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August 31, 2017

Bittersweet August

In August, my mind always takes me back to childhood (when will that stop, I wonder). I loved and hated August. As a family, we always went to the beach at the beginning of the month, before school and sports started back up. This meant I could never look too forward to vacation because I could already feel my freedom being hung out to dry, right next to my brother’s sweaty football practice shorts. My it was a bittersweet month, but despite it all, I still looked forward to that beach spot in the Carolinas just the same.

It meant an eight hour car ride that felt a lot shorter than it was, because as soon as you stopped at a fresh produce stand somewhere south of the Virginia/North Carolina border, you found sand along the rim of the asphalt. This meant you were close (enough).

It meant that when you finally made it, after your portable CD player’s batteries were juiced from listening to Avril Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson, after visiting enough gas stations for any stranger to actually believe you shampooed your hair with Subway, pork rinds and cigarettes, there was still some waiting to be done. Suitcases had to be unloaded, sheets put on the beds, everything stacked in the fridge, fishing reels prepped and sunscreen applied. I guess I never helped with any of that except maybe the sunscreen, I was a Millennial in the making, after all. But this process certainly felt a lot longer than eight hours in the car, and far more agonizing. At least there had been Avril and spicy Chex Mix in the car.

It meant that when it came time to swim, I knew without any doubt that after approximately 4 minutes, the entire coastline would know my full name. My poor mother, never getting a moment’s rest with her Corona and lime, would stand at water’s edge flailing her arms back and forth, her voice quickly building up to that panicked, coarse shrill that moms get. I can see her now and hear her even better. We knew it, me and my brother, like you know when rain’s coming, that we were gonna get yelled at. Didn’t she realize that all a kid wants is to get rocked by a wave so hard that it keeps you under for a few rolls, finally releasing you to empty the pound of sand from your drawers and spew salt water out your nose for 48 hours?

It meant going to Food Lion and buying chicken thighs and string to “go crabbing” in the waterway for our surf ‘n turf night. You’d always need a ruler with you for crabbing, heaven forbid you throw one in the bucket that was too small to keep. The game warden would surely know, my dad warned. I always hated the idea of eating a poor baby crab, so I sent them back to their mamas anyway. Later on at dinner, you’d find us giggling as we picked the crab shells out of our macaroni salad, or using our napkins to gently scrape the sand off the London broil. It was tradition really, and more tasty than any sell-out seafood restaurant we’d visited.

Childhood memories in the Carolina Beaches

Unless that place was Sharky’s. It was a dive right on the water, not a big place, and people mostly went for pizza and beer. The windows were always wide open, which meant the ceiling fans were just spinning hot, salty air back at you. Southern, middle class families would pull up in their SUVs or oversized pickup trucks, piles of sunburnt kids climbing out in their stupid souvenir t-shirts and puka shell necklaces from Wings, half starved from their long day in the sun. This place wasn’t fooling anyone into thinking it was a sophisticated joint, nor was that it’s intention. The “No Surfing” signs, floor to ceiling collage of expired southern license plates and fishing nets strung across the ceiling, were weaving a simple, inviting story. Some chain seafood restaurants try to mimic the look, but there was authenticity here. It was authentic in the way the humidity would draw out the stale beer smell hidden within wood plank floors, surely from too many tourists getting a little wild on their only vacation. Authentic in their menu of fresh caught seafood, brought in right there at the marina, only to be fried a crispy golden brown. It wasn’t trying to be Florida, or the Caribbean or some sorry tiki hut. To me, it was the epitome of what a dining experience should feel like on the coast of North Carolina in summertime. A little grease and a lot of salt, savored under the neon glow of a Pabst Blue Ribbon sign, watching our parents laugh so hard their sides hurt.

Finally, our trip meant that when the week was over, I was sadder than the day after Christmas. But soon you forget – you get home, go back to school, dirty up your new sneakers, do your homework and get through the year. When January would come and summer felt years away, I’d search my memories and recall the smell of sunscreen and salt, feeling the sand grinding between my toes and flip flops as I walked back to the beach house, my skin warm and a little pink, looking forward to my fried seafood dinner.

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