about all this. She doesn't seem to mind the scuffs and burns of sand, or the occasional scrape of tree bark. I hope that she can soon show her friends that same type of fun that I had. If you like these old stories, or maybe enjoy a ghost tale or two on a salty old porch, be sure go check out my books, including Kinnakeet Adventure, Nag's Head, as well as my collections of ghost tales along the coast and across North Carolina. They will be great reminiscences of times past, and the ghost stories will at least give you a little chill up your spine to help with the heat.