In the 1970s, my family lived in rural Pennsylvania. My dad worked for Xerox as a salesman, and we’d take a 2-week family vacation every summer. We often went to the nearby Jersey Shore or Buffalo, New York, where we’d lived before. We always enjoyed getting away, and the destination didn’t matter.
But this year, we were taking a nine-hour road trip to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. I was nine, Joe was 13, and Justin was 6.
My parents rode in the front of the car, and my brothers and I piled in the back wearing shorts and tank tops, excited to spend two weeks at the beach. My mom bought us each a Jumbo Book of Fun, a combination of a coloring book, dot-to-dot, and word search, and it kept us occupied for much of the trip.
We also had sticker books with facts about the ocean on each page. There was a little outline on some pages to show where the appropriate sticker should go. We looked forward to seeing the many colorful shells on the beach, and I hoped to find a large conch shell to listen to it and hear the ocean.
As we passed other cars on the interstate, we kept a log of different license plates we saw and wrote them down. We hoped to see all 50. And of course, we played “Slug Bug,” which was a game that kept us paying attention to see who would be the first to spot a Volkswagen Beetle. The first person to spot the car shouted, “Slug Bug,” and slugged the other siblings. Sometimes we were playful, and other times we punched too hard and got in trouble. We’d have to stop the game.
The landscape changed as we approached North Carolina. It flattened out. We could smell the ocean before we saw it, and it smelled of salt, seaweed, and fish. My brothers and I would hold our noses, not used to the smell of the saltwater and all it contained.
“Ugh! Why does it smell like that?” I’d ask from the back seat of the car.
“Think of everything that lives in the ocean,” my mom said. It always seemed like a gross smell and took us some time to get used to it.
We drove all day and got to our rental house as the sun set. We were surprised to see the beach houses were all on stilts! We’d never seen anything like it. They were on stilts because the water would make its way inland, and if the houses were on the ground, they would undoubtedly get flooded.
My dad parked our car directly underneath the house, and we liked that! We ran up the stairs and let ourselves in. It was a lovely, modern home, and we looked forward to walking over the dunes to get to the beach in the morning.
We discovered various lighthouses nearby over the next several days, which towered over us. We thought it must be so much fun to climb the many stairs inside and help boats navigate away from the coastline, and we had no idea how important the lighthouses were.
I didn’t know until later in life that the black-and-white striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is famous because it protects a highly hazardous section of the Atlantic Coast. Thousands of shipwrecks have occurred in this region, giving it the reputation of the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
The days were sunny and hot, but two things happened at the beach when the sun went down. The wind picked up, sending goosebumps across our sunburned skin. And the crabs came out. Not a few crabs, MANY crabs. They traveled sideways very rapidly like an army in formation, and because I was barefoot, I was terrified. I was sure they would get me. My mom took my hand and told me not to look down, but I couldn’t help it. I was really scared of them, and I cried.
It was rare for our family to go out to dinner, but one night we had our dinner outside at a nice restaurant, my parents at one table and my brothers and me at a table of our own. We’d gotten a real shrimp cocktail, with the tails still on, and we’d never had it before. My mom was facing away from us and turned around to ask us if we liked it, and I said it was crunchy and scratched my throat. She looked at our plates and saw that we had not taken the tails off the shrimp before we ate them! Our parents laughed at us, and we looked over and saw the shrimp tails piled high on their plates. We’d never make that mistake again.
We spent a lot of time outside in the sunshine, and this was before we knew a lot about applying sunscreen, I suppose. Our fair Northern skin got cooked red like lobsters. One day when we went to the neighborhood pool, my younger brother and I both curled up in shady spots underneath the lawn chairs and didn’t want to swim, which was unusual. When my mom peeked in our mouths, our tongues had turned black. We were not drinking enough water and had become severely dehydrated. We spent the next day playing games like checkers and Go Fish inside our house, eating salty pretzels, and drinking lots of water until we felt better.
The days went by, and before we knew it, it was time to start the long drive home. But before we left, we each got to choose some souvenirs. I remember choosing a yellow doll made out of seashells. Her dress, bonnet, and face were all seashells, and the arms were some bendable pipe cleaners. I also got a little blue-and-white change purse in the shape of a fish, with a metal snap closure for a mouth. These small artifacts stayed with me for many years until I finally gave them away. They were such sweet reminders of a long-ago family vacation in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.